How S11 marginalised the economic nationalists
BY PETER BOYLE
An important aspect of the September 11-13 protests (S11) against the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Melbourne — which made them politically more advanced than the earlier Seattle and Washington protests — was the relative marginalisation of the economic nationalist opposition to corporate globalisation.
In the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organisation in November-December, the conservative United States AFL-CIO trade union leadership mobilised its ranks independently of the rest of the protesters. They had their own economic nationalist demands, their own march routes and their own tactics — and they had numbers.
At the Washington protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in April, the main trade union contingents sharpened their protectionist message by rallying around the AFL-CIO's reactionary campaign to block the normalisation of trade relations between the US and China. Trade unionists were addressed by far-rightist Pat Buchanan.
At the S11 blockade, there was a different balance of forces. The internationalist and radical young leadership of the blockade was clearly prevalent. While the official Australian Council of Trade Unions-Victorian Trades Hall Council rally on September 12, the second day of the action, had a clear protectionist theme — "Save Aussie jobs!" — it was not a big part of S11. The official trade union contingent of about 7000 marched to the Crown Casino site but did not join or endorse the much bigger blockade. The VTHC officials did not support the blockade tactic and were concerned about the political "message" sent by the S11 blockaders.
While convincing the official union march to end at the WEF venue was an important tactical victory against the attempts by the Labor state government and the VTHC leadership to isolate the blockade, the official trade union mobilisation was peripheral to the blockade, which involved about 20,000 people. About a third of the participants in the official trade union rally ignored their leadership and joined the blockade. They responded enthusiastically to the call by Stephen Spence, the South Australian secretary of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, and other union militants to join the blockade.
However, most of the militant unionists who participated in the blockade had came before the official trade union rally. Some of these union militants had travelled from other states, some with and others without official union endorsement.
The success of S11 was achieved largely against the wishes of the state and national trade union leaderships. The unions did not seriously mobilise their members for the protests. Why was this the case?
The conservative trade union leaders probably underestimated the independent mobilising capacity of the new movement. Certainly most union leaders in Australia — including some in the minority that supported the S11 blockade — were surprised at the size of the blockade. They expected a small action by a couple of thousand at most, especially after VTHC secretary Leigh Hubbard voiced his concern about "violent protests" in the capitalist media and wrote to trade unions telling them not to endorse the S11 Alliance and the blockade.
The ALP-dominated trade union leaderships still have the illusion that only they have the political authority to mobilise large numbers of workers. They got a shock at S11. Many conservative unionists have since been grumbling about how the "Trots" and "anarchists" who "took over" S11.
Another reason why the trade union ranks were not seriously mobilised was the conservative leaders knew that their appeals to workers' narrow nationalist interests in what is one of the richer countries of the world is morally repugnant to most activists in new movement against corporate globalisation.
While the opinion polls show that most workers in the Australia still support protectionist measures, workers are far from 100% behind their union chiefs on the issue. More importantly, the most militant workers prefer to mobilise independently of their conservative unions. Among the most enthusiastic blockaders at S11 were individual union militants who had travelled from other cities to join the action.
Many historians say that the Vietnam War was lost by the US because it was the first televised war. Today, workers in the imperialist countries are watching more of the growing global misery on the TV. The working class in the industrialised countries is still relatively privileged but it also suffers under the capitalist neo-liberal offensive. It faces higher unemployment, declining job security, longer working hours and poorer working conditions, and a falling social wage. Further, workers increasingly distrust their official union leaders, especially those who have supported governments which have implemented neo-liberal attacks.
Most workers still have a fair measure of human solidarity. So a trade union bureaucrat is on dangerous moral ground when he or she stands before workers and says, "We'll try and save your jobs at the expense of those workers over there". This is why the protectionist trend in the trade unions in the imperialist countries today is on the defensive and tries to hide its protectionist demands under the cloak of global solidarity.
Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) national secretary Doug Cameron's "fair trade" campaign captures this defensiveness. Is "fair trade" about defending all workers or only about defending "Aussie" jobs? It depends who he is speaking to. To some workers he says that saving the jobs of workers in Asia is not our worry. When he speaks to a left audience he stresses his concern for low wages and child labour in the Third World.
Cameron is calling for protection of Australian industries through "social tariffs", justified by mock concern about human rights. This means trying to save Australian workers' jobs at the expense of the jobs of workers in the Third World. Attempts to make trade relations or Third World debt cancellation conditional on observation human rights, environmental standards and wage rates in the Third World divides the global working class and unites them with their corporate bosses.
Cameron is very sensitive about the accusation that he is calling for protectionism. However, the thicker the smokescreen Cameron pumps out to hide the reality of his conception of "fair trade", the more ineffective his argument gets.
At the September 12 trade union rally, most workers found his speech boring. Some headed off to the blockades rather than listen. Workers responded much more enthusiastically to Victorian AMWU secretary Craig Johnston's appeal for working class solidarity with the victims of the corporate giants here and abroad and Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) Victorian secretary Martin Kingham's call for defence of human dignity and the right to decent living standards for all.
What makes protectionists like Cameron even more pathetic is the fact that his party, the ALP, has clearly opted to hang on to the bipartisan "free trade" line. The ALP's platform declares: "The direction Labor pursued in the 1980s and 1990s of ... internationalising the economy and reducing protection cannot and should not be reversed."
One of the most important features of the global movement inspired by the Seattle protests is a struggle between old and emerging leaderships of the progressive social movements. The political divide between them is their attitudes toward economic nationalism and global solidarity.
At S11, the conservative union leaderships were torn between wanting to totally distance themselves from the blockade or to try and hang in there and influence the political message of the movement while risking exposing rank and file unionists to the protesters radical views.
When radical activists put forward a draft statement of demands framed within the principle of globalising solidarity, the conservative union officials and non-government organisation chiefs could not bring themselves to sign it (see <http://www.asiet.org.au/uact>. Yet they also did not have the guts to propose economic nationalist alternatives.
Was the relative marginalisation of the economic nationalists a peculiarity of S11? In Prague on September 26-28, the trade unions and the old communist parties (which lead many European unions) were absent. They did not even try and mobilise separately like the US unions did in Seattle and Washington.
The relative weight of the economic nationalists was substantially smaller in Melbourne and Prague. The economic nationalists did much to isolate themselves by choosing to partially (or, in the case of Prague, totally) abstain from the main action.
Which way will the conservative union bureaucrats jump at the next major mobilisation of this new anti-capitalist movement? We'll have to wait and see.
[Peter Boyle is a member of the national executive of the Democratic Socialist Party. Visit the DSP's web site at <http://www.dsp.org.au>.]