Activists discuss the future of unions
By Ben Reid
MELBOURNE — The re-election of the Howard government threatens to bring in a new period of extensive attacks on workers' rights and trade unions. Seventy people attended a seminar, organised by the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, on November 8 to discuss ways to resist these attacks.
A range of speakers presented talks that provoked a large amount of discussion. Maree Roberts, a Community and Public Sector Union member and DSP activist, outlined the likely impact of the looming world recession. She predicted that workers' rights will come under increasing attack as profits are threatened.
John Cleary, an organisers with the Electrical Trades Union, spoke of the impact of "globalisation" on workers' rights. In the electrical industry, workers were increasingly employed by larger and more remote corporations.
There was much discussion about the meaning of globalisation and the false answers of protectionism and Australian nationalism in contrast to campaigns for better pay and shorter hours to combat unemployment.
The session on unions and the ALP provoked much debate. Australian Manufacturing Workers Union member and DSP activist Chris Spindler pointed to the ALP's role in government. "Under the Accord, the ALP slashed our wages and conditions. Unions have to ask what the benefits of political support and work through the ALP are. There is an increasing need for unions to break from the ALP and build a political alternative."
Dean Mighell, state secretary of the Communications, Elictrical and Plumbing Union, who recently has become embroiled in controversy in the ALP, concurred: "I don't think the ALP is clearly a long-term solution for the union movement ... However, we are affiliated, as at this point of time the options of another political organisation do not exist."
The final session featured an open discussion on rebuilding militant trade unions. Annie Delainey, from the Clothing Footwear and Textile Workers' Union, spoke about the "fairwear" campaign to highlight the role of outworkers in the industry and the exploitative conditions they face.
"Such campaigns are needed to make unions relevant to people again instead of being restricted to representing a shrinking core of more privileged workers outside the new layers of part-time and casual workers", she said.
Craig Kendel, AMWU state secretary, spoke on the need to rebuild militant unionism. He referred to the successful Workers First campaign in the AMWU as a case where the conservative leaders who emerged during the Accord have been replaced by rank and file activists.