ACTU congress finds no answer to dwindling membership

Issue 

By Sue Bolton
MELBOURNE — The new president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Jennie George, told delegates to the congress held here September 27-29 that one of the main challenges she would be confronting would be reversing the decline in union membership. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, union membership has fallen from 49.5% of the work force in 1982 to 35% in 1994.
The ACTU executive prepared a paper for the congress called "The Future of Unions in Australia", focusing on recruitment and retention of new members. One section of the paper emphasises membership participation through surveys and visits by officials to the workplace.
The paper speaks the language of the business sector, with much talk of best practice unionism, or even benchmark unionism. There is an admission that some unions had become too focused on a servicing model "at the expense of genuine organising and recruitment". "Service-unionism" is what the ACTU promoted at its last congress as a way of attracting new members. It obviously hasn't worked.
On the last day, ACTU secretary Bill Kelty reported that the ACTU had resolved to sell one of its buildings and reduce its staff numbers in order to put more union recruiters into the field.
But defending and extending workers' rights, making unions relevant to workers, was not really what the congress was about. It seemed more like an ALP congress rather than a workers' congress.
The real theme was re-election of the federal Labor government. This was hammered over and over again by different executive members, while genuine discussion of workers' needs was not included in the agenda.
The congress did not allow delegates to move motions from the floor. After complaints at the 1993 congress that there wasn't enough opportunity for delegate participation, this congress allowed delegates to participate in workshops on a range of issues. However, there was no opportunity for these discussions to result in either motions or reports on the floor of the congress.
The plenary sessions consisted of non-voting reports and resolutions to be voted on with no discussion.
An example of the lack of seriousness was the fact that the hall was full for Paul Keating's speech, and then practically emptied for the vote on Accord Mark 8.
Over and over again it was drummed into the heads of delegates that their fate was tied to the fate of the Labor government.
Martin Ferguson, outgoing president en route to parliament, said, "We know that a Labor government has heart, that it cares about working people, the battlers and strugglers of this nation. Paul Keating has shown that the Labor government is the government that will work to ensure a decent standard of living for all and protection of workers through the award system." And he didn't even crack a smile.
Jennie George pursued the same theme: "I think we have an obligation not just to be independent and to voice our concerns when they are genuine, but also to be proud of the achievements of the Labor government in power."
Keating was welcomed to the podium with a standing ovation, and again as he finished his speech.
Keating began by buttering up the executive, describing it as the strongest and best. Then he concentrated on the partnership between the ACTU and the Labor government. Australia had been "completely remodelled, and we've done it in the image of Labor", said Keating.
"By cooperation you can do great things. The Accord always has been a clear trade-off of wage restraint for economic growth, and it's the growth that provides the jobs ... we're now into an enterprise bargaining system which delivers profits and wages."
He claimed that "if we were still hostage to a centralised wage fixing system, it would be easier for a Coalition government to hop into workers and cut wages". Keating ended his speech by asking delegates to "keep the faith in the Labor government" and prevent the election of "little Johnny Howard".

Then Kelty took the floor to congratulate Paul Keating on being such a strong leader and such a nice man.
The "re-elect labor" theme flowed through on each day. When speaking to the resolution on the Accord, George Campbell told delegates that it was "due to the Accord that we have been able to maintain the social safety net and keep unemployment down to a generally acceptable level". He asked delegates to keep in mind "what we might have had under a Liberal Party government".
Laurie Brereton, the federal industrial relations minister, spoke on the last day, focusing on all the supposed good things that the union movement wouldn't have got if it weren't for a Labor government. The examples he used were an increase in real wages (!), a decline in industrial disputes, employment growth (and unemployment growth, but Brereton didn't mention that), superannuation, fourteen quarters of economic growth and low inflation.
When Ferguson thanked Laurie Brereton, he said that the reforms referred to by Brereton could be won only through a Labor government and not by industrial muscle.
There was no discussion about an alternative to the Accord, about whether it was wise to be so closely tied to government, or whether the Labor Party really had delivered to workers. There was no querying of the fact that ACTU officials would sometimes tell delegates that the Labor government had delivered wage increases, but in the next breath talking about the necessity for wage restraint. There was no quibble about the government cutting the social safety net, slice by slice.
One of the Mount Isa Mines workers present expressed frustration that the trade union movement was being so closely aligned with a government which had cut real wages. He responded to the applause for Keating by saying that he would rather "vote for a greenie".
The MIM workers had come to the congress to seek support for their right to join the union of their choice. MIM and the courts have been refusing to recognise three of the five unions on site. Initially the ACTU said that it would back the right of workers to freely choose their union, but recently it has backed off on this commitment.
The MIM workers were permitted to address the congress, but there were no guarantees of support.

One resolution adopted voiced opposition to nuclear testing in the Pacific and support for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The resolution calls on affiliates to take solidarity actions with Pacific peoples and "implement industrial action, including consumer boycotts". However, the resolution is silent on the role of the Labor government in exporting uranium, allowing visits by nuclear warships and hosting nuclear bases.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.