ACTU must heed lesson of past elections

The May Day rally in Sydney on May 1. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Another federal election looming and, of course, working people and trade unions want to see off the reactionary Coalition government in Canberra.

Much has been made in the media about the trade union movement, led by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), spending millions on marginal seat campaigning. There have also been some very successful rallies by workers that have highlighted the widespread opposition to the Coalition anti-worker, anti-union policies.

Attention has also been given to the policy demands put forward by the ACTU under the leadership of secretary Sally McManus. Progressive unions in particular have gotten behind these long-standing demands to “change the rules”, which include the right of entry, greater union organising rights, abolishing the overtly political Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and restoring industry-wide bargaining rights.

It is generally believed within the union movement that Labor has given certain understandings to senior union officials regarding these demands.

But a word to the wise.

Understandings were also given to ACTU and other senior union officials prior to the 2007 federal election in which Labor’s Kevin Rudd was elected prime minister. At the time, unions were heavily involved in the Your Rights At Work campaign.

Yet the constraints and severe limitations of Labor’s Fair Work Act and the wickedness of the ABCC are still with us 12 years on. This is why we are still campaigning to change unfair rules when it comes to workers’ rights.

The main lesson of 2007 has been acknowledged by some senior union leaders: Don’t surrender the capacity of mass mobilisation and on-the-job organisation for just one election.

In contrast to the ACTU’s demands, Labor opposition leader Bill Shorten has emphasised the issues of restoring penalty rates, tackling the gender pay gap, reducing insecure work and ensuring the same pay for workers doing the same work.

He has also recently raised the issues of amending labour hire laws, improving the rights of casual workers and boosting wages for lower paid workers, such as those in the childcare sector.

All of these are important issues.

But it raises the question: Are these issues being raised to avoid addressing the core changes that need to be made to allow unions to operate under well-established International Labour Organisation conventions so they can win and protect improvements on the ground?

Labor has not come out to contradict media reports claiming such things as: “Shorten: won’t be union hand maiden”, “Shorten’s pledge to business” and “Shorten moves to placate business”.

It has also been reported that shadow ministers Anthony Albanese, Brendan O’Connor and Kim Carr have been networking with employer bodies.

The message it is sending is that an incoming Labor government wants a “tripartite” relationship between business, unions and government.

The union movement is right to campaign for the demise of a reactionary government. But experience has taught us it should always keep its powder dry.

A genuinely independent labour movement, led by progressive activists, is crucial for working people going forward.

This is not only to secure decent wages and working conditions but as a vehicle to generate progressive social and political ideas and activities that can help win a more democratic and free society.

[Brian Boyd is a former secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council and a former member of the ACTU executive.]

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