Will the election of former Australian Services Union NSW head Sally McManus as ACTU secretary result in a strategic shift in the trade union movement in this country? Many unionists and activists are hoping so.
The government is tightening the screws on workers and the poor, intent on further attacks on the social wage, privatising health, education and welfare services and attacking refugees. We need to fight back. Strong, fighting unions are essential to building an effective resistance to corporate power and to defending our rights.
In her first television interview, with the ABC’s Leigh Sales on 7.30, McManus reaffirmed the ACTU’s support for the CFMEU, which the federal government is intent on destroying via its recently revived Australian Building and Construction Commission. But McManus went further than any ACTU secretary in recent memory and defended the right of workers to break unjust laws.
McManus reaffirmed her position the following day in response to criticism by Labor leader Bill Shorten, Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews and a frenzied backlash from right wing MPs and employer groups.
The comments of Shorten and Andrews demonstrate why unions and the ACTU need to pursue a strategy independent of the interests of the ALP.
The responses by business groups were laughable, but also revealing of how the ACTU is seen by some of them — a product of the role the ACTU established for itself during the Accord years from the early 1980s to the mid ’90s. The legacy of these decades was low wage growth at a time of increased profits, the weakening of union power and the abandonment of a militant, class struggle perspective.
Conservative MPs and employer groups went into overdrive. Liberal MP Christopher Pyne called on McManus to resign, and labelled her comments on 7.30 as "the kind of anarchic Marxist clap trap we used to hear from anarchists at Adelaide University in the 1980s".
Peter Dutton called McManus a "lunatic" on radio 2GB, saying that the ACTU, “which was a sensible voice at one point” had lunged “to the left”.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull joined the chorus: "What [McManus] has done is defied the whole rule of law and this is the culture of thuggery and lawlessness that the CFMEU, of course is the great example of, and this is the culture of the union movement ..."
Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott called McManus "grossly irresponsible", adding: "It's especially disappointing when we've worked so hard with the ACTU to advance the national interest."
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive James Pearson said: "This is a disturbing sign, that on the first day in the job of the new ACTU leadership that the spirit of the CFMEU, an organisation that's recognised for its readiness to break the law and its thuggish behaviour, is infecting the senior leadership of the ACTU."
In response to the outcry, McManus issued a second media statement, reinforcing her comments on 7.30: "Australia has been built by working people who have had the courage to stand up to unfair and unjust rules and demand something better.
"Every single Australian benefits from superannuation, Medicare, the weekend and minimum wages — these were all won by our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents taking non-violent so-called illegal industrial action.
"Working people only take these measures when the issue is one of justice, like ensuring workers’ safety on worksites, a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work or to uphold and improve rights for working people.
“There is rampant lawlessness in the workplaces of Australia and this is occurring in the form of chronic underpayments of workers, exploitation of visa workers and workplace practices that put the safety and lives of people at risk. Unfortunately this is no longer on the fringes of our economy; it is now a business model for some corporations."
Many activists in the union movement have argued for decades that bad laws should be broken. Nearly 50 years ago, in 1969, up to a million workers took such “illegal” industrial action across the country in response to the jailing of Tramways Union leader Clarrie O’Shea for refusing to obey an order for his union to pay heavy fines under the Menzies government’s penal powers. This industrial action, taken in many cases by workers in defiance of their own union leaderships, freed O'Shea and rendered the anti-union laws unworkable.
In the decades since, successive governments have shifted the industrial goal posts, and now there is not much legal room for workers to struggle. What there is of it is pretty weak — anyone who has experienced the Fair Work Commission’s processes would attest to this — and results in anti-worker outcomes in many cases.
Many unionists are encouraged by McManus’s fighting words. Let’s work together to turn them into action.
[Susan Price is a co-convener of the Socialist Alliance.]