Attack on Workers First is an attack on the left


The attacks launched against the militant leadership of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union's Victorian branch by the union's national leadership are more than an internal faction fight. They are an attack on the left.

The vicious campaign against AMWU Victorian secretary Craig Johnston, spearheaded by AMWU national secretary Doug Cameron, and the undermining of the decisions made by the Victorian branch's elected state conference and state council should concern all union militants and progressive-minded people.

The Cameron-dominated AMWU national council has suspended Johnston because of allegations which have since been found to have no basis in fact. Motions were rammed through the July 21-25 AMWU national conference that give the national leadership the power to undemocratically override decisions made by state conferences and state councils, veto leaflets and press releases put out by state branches, and sack any official or employee of the union who wears the Workers First logo.

However, the AMWU national council hasn't limited its attacks to the Victorian AMWU branch. The AMWU national council on July 18 also voted that the union disaffiliate from Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) and from Community Radio 3CR.

The Victorian AMWU is one of only a few unions in Australia that actively encourages the activism, involvement and confidence of their members to take a militant stand on industrial issues. As a result, the Victorian AMWU has increased its financial membership, while other state branches have rapidly lost members.

The AMWU in Victoria has repeatedly defied the federal government's anti-union laws to take industrial action and win important gains for its members. The AMWU in Victoria — along with the state branches of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Electrical Trades Union and the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union — have rebuilt the tradition of working-class solidarity with other workers' struggles.

There have been a number of industrial disputes over the last five years in which picket lines, about to be attacked by police, have been bolstered by hundreds of workers from nearby factories and building sites.

It was this sort of solidarity between the key left unions in Melbourne which proved to be the turning point for the wharfies' dispute in 1998. Unlike in Sydney, where picketers were instructed not to block the scabs, in Melbourne the left unions mobilised for real picket lines and scabs were prevented from crossing. The Workers First leadership in the AMWU played a critical role in winning support from the VTHC for that dispute.

The Workers First leadership, and Johnston in particular, played an absolutely critical role in making the 20,000-strong September 11-13 protests outside the World Economic Forum in 2000, and the May 1 protests in 2001 and 2002, in Melbourne so successful. Prior to May Day 2001, it had been decades since unions had taken strike action on May Day.

In the early 1970s, the left and progressive movement realised that the attacks on the Jack Mundey leadership of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation by its Victorian branch was an attack on the whole left. In the mid-1980s, a substantial section of the Melbourne left recognised that state and federal Labor governments' attempts to deregister the BLF in Victoria, ACT and NSW were not just aimed at the BLF, but at any union that stepped out of line.

Cameron's and the national AMWU leadership's vendetta against Craig Johnston and the Victorian AMWU is also an attack on the whole left and progressive social movements. Should the Johnston leadership be destroyed, it will be a blow against militant unionism at a time when the Howard government is escalating its attacks on workers. It will remove a leadership that is prepared to support the activist movements for refugees' rights, International Women's Day and for many other progressive causes.

From Green Left Weekly, July 31, 2002.
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