Battle over WA CFMEU

Wednesday, October 16, 1996

By Michael Bull

Jorge Jorquera's article "Political battle inside WA CFMEU" in GLW #245 supporting the Bill Ethell-led ticket in the CFMEU elections missed some important points.

He writes that "the Ethell team ... has attempted to promote a sense of class solidarity around a range of issues instead of limiting campaigns to 'bread and butter' questions".

Does this "class solidarity" include the BWIU applying for coverage of builders labourers during the infamous BLF deregistration of 1986? This teaming up with the employers in attempting a de facto deregistration of the WA BLF branch pushed the Kevin Reynolds leadership into making deals with the Bourke Labor government.

The deal was to sign the "Code of Conduct" which limited industrial action by BLF members. A decision was made by the federal leadership of the BLF to enter this deal, enabling the registered branches to aid the deregistered branches of Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. Why was the BLF the only union to face such stringent conditions in WA? I suggest it was because it was the most militant, the most effective and the most likely to weaken the Accord.

Even with the Code of Conduct restrictions, the Reynolds leadership was still able to advance building workers' conditions. They succeeded in winning the highest site allowances in the country as de facto pay rises; major sites were forced into setting up kitchens that sold low cost, non-profit meals. Any form of "body hire" or casual labour had to come from the union's unemployment books, keeping militants employed and shutting out the notorious body hire companies which are often used as strike breakers in other states. The BLF has always spearheaded industrial campaigns, with the BWIU/CFMEU following along behind, and it is happening once again.

Jorquera fails to understand the tactics used by building unions to win industrial campaigns when he seeks to justify only 20 enterprise bargaining agreements signed by the CFMEU as a satisfactory outcome to the union's 15% pay rise campaign compared to the BLF's 180 signed agreements.

The article states: "... many trades people ... can gain more through industry wide negotiations". Industry wide negotiations/agreements are only the rubber stamp used once the campaign has been won in the workplaces. If the campaign is effective and the employers are forced into signing the deal, then eventually the MBA will agree to have the EBA ratified in the Arbitration Commission. If the campaign is weak, only lesser demands will be ratified. People working for 180 different companies are now receiving the 15% increase achieved by the BLF, compared to only 20 companies signed up by the CFMEU.

Why has the BLF been able to deliver on workers' demands, whereas the CFMEU tail-ends the labourers and receives flow-ons? The BLF has a large militant cadre base of organisers, stewards and rank and file workers. These people are educated in militant union tactics and protected by the union to ensure they don't become part of the industry black-lists. The leadership is in touch with its members' needs and rights: the BLF is one of the few unions brave enough to have monthly decision-making branch meetings. (CFMEU monthly branch meetings can only make recommendations to the state management committee.)

It was at one of these branch meetings that the members made the woeful decision to build on the old Swan Brewery site for the sake of a few jobs. Reynolds, I presume, agreed with this decision, displaying the lack of concern the BLF leadership has with broader social issues. Instead of building solidarity between the progressive working class and the Aboriginal people, they have created a huge rift.

This narrow-sightedness is a major problem because, as Jorquera says, "A win in one shop or industry is worth little if you can't organise a fight when the Liberals try to eliminate what is left of the welfare state". But is he implying that the Ethell leadership is one that will organise such a fight?

During the Accord years, a number of trade union leaders, to disguise their lack of fight around "bread and butter" issues, gave lip service to many progressive local and international causes. Bill Ethell falls into this category. While he must be commended on his activity around the old Swan Brewery site, he must also be condemned on his lack of ability to build a competent, militant and democratic union.

Real militancy arises from a progressive leadership involving the members in the cut and thrust of struggle around bread and butter issues, organising industry campaigns and campaigns around the broader manifestations of state power. To do the latter without tending to the former suggests a fraud.
[The writer is member of the CFMEU and the Democratic Socialist Party.]