Can the union left build greater unity?

ASU rally in Melbourne, June 2010. Working together around common demands, such as Equal Pay, is a concrete way to move past div

The first Union and Community Summer School (UCSS) will take place at Melbourne Trades Hall over December 10-11.

The UCSS will bring together a wide range of left, progressive and socialist organisations and unionists. It is an experiment in finding practical unity.

Green Left Weekly’s Dick Nichols asked three leading participants in the UCSS, each representing different left traditions, about the pursuit of left unity in Australia: Rob Durbridge, president of the SEARCH Foundation, Shirley Winton of the Spirit of Eureka (Melbourne), and Susan Price, Socialist Alliance national trade union coordinator.

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What are your hopes for the Union and Community Summer School?

Rob Durbridge: The left is notorious for its warring factions: at a time when the ALP faces one of the greatest crises in its history and Greens and independent votes are rising rapidly, the left should be discussing how to renew itself and the issues and campaigns in promotes in Australia.

The SEARCH Foundation held a successful conference on left renewal earlier in 2010 and we see our involvement in the UCSS as a way of continuing to debate the issues arising from the crises of the capitalist global economy and the challenge of climate change linked directly to it.

Shirley Winton: One of the main outcomes for activists and progressives should be to assist and support the struggle of workers, their unions and communities.

This is not simply about attending a meeting or picket line, but requires a deep and long involvement in the day-to-day lives and struggles of ordinary people.

I hope this will be one of the main priorities that activists, particularly the younger generation, set themselves.

In the most immediate period, working people need (and want) a united, strong and courageous union movement dedicated to defending and improving workers’ rights and conditions in workplaces and justice in the wider community. A union movement that’s at the coal face in workplaces and in the wider community.

That’s not in any way to dismiss the work that unions need to do at government and legislative level.

But their greatest strength lies with workers, organised and unorganised, and in communities’ own grassroots mass movements.

Susan Price: United action around agreed concrete goals is not beyond the reach of progressive forces in Australia.

It is also essential if we’re going to rebuild class struggle unionism and move beyond the retreats of the past, creating movements that can build a world where people and planet come before profit.

The UCSS is a living example of how left organisations can work together on a concrete project and this experience will hopefully point to a way forward for other initiatives of this kind around the country.

What is key to reversing the retreat of the Australian trade union movement?

RD: The unions are in decline in some areas, but growing in others and have developed new ways of building campaigns that link to the community.

The main issue facing the movement is to be able to promote issues affecting members and campaign for them rather than hoping the ALP in office will solve our problems.

There are good signs that this is happening … look at the campaigns against privatisation in NSW and Queensland. And prior to that, there was the Your Rights at Work campaign, the main cause of the defeat of the Howard government.

The main weakness is the failure to develop a strategy that can unite unions and influence the politics of the political parties as well.

SW: At the heart of strengthening and expanding the organised union movement, and the whole of the working class, is seeking a deeper understanding of how society is ordered and organised.

It is the understanding that Australia’s legal and political system is run by a tiny handful of powerful, mainly overseas, multinationals who exploit working people and the environment and keep the profits created by workers’ labour power.

The union movement in Australia has always been at its strongest and most united when many of its members were involved in educating themselves about their class position and the powerful capacity of an independent working class.

Class exploitation and power relations also block any reversal of environmental degradation and implementing practical solutions to climate warming.

I hope that one of the main decisions of this summer school will be for all of us to take concrete steps to educate ourselves about the exploitation of the working class and state power.

SP: Politically independent, class-struggle union action is necessary if we are to reverse the losses of the past three decades.

The impact of the Prices and Incomes Accord policies in the 1980s cannot be overstated. It resulted in real losses — not just to the wages and conditions of working people, but most importantly to their fighting ability.

However, the political conjuncture has given cause to many unions to re-evaluate their relationship with the ALP.

This has become an imperative for those unions who are engaged in direct struggle against Labor’s policies in government, as a result of their privatisation agenda, for example.

One goal of the UCSS is to inspire a new generation of activists to take the baton from the older generation. How can this best be done?

RD: There are many young people who are highly aware of the issues and have left politics, but they are generally cynical about political organisations of any kind.

I work in the Organising Works program of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, which is going from strength to strength and I know that there are talented and committed activists wanting to change the union movement, to make it an organisation that builds workers’ power and strength in the workplace.

I think the best way older activists can contribute is to convey their experiences of successful campaigns in the past so new activists can take what they need in the way of tactics and strategies.

SW: New generations of activists need to be involved in real struggles of ordinary people in workplaces and communities.

It is a lifelong commitment that teaches patience, respect and use of different tactics at different times.

We can learn a great deal about struggle, the ebbs and flows, victories and defeats, from the collective wisdom of ordinary people, outside the organised left.

Learning about Australia’s great tradition and history of working class struggle is indispensable. From the 1854 Eureka Rebellion through to the recent Ark Tribe victory, there have been countless major and less public struggles have shaped working-class consciousness.

Understanding the history and zigs and zags of struggle, including the different methods used by the ruling class to suppress and divert it, is essential for young activists.

SP: The UCSS provides an opportunity for experienced and less experienced trade unionists to meet together and learn from each other.

Trade union activists who are veterans of the early days of the Accord, and who have witnessed the decline in independent union action, have important experiences to share with those just coming onto the job and getting active in their union.

Similarly, the experience of 10 years of the Howard government’s anti-union agenda means young workers also have their own experiences of unionism that need to be listened to by older generations if we’re to rebuild working class activism and organisation.

How can we build greater unity among left, progressive and socialist forces?

RD: Unity built on false agreements is no good at all — we have to debate out the issues.

But neither is the silo mentality of 10 different left organisations going about their work as if they have the answers and never engaging in debate with others.

I’d like to see more principled unity based on the hammering out of agreed strategies and campaigns that can engage the new generation of activists.

SW: In the spirit of unity and mutual respect between different groups, united positions should be sought on issues of immediate importance to the people — workers’ rights, community services, the environment, health, education, jobs and the manufacturing industry, US military bases and Australia’s foreign policy.

In the course of being involved and united on these practical struggles, the longer-term solutions should be tackled in a cooperative way — always seeking unity but equally respecting different political positions.

Positions on broader political views should not be imposed on others or made a condition of unity. No one left group has a monopoly over people’s struggle.

This is not in any way to hide political views, but they should be introduced in a way that doesn’t dominate and divide.

Unity between different left groups is tested, and strengthened, through involvement in people’s mass movements of today. It should be a principled unity on immediate issues in the spirit of unity and independence.

Struggle of the people and unity in the mass movement is paramount. So we should all be supporting, encouraging and nurturing people’s own mass organisations and movements that spring from the grassroots.

SP: Working together around common demands for action is a concrete way to move beyond the suspicions and divisions that have dogged us in the past.

It doesn’t mean we all lose our identity or hide our differences, but it means we can prioritise common action and work through any tactical differences in a comradely way.

We can still have the debates about this or that historical event or theoretical difference, but we should not let them get in the way of united action.

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