Electrical Trades Union Victorian secretary and union militant Dean Mighell was forced to resign from the ALP after a tape recording of an internal union meeting became public. Labor leader Kevin Rudd and his industrial relations spokesperson Julia Gillard slammed Mighell as a union "thug" for swearing about bosses and talking up a pattern-bargaining agreement in which ETU members received a particularly good deal. Green Left Weekly's Sue Bolton spoke to Mighell about Labor under Rudd, its backflips on IR and how the unions can defend workers' rights.
Mighell was asked to leave the ALP on May 30, the same day Rudd announced Labor would retain the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) task force for several years. Mighell described Labor's backflip as a "betrayal", saying that Rudd had caved in to pressure from the Master Builders Association, among others. He is also critical of Labor for buckling to pressure from the mining industry bosses and the Australian Industry Group and ruling out pattern bargaining in industries once governed by paid rates awards.
"The ALP conference [in May] ratified the ILO [International Labor Organisation] conventions, and one of these is the right to pattern bargain through to industry bargaining. It is a fundamental human right."
Asked about the right to strike, Mighell said it's the only weapon a worker has. "Workers don't go on strike without serious thought because it's going to mean that they sacrifice their time and money, and endure hardship. It's foolish to think that the only time a worker is going to experience unfair treatment is during a bargaining period, because in the two to four years of those agreements, there'll be many injustices."
Mighell recounted how, in his industry, there have been mass sackings and redundancies but no right for workers to take industrial action. "If a worker is to protect themselves during the period of a certified agreement, they run the risk of fines and prosecution as does their union, and perhaps even criminal charges for union officials.
"The right to strike is a fundamental freedom. It is no better demonstrated than when workers attend a rally. Now Gillard says that attending rallies without the agreement of the employer will be considered industrial action, and will be outlawed under a Labor government."
Mighell criticised secret ballots as "just another anti-union tactic". It is a means to slow down unions' ability to take protected industrial action, he said. "Unions would never take their members down a road of industrial action without the absolute support of those involved. That makes secret ballots unnecessary.
"For a union to take industrial action it can only be in the bargaining period [under both Work Choices and Labor's IR policy]. You have to apply to the commission and have a hearing, the employer can intervene and appeal, and others can also. Then you have to get a secret ballot order, which can also be contested. There's a very small opportunity to exercise any right to strike to improve your conditions, let alone have a fight in the middle of an agreement if the employer takes you up."
Asked about what advice he'd have for Rudd, Mighell said Rudd should consult with his shadow cabinet about the IR policy. "We have to remember that Rudd lives in a household with a combined income in the millions of dollars a year."
Mighell said that he wore his expulsion "on the chin" because getting rid of the Howard government and Work Choices is more important than "being at war with Rudd". "But by attacking labour leaders, or breaching promises made to workers, it's made it very difficult to run the Your Rights at Work Campaign [YRAW]."
Mighell continued: "At the start of the YRAW campaign, before the ALP policy became 'Work Choices Lite', there was a stark difference between the government and the Labor Party. We could galvanise a lot of workers around that. Rudd needs to be careful he doesn't stop giving workers a reason to believe in Labor."
Mighell believes that the Greens will be the beneficiaries of Rudd's backpedalling on IR policy and his attempts to distance Labor from certain unionists. Anyway, he said, "the Greens had a better industrial relations policy than Labor at that start of the campaign, and now it's streets ahead".
Asked about the relationship of the unions to the ALP, Mighell said that the ALP shouldn't operate under the assumption that unions will support it because it's better than the Liberals. "We need to be equally prepared to fight the ALP over the important issues — about IR laws and other things."
He said that there is some division in the union about how close it should be to the ALP. For instance, while the ETU's national council voted to donate $500,000 to the ALP, the ETU's southern states branch opposed giving the donation until the ALP's industrial relations platform had been revealed.
"Unions have mobilised around our rights at work like never before. If Labor wins, it will be because of this", Mighell said. "We're not going to be able to mobilise again if Labor betrays workers because workers will see such rallies as ALP election stunts." He said the YRAW campaign must remain independent of the ALP, because "if it lapses into being an ALP stunt, we will never be able to deliver a YRAW campaign again because no one will trust us".
"The ETU has supported the Greens and the Socialist Alliance in the last couple of elections because their policies are a hell of a lot better than the ALP's. We've realised the importance of other political parties in fighting for a better deal for workers.
"Sure, we want to get rid of Howard, but the election of a Labor government is certainly not going to save trade unions. It's going to be up to us to do that."