In defence of 'throwback' unionism



In defence of 'throwback' unionism

By Chris Spindler

MELBOURNE — Eight months ago, the Workers First team won the leadership of the Victorian branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU). Workers First's platform centred on winning better wages and conditions for members after years of compromise and trade-offs by the former leadership. The team's aim of reinvolving rank-and-file union members in decision making was attractive to AMWU members.


Workers First has remained true to its name, winning significant gains for AMWU members and the union movement as a whole. Employer bodies are keen to undermine the example of Workers First by portraying it as irresponsible and out of date.

An article in the February 18 Australian was headlined: “Throwback union tactics inhibit manufacturers”. Written by Nicholas Way, the article quotes Roger Boland, head of the Australian Industry Group, that long-term investment in Victoria is at risk because of “senseless” industrial action. Boland claims the AMWU's aggressive tactics are a throwback to the years before the ALP-ACTU Accord.

“Workers First makes it difficult to hire casual labour, insisting on workers being offered permanent positions”, writes Way, expressing the bosses' real gripe.

Workers First is unapologetic. The accepted standard is that after three months casuals either are made permanent or get the sack. The union argues that if there is a job to be done it should be a permanent, full-time job which offers security and benefits.

Companies have been abusing workers' rights by keeping them on as casuals for months, even years. Employers get around the three-month limit by sacking casuals, then hiring others, or sometimes the same workers.

Labour-hire firms are used to employ large casual work forces, substitute for permanent employees and undermining union strength. Casuals are more easily dismissed if they become union activists.

Such was the case at Simplot (makers of Four & Twenty pies) where half the employees were casuals, hired through the company Manpower. After a week-long strike and picket, the AMWU members won a pay increase, better conditions and Manpower was thrown off the site. Job security was a big issue in the dispute and there is now a limit on the proportion of casuals employed.

Way quotes Boland's comments about “a medium-sized manufacturer” in Victoria: “The company has been innovative in building relationships with employees and unions ... A new organiser is part of Workers First. With this change the company has experienced deteriorating relations with the union that is adversely affecting relations with employees and threatens to undo all the good work achieved through enterprise bargaining.”

Workers First won the union leadership because members were disillusioned with former leaderships who dealt with employers rather than union members and preferred to organise trade-offs in agreements than fight for real gains.

Workers First has fought work practices that attempt to blur the lines between management and workers (for example, “team” and “all together” programs). A dispute at Dorf involving a two-week picket line defeated such practices and heightened union consciousness among the workers.

The Australian article also complains that “the union is refusing to sign enterprise bargaining agreements past June 30, 2000”. Workers First recognises that enterprise bargaining agreements have fractured the AMWU. Many strong shops retain relatively good wages and conditions while smaller, industrially weak or non-union shops are going backwards.

The new leadership's industrial campaign to have all shops end their current enterprise bargains in June 2000 will mean all negotiations will coincide and allow industry-wide bargaining, similar to how the award system used to work.

This industrial campaign will have an ideological impact as well: workers in the strong shops will have to be convinced that they should take action for other workplaces if the campaign is to succeed.

Way refers to comments made by Laurie Carmichael, ACTU assistant secretary, that Workers First's emphasis on jobs and hours is simplistic and that enterprise bargaining requires a “multifaceted” approach.

Workers First's approach counters the Accord-style unionism of bosses, unions and government working together. That approach was pioneered by Carmichael and the former metalworkers' union leadership and is still supported by the ACTU.

Workers First's attitude of putting workers' interests before those of companies, and of encouraging workers to be active on the job, is consistent with what unions are supposed to do — look after their members and challenge the bosses and the government's industrial relations policies.

The results of this “throwback” unionism are worrying metal industry bosses and their media lackeys. The better wages and conditions being won and the new generation of militant union activists being created are not a “throwback”, but the future of unionism.