According to George Campbell, national secretary of the Automotive, Metals and Engineering Union, "we can never again allow the trade union movement to become so weak that large sections of it are dependent upon a Labor government to deliver".
Campbell is right. But why is the Australian union movement today so weak? It's because unions have spent the last decade delivering to the ALP government through the Accord: a policy that Campbell's union has always defended, indeed promoted. The trade union movement has delivered its members, bound and gagged by the Accord and the "need to re-elect Labor", to the employers. The interests of working people have been sacrificed for the sake of "international competitiveness" — the current euphemism for employers' profits.
It is time for the union movement to deliver the goods to its members, not its members to the bosses. For 10 years now, the ACTU has ensured that wage rises lag behind inflation, that they are as few and far between as possible, that they are delayed into the future (through superannuation) and that they accrue to fewer and fewer workers (through enterprise bargaining, in which many workers aren't able to secure new "bargains").
The ALP promised that these sacrifices would make Australian industry more competitive, which in turn would enable "industry to create jobs". The unemployment figure — over 1 million people — tell us the truth about that lie.
The role of the ALP is the other side of the cause of union weakness: the Accord is only a particularly nasty instance of a general strategy of subordinating the unions to the ALP. That strategy will always produce disaster, because the ALP is deliberately and consciously subordinate to the needs of big business — witness the massive cuts to corporate tax that Keating promised before the elections.
To overcome its weakness, the union movement has to overcome the illusion that the Labor government is capable of "delivering". The election result has delivered a reprieve from Hewson-Howard industrial policies; but another three years like the last 10 will ensure that the Liberal alternative gains more support the next time around.
Unions can't adequately defend their members without being involved in politics as well as active on the job. But it has to be a quite different politics from that of the misnamed Labor Party. Today, it requires campaigning for new policies, such as automatic wage indexation, increases in taxes on profits and reductions in taxes on working peoples' wages, with increased government revenue going to education, health, environmental protection and welfare. And it requires union officials with the courage to break decisively with the ALP and to join with others in building a party that really represents working people.