Labor: a party for workers?

Friday, May 4, 2007

"What we are now seeing is a clear choice for voters at the next election", Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) president Sharan Burrow said on April 17, referring to the industrial relations policy that Labor leader Kevin Rudd received support for at the party's national conference at the end of April. A slight choice may be a more accurate description.

At the same conference, the ALP decided in favour of the unlimited expansion of uranium mining, while distinguishing itself from the Coalition by not endorsing domestic nuclear power generation. The conference also adopted a policy that would slightly improve the rights of refugees — by abolishing temporary protection visas (TPVs) and allowing those on bridging visas to work — but would allow the essentials of the mandatory detention regime to remain.

Regarding Australian militarism the same "slight choice" approach was applied: withdraw some, but not all, troops from Iraq (over a protracted and ill-defined timescale) but maintain military deployments in Afghanistan and the South Pacific. Some Labor figures have even hinted that troop numbers in Afghanistan and the South Pacific could be boosted with troops redeployed from Iraq. Labor and the Coalition positions on civil liberties and the so-called "anti-terror laws" are identical.

This is not new. Since the Howard government won office in 1996 the ALP has taken the "small target" or "me too" approach to every election.

Despite its name, the ALP does not even pretend to be a workers' party, let alone an anti-capitalist one. Indeed, Rudd has taken to referring to the working class as a "sectional interest". Burrow's "clear choice for voters" is part of a wider campaign by the ACTU leadership to convince workers that voting for the ALP, rather than taking part in industrial struggle, is the most effective way of combating PM John Howard's Work Choices laws.

Even among trade union leaders who are prepared to fight, many of whom have publically criticised Rudd's "Work Choices Lite", there is a tendency to see the ALP as the workers' party, but under bad leadership. Likewise, many social movement activists see the ALP as having an intrinsically progressive nature, a party that can be "won back".

This viewpoint ignores the ALP's history. The impetus for the party's creation came from the great shearers' and maritime workers' strikes of the 1890s, which the colonial governments defeated using military and police repression. Trade unionists drew the correct conclusion that the struggle needed to also be fought in the political arena. However, the political arena was narrowly identified with parliamentary elections only, and the party quickly became dominated by its parliamentary representatives who were easily corrupted by the perks of office.

That such a party could retain a hold over the working class was related to the relatively high standard of living experienced by many Australian workers due to the abundance of stolen Aboriginal land and the wealth derived from the exploitation of Asia and the Pacific.

Class collaborationist Labor parliamentarians encouraged workers to defend their relative privilege vis-a-vis foreign workers, rather than fight against their exploitation by Australian bosses. From the 1890s to the 1960s, the White Australia policy was a key Labor policy. This nationalism meant that, at times, the ALP could achieve more for Australian capitalism than those parties that were more closely tied to sectional capitalist interests. Thus it was the 1910-13 Fisher ALP government that introduced a national currency and started construction of the national railway system and the national capital.

The nationalist, pro-capitalist ALP has never held total domination over the labour movement. During World War I, the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) waged a bitter, and successful, struggle against the Hughes ALP government's attempts to introduce conscription (which led to a split in the party).

Such is the ALP's commitment to capitalism that Labor governments have not shied away from utilising the full force of the state against the labour movement. Examples include the Chifley Labor government's use of the army against striking miners in the 1940s, the Hawke Labor government's use of the airforce against striking airline pilots and police repression against the Builders Labourers Federation in the 1980s.

An ALP government would be preferable to the Coalition. However, the consequences of trade unions and progressive social movements tying themselves to the ALP can be disastrous.

When the Hawke government was elected in 1983, a number of union leaders argued that the ACTU-ALP Accord would give workers, through their unions, a real say in economic decision making. The result was a demobilisation of trade unions that then led to a decline in real wages while profits went up.

On the other hand, recent victories by workers at Preston Motors and at Coles-Myers Somerton distribution centre in Victoria show that regardless of how anti-worker a government is, industrial struggle can be successful particularly with community support.

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