The 10th national Labour History Conference on June 4-6 delved into the labour movement's past, but also featured interesting debates about present-day concerns.
The sympathies of the participants, including a substantial group from New Zealand, meant that while most of the presentations were academic in style, they often had in mind improving workers' lives today. A few addressed recent fights, such as the 1998 maritime union dispute and the unionisation of young workers in New Zealand's cinemas, and three panels addressed current controversies in industrial politics.
The title of the feature session, "Labour Traditions", was misspelled, since all the speakers came from and focused on the ALP. Nevertheless, the discussion had some substance. Former Victorian premier John Cain warned that the well-founded desire to get rid of PM John Howard was masking the ALP's lack of long-term policy development, and metalworkers' union leader Wally Curran said the Labor Party faced a day of reckoning for its factionalism and exclusion of members from decision making.
The ALP national president, Senator John Faulkner, on the other hand, offered an apologia for the attacks on trade unionists Dean Mighell and Joe McDonald. He claimed that the party's tradition has been to put the interests of working men and women first. To do this, it sought to form governments by winning a majority of votes, so it could not avoid "community standards".
In an another session focusing on union mobilisation, former Australian Council of Trade Unions official Max Ogden presented a rehash of his Accordist "best practice unionism". Today, he argued, workers want to improve the performance of the businesses they work in, so that's what unions must do. He did not consider that the union movement has failed to put any alternative before most workers, nor that the movement's activism relies on confrontation with bosses.
A highlight of the conference was a presentation by Victorian state secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union Michele O'Neil, who explained that she is now part of a struggle for belief in the power of collectivity. She also criticised the emphasis given by unions' public relations campaigns on workers' "victimhood", rather than their courage, resistance and power.
In one of the conference's final sessions, Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Brian Boyd and National Tertiary Education Union national executive member Jeannie Rea considered the fate of the tradition of workers' mobilisation. Boyd explained that the unions had debated reviving mass mobilisations in response to Howard's attacks after 2004, and the right of union members and the community to have their say had won that argument. In 2007, he said, mobilisation is still being debated, to varying degrees.
Boyd argued that unions' marginal seat campaigns and advertising are valuable, but mobilisations are an historically proven tool and still crucial. He also raised the issue of workers' right to strike.
Rea noted the increasing sophistication of unions' media campaigns, but also some of its potential weaknesses. The danger, she said, lay in substituting media work for more direct engagement with people.