Political battle inside WA CFMEU


By Jorge Jorquera

PERTH — The leadership of the WA branch of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union is facing a challenge in the union's September elections. Since May Day, the opposition ticket has run a dirty campaign against the incumbents.

At May Day, unionists in Fremantle were greeted with the plane smoke message, "He's got to go". Anyone who mistakenly thought this was a reference to John Howard was set right by the T-shirts which sported the same slogan but with a caricature of WA CFMEU secretary Bill Ethell.

Most of the opposition's "shit sheets" (which highlight their backward and narrow workerism) have focused on Ethell's leadership style and supposed abuses of power. The "evidence" consists mainly of a few "injustices" Ethell was supposed to have committed against some past CFMEU officials.

It's clear that the opposition ticket has a different political agenda for the union. It alleges that Ethell is "totally out of touch with the needs and priority of ordinary workers" and "completely preoccupied with the trendy left-wing causes". In fact, the Ethell team is one of the few in the country that has attempted to promote a sense of class solidarity around a range of issues instead of limiting campaigns to "bread and butter" questions.

The opposition asks: "Why did Ethell stop CFMEU members gaining work on the Brewery site? After all, at the time, work in our industry was hard to get and many of us could have done with the work the Old Swan Brewery job would have provided."

Another excerpt reads: "The last we heard the CFMEU (Construction Division) had only signed about 20 enterprise bargaining agreements as a result of the union's 15% Pay Rise Campaign. Yet the Builders Labourers Painters and Plasterers Union has stitched up more than 180 signed 15% Pay Rise Agreements for their members. It's quite simple, Bill Ethell is too tied up on his airy fairy trendy issues to concentrate on his real job."

This misleadingly suggests that the BLF's registration of more EBAs represents greater shopfloor success. In fact, the CFMEU membership in construction includes many tradespeople who can gain more through industry-wide negotiations.

The opposition want to be seen as "militants" who will defend CFMEU workers' rights. But they do not seem much interested in workers' other concerns such as the impact of nuclear weapons and cuts to Austudy on their families.

It is clear from the opposition's propaganda (not to mention its allies in the conservative WA BLF leadership), that its political program for the CFMEU would mean a retreat into the old combination of militant sloganeering and political subservience to Labor.

Without a class struggle perspective to defend workers' rights and conditions, union "militancy" is reduced to sloganeering or, at best, a willingness to fight the individual boss but not the class that stands against workers. Such "militancy" cannot but fall into the hands of the dominant political forces. This type of militancy is what Laborism was founded on and continues to thrive on.

Real militancy starts in the workplace, but doesn't stop there. It means a consistent and unswerving defence of all workers' rights — not just "bread and butter issues". Most of all, it means seeking to develop a political alterative that promotes the independent militant action of workers in defence of their class interests.

It is the class interests of workers that have to be defended. While a few workers might have got a job if the CFMEU leadership had not put a ban on the Old Swan Brewery, what about the Aboriginal people? They are workers too — and part of our class.

The militancy that characterises not only the CFMEU opposition ticket but a whole section of the WA union movement is fake. The measure of a militant union leadership is its willingness to organise its membership around defending the rights of all workers. A win in one shop or industry is worth little if you can't organise a fight when the Liberals try to eliminate what is left of the welfare state.
[Jorge Jorquera is the WA secretary of the Democratic Socialist Party.]