Supporters of workers’ rights breathed a big sigh of relief when the Coalition’s union-busting Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2019 failed to pass in the Senate after One Nation leader Pauline Hanson changed her position at the last minute.
It is fair to say that we dodged a bullet, all the more so because the circumstances of this let-off reveals a serious strategic and political weakness in the union movement.
Hanson has consistently voted for the Coalition’s attacks on our rights and quality of life. She is no friend of working people, be they farmers, unionised workers or those of us that depend on welfare payments. Nonetheless, a section of her support base are people who have been suckered into thinking that a vote for One Nation is a protest against “the system”.
A 2016 Australian Electorate Study showed that 88.2% of One Nation voters think that “big business is too powerful”, ahead of Greens and Labor Party voters on 85.8% and 86% respectively.
Meanwhile, 35.3% agreed with the proposition that “unions are too powerful”, more than the 25% of Greens voters, but less than 37% of ALP voters.
Not surprisingly, 79.2% of Liberal voters agreed with the statement.
As we know too well, Hanson simply channels people’s anger by pandering to their prejudices and encouraging them to beat up on those in an even weaker position.
Hanson is a died-in-the-wool racist bigot, a complete charlatan and certainly not the sharpest tool in the shed. However, even she realised that siding with the Liberals to belt unions in the middle of the Westpac money laundering scandal would be a little too risky.
Had the timing been different, you can be certain she would have thrown unions under a bus. The Coalition will come back for another go in 2020, and we are likely to see (at least) Hanson’s change of heart.
Conservative Tasmanian independent Jacquie Lambi also revealed her crass opportunism. Her opening gambit was to insist that she would vote against the legislation unless Victorian Construction Forestry Maritime Mining and Energy Union secretary John Setka resigned — as if the rights of millions of workers should be traded off against one union official.
Lambie wanted to be seen to be punishing Setka. But like Hanson, she could not follow through, learning the hard way that you should never make a threat you are not prepared to carry out.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and unions focused its energy on lobbying Hanson, Lambie and the other cross-benchers. While there is nothing wrong with bombarding MPs with emails and phone calls, the weakness of the unions’ efforts was shown up by the lack of an industrial and community campaign in workplaces and on the streets.
Nothing builds public support for unions — and puts pressure on the waverers in parliament — more than a mass campaign. Furthermore, it is the only thing we can rely on in the event that the legislation does get passed.
Anti-union laws, even those in force, can be defeated through a campaign of mass education and mass defiance.
The Your Rights at Work campaign mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, even if the ACTU made a concerted attempt to herd it into an uncritical support for then-Labor leader Kevin Rudd in 2007.
There was none of that this time around, putting the union movement in a very vulnerable position.
After the Senate vote ACTU President Michelle O’Neil declared: “We want to acknowledge and thank the support of the Labor Party, the Greens, Jacqui Lambie and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation”. This gives Lambie and Hanson too much credit and inflates the idea that they are important players.
But, it goes deeper.
Much of the union leadership is now afraid to directly contradict these MPs’ racism, worried about putting them offside and aware that some members vote for them.
The short-sighted decision to urge a vote for Bob Katter in Queensland during the federal election is another example of this defeatist approach.
This problem has its roots in the fact that most of the union leadership is so beholden to the Labor Party that it has never seriously challenged the nearly two-decade bi-partisan “Stop the Boats” fear-mongering — the very thing that nourishes Hanson.
This racism has been whipped up for the exact purpose of dividing and confusing workers: challenging it should be first base. But much of the union movement seems to have simply accepted Hanson and her racism as part of the political furniture, rather than recognizing it as a dagger aimed at its heart.
The fact that some unionists vote for One Nation is not a strength or point of leverage for unions. It is a sign of their weakness and, if not confronted, is a stepping stone towards their destruction by the right.
The antidote to Hanson is not Labor’s Anthony Albanese. While she is a product of bi-partisan support for neoliberalism, Labor's lurch even further to the right under Albanese's leadership will drive more workers into the arms of the far-right snake oil merchants.
Instead, we need an independent union movement that mobilises people in their own self-defence. This is the only way to create a genuine anti-capitalist voice in Australian politics.
[Sam Wainwright is a former member of the Maritime Union of Australia, a Socialist Alliance Western Australia co-convenor and a councillor of the City of Fremantle.]