Unionists discuss strategy for fight back

March 4, 1998


Unionists discuss strategy for fight back

By Michael Bull

MELBOURNE — "What strategy and tactics for unions today?" was the title of a timely forum sponsored by Green Left Weekly and the Democratic Socialist Party on February 24.

The speakers were Craig Johnston, an Australian Manufacturing Workers Union organiser and candidate for the Workers First ticket in the forthcoming AMWU elections; John Cleary, state organiser for the Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union; and Dick Nichols, trade union coordinator for the Democratic Socialist Party.

Johnston spoke about why Workers First was formed and what it hoped to achieve. When he joined the AMWU as an apprentice in 1977, he had thought it a great union, with big mass meetings and real discussion and debate among delegates. It had active local branches and campaigned around broader social issues such as uranium mining.

The adoption of the Accord in 1983 began a period of decline. At first there was some debate, but increasingly the new versions of the Accord were pushed through over the heads of the union membership.

Local branches were closed down. AMWU leaders began to talk about productivity rather than workers' rights. Today the officials have "nothing in common with the members" and need to be replaced by "rank-and-file members who have shown commitment".

Johnston advocated moving away from enterprise bargaining and towards industry-wide campaigns. While some strongly unionised areas had made gains through enterprise bargaining, the majority had lost, and solidarity had been eroded.

Johnston spoke of the need to educate union members, around both industrial issues and broader political questions such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. He advocated restoring autonomous local branches, which should have sufficient funding to get involved in local community campaigns.

As for anti-union industrial laws, "Any union official should be prepared to go to jail if necessary. I mean, it would be an honour!"

John Cleary spoke about a number of disputes the ETU had been involved in where the union had successfully defied anti-union laws, including at Solaris, Citipower and ACI.

These disputes were not won in the courts but in struggle. At ACI, 1000 workers from neighbouring plants came to the picket line at a crucial point in the struggle.

Cleary also described the need to build a political campaign to support the Maritime Union of Australia in its present fight with the federal government, Patrick and the National Farmers Federation. "They might win this round industrially, but there will always be a further round", Cleary stressed.

Dick Nichols said that, with rare exceptions, the union movement was in retreat. Even worse than the declining conditions and wages was the ideological retreat — the loss of the idea that the working class has its own separate interests and must pursue its own solutions to its problems and those of society at large.

He said that the maritime dispute is crucial: "If the MUA is defeated the present retreat will become a rout". He agreed with Cleary that the wharfies' dispute could not be won solely industrially, or without breaking the industrial law.

However, a successful MUA campaign could also be a starting point for rebuilding a broader fighting left wing in the union movement. Such a current would fight for an end to enterprise bargaining and restoration of wages lost under the Accord, a shorter working week and the repeal of all anti-union laws.

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