Unions, the ALP and the Socialist Alliance



On the evening of the NSW Labor Council's failed June 19 blockade of state parliament over the state ALP government's gutting of workers' compensation, the Socialist Alliance office received four or five phone calls from rank-and-file unionists. They had been involved in the blockade and had read the Socialist Alliance leaflet calling for statewide industrial action.

The conversations all went like this:

"What do you people think of the Labor Party?"

"Well, these workers' compensation cuts prove again that Labor can get away with attacks that the Liberals would be scared to mount."

"Sure, but will you give them your preferences?"

"Before the Liberals, yes."

"Fuck 'em, they're worse than the Libs."

This violent reaction against Labor wasn't coming from the mouths of traditionally left-wing or militant unionists. These were all workers from what used to be the stable jobs-for-life sections of the NSW state public service, for decades an important part of the support base of the dominant right wing on the NSW union scene.

Since Neville Wran's Labor government started to apply the privatisation and deregulation recipe in NSW in the late 1970s — to be carried on by Barrie Unsworth in the 1980s and now by Bob Carr — workers like these have seen the old pool of stable government jobs continue to shrink.

The old perspective of a job for life with which to buy a house and bring up a family has been destroyed, as has the once sizeable pool of state-sponsored apprenticeships. In the country towns of NSW this dismantling of the old public sector has devastated society and people's livelihoods.

The Carr government's attack on workers' compensation has been felt as the last straw. After two decades of deregulation and privatisation — each step of which has been accompanied by waffle from Labor ministers about pain producing gain — this latest attack has driven the truth home: there is no light at the end of the tunnel, just more tunnel.

It's this mood that explains why conservative, "old faithful" unions (and parts of unions, such as the northern NSW branch of the Australian Workers Union) are now disaffiliating from the NSW branch of the Labor Party. For tens of thousands of unionists, the ALP is no longer "ours". It's been taken over by lawyers and arrogant little nerds like Bob Carr and is beyond salvation. Carr's insolent victory salute at the blockading workers outside Parliament House on June 19 symbolised it all.

When the union ranks get a chance to say what they think about affiliation to the ALP, there's no doubt about the mood. The recent 800-4 vote for disaffiliation by the NSW firefighters would be repeated across the board if the mass of union members were given the opportunity to discuss and decide the issue.

What is preventing a wholesale desertion by the unions from the ALP is the still-significant fact that most unions are run by ALP members, and they aren't about to let any rank-and-file democracy upset their apple cart. However, they can't simply ignore the mood among "their" members. This is one reason why many unions' campaigns for the forthcoming federal election are being pitched, not as efforts to re-elect the ALP, but as a grass-roots push to support "pro-union" candidates in decisive marginal seats.

What next?

But what next? It's one thing for a union to drop the ALP, but with what perspective? For some union leaderships it's clear that disaffiliation and withholding dues from Labor is basically a pressure tactic. The message is that if a certain policy or leader is axed they will come back into the family fold. There's nothing particularly new about this approach — in the toolkit of ALP factionalism it's been used by all groupings for a hundred years.

However, today this tactical lever shifts a lot less than in the past. That's because Labor governments can't promise very much to the ranks of unionists and at the same time obey the dictates of capitalist competitiveness. So the message from Labor is not repeal of the GST or of the accumulated heap of anti-union laws. Instead, it gives us noisy anti-Howard rhetoric and gumpf about a "knowledge nation".

In this context, even if the union tops themselves wanted to rejoin the ALP family they have precious little with which to convince the ranks that there's any gain to be had from coming in from the cold. This is all the more true because the great, historic argument for sticking with Labor ("Mate, we can't leave it all to the right wing") has worn paper thin. After 20 years in which the "left" in state Labor governments has dutifully voted for every bit of deregulation and privatisation it has become indistinguishable from the right for the mass of unionists.

Socialist Alliance

The recent formation of the Socialist Alliance further complicates the political calculus for the ALP-aligned union tops. Already many unionists — including delegates, organisers and officials — have joined the alliance. While no union has as yet sought affiliation, it's only a matter of time before the issue gets onto the agenda. The number of straws in the wind is increasing:

  • In the Victorian branch of one union the officials recently visited their organisers with a view to persuading them to join the ALP. Most obliged, but a minority declared outright that they were joining Socialist Alliance — not a smart career move.

  • A number of union officials have come out in clear support for the Socialist Alliance. Typical is Penny Shakespeare, the president of the ACT branch of the Community and Public Sector Union. According to Shakespeare: "Socialist Alliance supports the right to strike, to picket effectively and to take industrial action in solidarity with other workers. For the first time in decades, public servants can vote for a party committed to our interests as public servants and to the interests of the public we serve. I encourage all CPSU members to join, support and vote for the Socialist Alliance."

  • The Victorian branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union recently greeted the formation of the Socialist Alliance and has invited representatives of the alliance to address delegates' meetings to explain the alliance's policies.

The alliance itself is still to formulate a detailed policy on the issue of union affiliation. Its first move has been to send a letter to all unions, asking to be able to explain the Socialist Alliance approach to union members, delegates and officials. The letter states that the alliance would like to discuss ways in which unions could include Socialist Alliance material in union journals and "specifically for the Socialist Alliance to be included in any surveys, questionnaires, meetings and coverage of federal election issues".

For Socialist Alliance members, probably the most important aspect of the issue of union affiliation is how it is discussed and decided. Here is a vital question which has to be thoroughly discussed by the union ranks. Indeed, the gathering trend to disaffiliation from the ALP provides an extremely precious opportunity for a broad-based discussion about the kind of political representation the union movement really needs now that it's clear that Labor is as enslaved to neo-liberalism as the Coalition parties.

Is there still any point to battling away inside the ALP? If not, should unions just give up on political representation? Or should they decide their political support on a case-by-case, election-by-election, basis, as with the Victorian Electrical Trades Union's support for the Greens in the present Melbourne City Council elections? Should unions look to build a new political organisation of their own?

Such questions are too important to be left to gatherings of officials or even of delegates, especially in unions where the alienation of the mass of members from "the union" is near total. Indeed, this critical debate is today linked in with the basic struggle to rebuild the unions as fighting instruments of the members. It is impossible to revive them simply on the basis of a more militant industrial policy or greater rank-and-file involvement, critical though these questions are.

The emergence of the Socialist Alliance is an important factor in the struggle to reconstruct the decrepit and moribund union movement that subordination to the ALP has helped create in this country. It enables the question, "What political alternative do working people need?", to be posed in many more arenas and more sharply than ever before. Rest assured that the alliance will be driving that debate with all the energy at its command.

[Dick Nichols is a member of the Democratic Socialist Party national executive and an acting national convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]