Sue Bolton, Melbourne
At a meeting of 150 unionists on February 24, Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) officials announced that they were calling a mass delegates' meeting for March 23. They anticipate an attendance of 2500 delegates. The meeting will be followed by a march through Melbourne's streets.
The speakers at the meeting lifted the lid on a debate that has been brewing in the trade union movement since last October's re-election of the Coalition over how unions should respond to the Howard government's planned attacks on unions' ability to organise.
ACTU secretary Greg Combet emphasised the need for unions to focus on "on-the-job organisation and collective bargaining on the job". Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) Victorian branch secretary Martin Kingham cautioned against unions responding to the new political environment by burying their assets and minimising activity to weather the storm. "If unions do the head-in-the-sand trick to make themselves a small target", said Kingham, "they might still have a few million dollars in the bank in a few years time but their members' conditions will be washed down the river".
He added that "whatever the challenges, we have to continue to organise collectively. The primary task is at the workplace, but don't underestimate that we need to keep our members encouraged with a message of resistance."
From the floor of the meeting, a CFMEU delegate called on trade union leaders "to start fighting now, organising mass rallies now. It's too late if we wait until the legislation is through." Another speaker said that workplace organisation was crucial but that there also needed to be combined union action nationwide.
Combet replied that a lot of workers had voted for the Howard government. "You can't believe your own bullshit" about the level of support for unions, he lectured.
He acknowledged that demonstrations were important, but then disparaged the proposal for mass protests by saying: "You will never excite widespread community support if you smash down the doors of Parliament House. We have to appeal to Australian values. There's no point having a rally and then going home and scratching our heads about what to do."
VTHC secretary Leigh Hubbard intervened in the debate to say that Combet and the CFMEU delegate had "highlighted a balancing act that we have to work out". Hubbard said that the VTHC had already called a mass delegates' meeting for March 23 and that national days of protest would be called, but that workplace organisation was the key, as Combet had outlined.
Hubbard concluded that unionists "shouldn't be under any illusion we can stop the Howard government doing what it's going to do" with mass protests. These, he added, "will be about locking the ALP into doing the right thing when it next gets elected".
Militants reject pessimistic approach
Several union leaders have told Green Left Weekly that they disagree with the negative and pessimistic approach that pervades the top echelons of much of the union movement.
Michele O'Neil, the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union's Victorian branch secretary, said that "mass protests are definitely not in contradiction to workplace organisation. We've got to be organising at every level ... Our response has to be well organised and tactical but that requires that we demonstrate public and forceful opposition in an organised way by collectively coming together and saying across the movement that we are opposed to what this government is trying to do to working people.
"It also means doing the hard work in workplaces and in neighbourhoods and in communities to make sure that the information about what these changes mean gets out. We've got to organise in the workplace, we've got to organise within our unions, across our unions, and outside our unions in the broad community to fight off these attacks.
"The way you bring about change is to make sure that people understand what's behind these changes and [organising] a strong public presence is an important part of getting a message to the government that what they're doing is unacceptable.
"I don't accept that just because the government has control of the Senate that you can't affect what they do because, at the end of the day, the government wants to stay in power. To not acknowledge that the trade union movement can exert both industrial and political power is to ignore our history."
Electrical Trades Union state secretary Dean Mighell said that "union members are looking for leadership. Members are eager to set the agenda for the long-term campaign for political change. We organise and participate in all sorts of very public demonstrations. And it is a great thing because everyone can get together with like-minded people and express their passion or belief. We've always got to express our desire for change in the most unified public way. Public rallies and public meetings with thousands and thousands of people are the ultimate expression of the country's democracy. So let's never take the emphasis off rallies.
"We support both. Of course you organise in your workplace because if you don't, you're dead. But never take your eye off the ultimate form of unity in mass rallies."
Protests to pressure ALP?
Mighell challenged the idea that the main purpose of mass protests was just to pressure the ALP to do the "right thing" when it got elected. "The whole political campaign that needs to be mounted here about workers' rights isn't party-specific, regardless of who's in government ... We've got to be campaigning for good reform always.
"Campaigning for long-term political change is part of our everyday organising activities. Any suggestion that we have to rely on the ALP to deliver a panacea to workers — well, history tells us that that's not going to happen ...
"Waiting for the ALP to get elected is tantamount to giving up the fight."
Geelong Trades and Labour Council assistant secretary and CFMEU member Tim Gooden explained that while "you've always got to have workplace organisation, if you only have workplace organisation you run the risk of workplaces feeling isolated and powerless. The ACTU's current position is to maintain what we've got by burying our heads in the sand.
"If you want to take on the federal government, then that's going to require mass organisation of all unions simultaneously and with the broader community. Each workplace, regardless of how strong it is, how large it is and what density of membership they have, isn't going to be able to sustain any of these changes that the government is proposing, without solidarity from the rest of the union movement.
"The ACTU is hoping that the Howard government will damage workers so badly that they'll have no choice but to vote for Labor at the next election. That's their strategy — not to make Labor look better than the Liberals, but to allow the Liberals to make themselves look worse than Labor.
"By the ACTU not proposing that the union movement resist the Howard government's legislation, it is saying that it is not putting any demands on a future Labor government either."
Gooden pointed out that the government won't always win. "Passing a piece of legislation is one thing. But having the political will and ability to implement it is quite another. Since 1996, all unions are meant to give 24-hours' notice for right of entry to workplaces. The most activist unions never give 24 hours' notice. The employers and governments know that if they tried to enforce the law, there'd be an industrial backlash. Where they think there won't be a backlash, they enforce the law.
"Any government, regardless of how dictatorial it is, if it thinks there's going to be a sustained public backlash, will water down its legislation or not implement it. But that requires a sustained campaign, and not just one or two demonstrations. [Previous Coalition premier] Jeff Kennett had the full force of the Victoria Police on Swanston Dock during the maritime dispute in 1998. But in the end, he wasn't able to use the police to smash up the massive community picket line because of the likely public backlash."
Kingham told GLW: "Howard's changes are striking at the very heart of how unions organise and it's absolutely vital that there be a united response of condemnation, not just for the sake of campaigning and protesting about the government's intentions. It's also about how we operate after whatever changes come in, because if the unions go into a wait-and-see mode, that's a message to rank-and-file members and activists that the resolve isn't there to combat the situation down the track.
"It's about how we encourage our members to continue to fight on in the workplace. It's very important that we're out there fighting, that there isn't a gap, a kind of limbo period. It's vital to show people in the workplaces that unions aren't running away, that we're out there doing what we do and we're going to defend it."
From Green Left Weekly, March 2, 2005.
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