Where to now for unions and the Anti-Labour Party?

June 8, 2007

The ALP deserves to be re-badged the "Anti-Labour Party" as historian Humphrey McQueen suggests, and the ALP's public dressing down and forced resignation of Victorian Electrical Trade Union (ETU) secretary Dean Mighell reinforces this view.

We have now, by default, a bipartisan national government, a parliamentary system, that in effect, acts unilaterally for big business interests.

The dilemma Labor leader Kevin Rudd's election strategists have is that they know IR is solidifying their vote but not enough to guarantee them the necessary victory in the marginals. As the days roll on towards election day, more of us are realising that the Coalition-ALP cabal have more in common than not. Both are united in their belief that it is workers and unions that are, ultimately, their most difficult political problem.

Being sprung, and the exposure of just how comfortable and cosy the ALP is with business, caused Rudd's embarrassment. Such public "conflicts" of interest with these bedfellows are class and social divisions made personal. However, the real conflicts of interest are ours with them: the 60-odd per cent of us who have always opposed the Coalition's Work Choices counter-reforms, and, increasingly, the ALP's variations upon that theme.

Mighell was recorded expressing a fundamental truth for workers. First and foremostm strength is unity, and organising is our best defence. Workers know that pursuing "fairness" in the workplace often requires the "hot" language of class hatred.

After all, employers will rarely pay you more than they have to, and how much they pay you will depend on your bargaining power. That this offends the ALP leadership's thin-lipped sensibilities, ones that have more in common with the façade of the boardroom and the pulpit, speaks volumes about their values.

Like any number of unions, the ETU, apart from organising workers, supports and initiates a number of necessary social welfare programs. Filling the cracks of inequity and injustice created by the demands of the capitalist economic system is the grist of union work. Standing up to employers and corporations that are ever seeking ways to increase the rates of our exploitation requires that the stick be bent.

The gentility of the ALP's deputy, appealing against "union bullying" by "union bosses" is the ALP purging itself of our most effective industrial unions. Only organised workers are capable of standing up to the organising forces of capital.

Julia Gillard has reaffirmed the ALP's opposition to pattern bargaining — this strategy of industry-wide negotiations for wages and conditions draws on the strength that it garnered through unified action. The evidence suggests that women and young people have the most to lose. Is there a concern with big business' auxiliaries such as the shop distributors' union?

The driving force behind the ALP is to win elections at any cost and then, true to past form, appeasing the concerns of the most powerful members of organised business by uniting with them to bully ordinary working people. Will we see our "friend" Rudd run off to find a photo opportunity with a "union boss" and have it splashed across Murdoch's mass media?

Global corporations and their national counterparts and organisations, such as the Business Council of Australia, are the organising force behind the current government's IR counter-reforms. The Coalition government, and its loyal "opposition", are combining in action to put the unions down.

Two examples suffice. By enforcing, with penal powers, the secret ballot over our right to strike and the retaining of the building industry tribunal, who through its star chamber methods, has redefined, or better, exposed the limits of "truth and justice" under their laws.

The combined efforts by these two political parties of anti-worker counter-reforms, along with the assistance of their business associates, are all working to frustrate the organising efforts of workers on the shop floor.

The ALP's "Work Choices lite" has raised the slogan of fairness. Diminishing our hopes, the Australian Council of Trade Unions' (ACTU) Rights at Work campaign has also degenerated into farce as it attempts to sell the ALP as a "fair" option.

The "lesser of two evils" is an oft repeated response to any suggestion of the hopelessness of relying on the ALP's and the ACTU's attempts to redress three decades of social, political and industrial counter-reforms through the ballot box.

The ALP's IR proposals are up there with the Fine Cotton scandal — a case of substitution and subterfuge. The majority of us, who have nothing but our capacity to work — selling our labour power to the employers — cannot afford to believe that the current political arrangements on offer are in anyway intended to benefit us.

We have no other alternative but to organise ourselves, in our own interests, and those of our children's children, just as generations before us have had to do. The ALP has made its position clear. It is time for unionists, and all of us who care about achieving and defending equity, justice and solidarity, to start building a social movement that represents our most immediate needs in regards to health, education and housing. But we will have to do something about those who purport to be on our side.

[Peter Curtis is an Australian Education Union activist in Victoria.]

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