In the lead up to and following the announcement of the plebiscite, now survey, on changing the Marriage Act, unions have played a prominent role in promoting and resourcing the Yes campaign.
Senior union officials have been speakers at rallies, there have been large union contingents at protest marches and unions — especially peak bodies such as Victorian Trades Hall Council and the Australian Council of Trade Unions — have been providing infrastructure to help build the capacity for the campaign to ensure maximum participation and support for the Yes side.
This strong position in support of marriage equality has attracted criticism from some union members as both a distraction from the “core business” of unions — wages and conditions — and as a failure by unions to “respect the views of members who are opposed to marriage equality”.
However, support by unions for marriage equality is consistent with long traditions within the labour movement of solidarity with oppressed and marginalised communities, and in support of democratic rights — approaches that help to build and strengthen the capacity of the union movement to win improvements for members, not just on the job, but throughout society.
Examples of the kinds of criticisms that unions supporting marriage equality have received can be seen on a recent post on the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union’s (CFMEU) Construction & General Division’s Facebook page of an email to the union by a member.
The email was from a gay CFMEU member thanking the union for taking a strong position in support of marriage equality and for organising a toolbox discussion around the issue on their worksite. It also raised concerns about the homophobic behaviour by some workmates during the discussion.
At the time of writing, this post has been shared 204 times and had attracted 123 comments. While the vast majority of these comments have been positive, there have been negative commenters who argue that the CFMEU’s support for marriage equality is a distraction from the union achieving improvements in wages and conditions for members and a violation of the rights of those members who do not support marriage equality.
These criticisms are not new and reflect a conservative view of unionism in which the role of the union in the lives of its members starts and finishes at the entrance to the workplace and unions should not seek to mobilise its members and resources on broader political questions.
The current Marriage Act and the No campaign are having a negative impact on the working lives of LGBTI union members. The act denies these union members of fundamental rights and the “debate” around the survey is contributing to a toxic culture where a section of society feel justified in vilifying LGBTI people in the street and in the workplace.
This alone is a strong basis for unions to support their members and push for marriage equality as it is the embodiment of the core union tenant that “an injury to one is an injury to all”.
Moreover as, CFMEU South Australia branch secretary Aaron Cartlege said in his address to the marriage equality rally in Adelaide: “Why does the CFMEU back the Yes vote? I'll tell you why we back the Yes vote ... for 15 years we’ve been campaigning because we’re discriminated against on building sites with draconian laws that target our members every day.
“How can we be calling for ‘one law for all’ and then have a different view when it comes to this?"
The conservative vision of unionism runs counter to the long tradition within Australian unionism, particularly within left unions such as the CFMEU, which sees the union movement as having a vital role to play in building a better world for all workers.
This vision has seen Australian unions actively campaign around issues affecting working people globally: opposition to conscription; refusing to load pig iron destined for the Japanese war machine that had invaded China; refusing to load Dutch ships in support of the Indonesian national liberation struggle; supporting striking Aboriginal pastoral workers and the struggle of Aboriginal land rights; opposition to South African Apartheid; green bans on developments that robbed communities of environmental and cultural heritage; opposition to Australian involvement in the Vietnam war and the Iraq war; in support of the East Timorese liberation struggle; and in support of the right of refugees to claim asylum in Australia, to name just a few.
These campaigns did not lead directly to improved wages and conditions on the job — but they contributed to the mobilising capacity of unions both on and off the job and helped to build respect within the broader community for the central role that unions play in building a socially just and liveable planet.
For all these reasons marriage equality is union business.
[Lisbeth Latham is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]