Why MUA's Bob Carnegie fights ‘on the ground’

Bob Carnegie speaks at a rally against budget cuts in 2012.

The recent elections in the Maritime Union of Australia made Bob Carnegie secretary of the Queensland branch.

Carnegie is a committed socialist who has been a union, social justice and community activist in Queensland since the Joh Bjelke-Petersen era. More recently he risked prison, under the then-Campbell Newman government’s anti-union laws, leading a community campaign in defence of construction workers on the Brisbane Children’s Hospital building site.

Green Left Weekly’s Margaret Gleeson spoke to Carnegie about his plans for the union.

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Why do you think MUA members responded positively to a socialist running for Queensland State Secretary?

The positive response was because I was the only candidate who put out a platform. I was well known to the members because of my long-term activism: they knew that I wasn’t a bureaucrat and saw me as an agent for change within the branch itself.

What plans do you have to increase democratisation and participation in the union, as well as increasing union density in the industries?

On the question of democratisation, the aim is to make monthly branch meetings more welcoming to members; to provide space and time for members to speak up about their concerns. There will also be a series of conferences where workers from sites and industries can have direct input into the union.

Brisbane branch needs to be closer to rank-and-file members and part of general members’ lives, not something from above. This culture has been missing for some time. Membership has declined and there has been lower and lower attendance at branch meetings. Members need to know that the union will take up their concerns and be part of their lives generally and part of the community. In addition, all positions will be elected, not appointed from above.

In relation to union density, in workplaces where the union operates we have high density. The challenge is to include more workplaces and industries, for example, recreation and transport industries, including Brisbane ferries etc.

Wharfies and seafarers have a proud history of taking militant action to achieve better wages and conditions, as well as using their industrial strength for wider political campaigns and in solidarity with other workers in struggle. In the current context in Queensland, what industrial/political campaigns will the union take up?

Like any organisation, we draw on and gain strength from our history. However, we can’t run a modern union on this alone. We have to be change agents. We learn from our history of struggle, but we have to make our own history and defend the rights of working people everywhere. Our industries occupy a unique position in the supply chain and we can be in a position to act in solidarity with workers everywhere.

Our immediate campaign will be to take on mining giant Rio Tinto and their coastal shipping operations on the Weipa/Gladstone run. This is essentially a domestic route shipping bauxite from the Weipa mines to the refineries at Gladstone. Of the nine ships operated by Rio Tinto on this route, only four currently operate with Australian crews, employed under Australian wage rates and conditions. Historically, this route has always been crewed by Australian seafarers as it is essentially a coastal trade.

We need to recognise that we are an island nation … and that our seafarers are part of this tradition. What the MUA wants is for all work done in Australia to be performed under Australian conditions and for Australian rates of pay. It is not on for workers to be thrown onto the unemployment scrapheap because the world’s second-biggest mining company wants to employ workers from developing countries under substandard conditions and at one-tenth the pay rates of Australian workers.

The Rio Tinto campaign will be the branch’s first big blue, and is being planned with the involvement of members, the wider union movement and the community.

What is the state of the MUA and the industry nationally?

The Australian merchant fleet has collapsed over the past 12 or so years. It has gone from 60 to 14 vessels nationwide. We are in the situation now of mounting a rear-guard action to defend jobs and conditions and militant action by the rank and file will be necessary.

The Victorian branch elections, like those in Queensland, saw members voting for a change of direction. As in Queensland, workers want a union that is “on the ground”. They want their union representatives fighting for them, on the ground, on a daily basis.

This style of “on the ground” unionism has been demonstrated successfully in the WA branch. There Chris Cain has more than tripled membership with this style of unionism. In Queensland we’ll need to develop our own style, but we can certainly learn from the WA branch’s experiences.

You have recently returned from Britain. What lessons have you learnt from experiences there?

I spent some time with the Blacklist Support Group, which has been working for more than 30 years with construction workers denied work because of their union activities. They have accumulated mountains of evidence of collusion and conspiracy among corporations and police and are at the stage where major court action is to take place. What I learnt from this was the need for doggedness, keeping up the fight against all odds. To keep chipping away until eventually a crack appears and the weaknesses of our opponents can be used against them. In other words, a combination of organised forces and putting in the hard yards to bring about justice.

In Britain, however, they have not suffered the same erosion of union density as we have in Australia. I see a relationship between the drop in union membership here and union leaderships not focusing on the rank and file. This must be reversed, with the move to on-the-ground organising and making the union relevant to workers, their lives and the community as a step forward.

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