PM John Howard and ALP leader Kevin Rudd have both attacked Unions NSW secretary John Robertson for comments, secretly recorded and leaked to the media, made at a Bennelong Your Rights at Work meeting in late June.
Robertson stated that he would be happy to "pull Kevin Rudd on once he's prime minister" on industrial relations after the federal election. A few days later, in the July 2 Age, he repeated his comments, saying, "We will campaign as a union movement against any government that's not looking after the best interests of working families".
Howard accused Robertson of putting Rudd "on notice" that he was expecting payback for his efforts in securing him his current job as leader of the ALP. Rudd responded by buying into Howard's "union bully boy" attack, saying that Robertson's comments were "plain unacceptable" and that he should "go and take a cold shower".
Rudd also made it plain where decisions are going to be made in the ALP on IR policy: "I'm the leader of the federal parliamentary party and I decide ultimately what goes in by way of policy and how we implement that policy should we be elected to government", he was quoted by the Age as saying.
What Robertson's comments shroud is the key challenge for the union movement now. It isn't just about keeping Labor to its promises: it's about waging a serious fight to get the ALP to commit to basic reforms such as the repeal of all of Work Choices, and the other anti-worker laws.
The two petition campaigns, recently released by Unions NSW and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), illustrate that the ALP-dominated leaderships of these union organisations do not go far enough in their demand that the party commit to restoring the rights of working people, particularly the right to strike (an internationally recognised human right).
This is because under a Rudd government strikes would only be protected during bargaining for a new collective agreement, industrial action in support of pattern bargaining would not be allowed and secret ballots would still be mandatory before industrial action could be taken.
The ACTU petition for "A decent working future for all Australian workers" calls on Rudd and the federal ALP to "continue to fight for Australian working families who have had their wages and conditions cut and their job security undermined because of the Howard government's
unfair IR laws".
The Unions NSW petition does not even call for the internationally recognised right of working people to strike to be enshrined in law, for the removal of compulsory secret ballots before taking industrial action (which slows down and bureaucratises the process and gives employers time to prepare with scab labour and stockpiling of materials) and for the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) to be dismantled immediately.
Compare these to the petition circulating among members of the Australian Workers Union in Victoria that calls on the union to redirect funds away from the ALP to pro-worker parties such as the Greens and the Socialist Alliance.
A Socialist Alliance-initiated petition calls on the ACTU and regional trades and labour councils to organise a nationwide protest action before the federal election. It also calls for all of Work Choices to scrapped, the abolition of all AWAs (individual contracts), for the right to strike be enshrined the law and for the ABCC be dismantled immediately.
Action, not just words, is needed to defeat Work Choices, and workers need a union movement which is politically independent of the two major parties.
The ALP's record in government should convince us why an active, politically independent campaign for workers' rights and in defence of unions is necessary not just in the lead-up to, but also after the federal election.
The union movement can't measure its progress in defeating the anti-worker laws by whether Rudd, or any hand-picked ALP candidate, has become the beneficiary of the party's factional deals. Rudd's revealing comments on the role of the ALP's parliamentary wing and himself as leader in setting IR policy illustrates that the party is not democratically run and cannot be trusted to govern in workers' interests.
The only way the ALP will repeal Work Choices and scrap all anti-worker laws is if it is forced to by a strong campaign driven by the organised labour movement and that is independent of the ALP's narrow electoral interests.
[The authors are active unionists and members of the Socialist Alliance in Sydney. To download a copy of the Socialist Alliance-initiated petition visit alliance.org/resources/Petition_irnda07.pdf.]