Is the ACTU giving up on the fight?

September 7, 2005

Dick Nichols

What is ACTU secretary Greg Combet up to? On August 23 he addressed the Australian Industry Group (AIG), the umbrella organisation for the major manufacturing and construction bosses, and the main business organisation behind the federal Coalition government's bill aimed at taming the building industry unions.

Combet told his corporate audience, "the government is proposing to give the business community all of the aces in its new industrial relations system", but then pleaded with them to consider "a fair deal, a genuine democratic choice for workers".

But why would any Australian corporation heed a plea to show "respect for working people, not treating them as pawns in a big picture economic game"? In his speech, Combet actually touched on why this is highly unlikely: "The government's strategy is a market-based approach, and obviously the market conditions in a particular industry will have an important role to play in how employees will fare in this system ... This will ultimately be the case even in the most cooperative of workplaces, where the employer might be the nicest person with the best of motives towards employees.

"In a competitive environment, particularly when the safety net has been reduced and weakened, it will only take one business to take advantage of the new rules and others will be commercially compelled to follow."

In other words, it's survival of the fittest out there and the "fittest" are those who can squeeze "their" workers the most. For example, US retail monster Wal-Mart has become the largest corporation in the world by maintaining a strict non-union shop and having all workers on individual contracts. If it entered Australia, Coles and Woolworths would be forced to follow the Wal-Mart path.

In this dog-eat-dog world, corporate Australia won't refuse the "aces" that Howard's new industrial relations laws will hand them ... unless they are made to realise that the price is too high.

Combet told the AIG that "a system based upon an unfair imbalance of power in the workplace is not sustainable". Why not? If Howard and his corporate backers manage to impose their laws and destroy any union that challenges them they will have imposed an "unfair balance of power", which will be sustainable for as long as it takes the smashed trade union movement to recover. In New Zealand, this is still the case 14 years after the implementation of the Employment Contracts Act (and six years after its repeal).

Remarkably, Combet's speech contained only one threat — "this government will not last forever". But the prospect of an ALP federal government is unlikely to have made the AIG affiliates break out in a cold sweat! They know how to read the ALP leadership's refusal to commit to fully repeal Howard's anti-worker laws — if these help Australian business profits without endangering social calm they'll stay.

Retreat before battle

The core of Combet's speech was an attempt to tempt AIG hearts and minds with an alternative that isn't yet ACTU policy — workplace voting on whether collective bargaining or individual contracts are to apply.

Combet said: "If we are to have a radically diminished safety net and a freer labour market for the setting of wages and employment conditions, it's time that the pros and cons of such an approach were debated in Australia". Suddenly the ACTU secretary was talking about "a radically diminished safety net and a freer labour market" not as the enemy plan but as a fact of life! After all, Combet seemed to think out loud, if such an approach applies in "our closest cultural, political and economic allies" (Britain, Canada and the US), sooner or later it must apply here.

This forgets one small point — the situation in Britain, US and New Zealand is the end result of brutal defeats of the union movement imposed by the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. And, as Combet himself said, "they are not ideal systems from a union standpoint, particularly the US laws, which have been significantly weakened over the years by extensive litigation, extremist employers, anti-union governments, and conservative courts".

Despite the Bob Hawke Labor government's crushing of the Builders Labourers Federation and the airline pilots' union in the 1980s, this is not yet the situation in Australia. Here, a range of militant unions have — through pattern bargaining, which uses the weight of strong workplaces for the benefit of all — neutralised the disintegrating effect of the enterprise bargaining system.

Combet's offer to the AIG is actually a thinly disguised attack on pattern bargaining. It proposes retreat without struggle from positions that the more militant sections of the trade union movement have been able to win.

Such a capitulation would lead to severe demoralisation among unionists and a further weakening of the union movement. After all, it is precisely unions like the CFMEU — a key player in the fight against Howard — that have been able to demonstrate through pattern bargaining that there is a point to workers belonging to a union.

Why did Combet get to this point? Because he shares the outlook of the AIG that "Australia", bosses and workers alike, has no choice but to compete on the economic battleground of global capitalism. As he said: "Workplace bargaining is not new. The ACTU supports it. We accept that it is important in an open trading economy, and we recognise how vital it is to productivity and competitiveness."

Now what?

What does Combet's AIG speech mean for the crucial stage that the fight against Howard's anti-worker laws is now entering? Was the ACTU secretary musing out loud or is this the ACTU's strategic thinking? Or was it conceived as a tactical feint, designed to prove in the coming fight that the ACTU is prepared to compromise but was reluctantly forced into battle by an intransigent, "ideologically motivated" prime minister?

The signs are not good. In the wake of the outpouring of worker anger in late June and early July, the ACTU has postponed the next round of mobilisations until November, after the legislation is introduced to parliament. Moreover, it is trying to push the Unions NSW model of "mobilisation" — passive Sky Channel meetings where we will be told how awful the legislation is and then sent home to talk to our neighbours and workmates without so much as a march or rally to demonstrate our anger.

There's also precious little sense that the ACTU is preparing any sort of industrial action, even while saying that this "is not excluded".

The only force that can counteract the ACTU's seeming drift towards surrender is the militant section of the union movement. It was the militant Victorian unions that got the campaign ball rolling late last year, forcing the ACTU and more conservative labour councils into action that many didn't even think was possible at first.

Now the ball is back in the militant unions' court. The mass delegates' meetings in Victoria on September 7 and Western Australia on September 13 are critically important in providing a lead for the campaign, including properly prepared industrial action and support for any union that comes under attack from Howard's laws.

Corporate "respect" for workers will only increase when employers faces a real prospect of ongoing industrial action and mass social protest. That has been the central lesson of every campaign for workers' rights in Australia's history.

[Dick Nichols is the managing editor of Seeing Red, whose latest issue is devoted to the Howard government's industrial relations legislation.]

From Green Left Weekly, September 7, 2005.
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