Unions must also challenge Labor

August 14, 2010
Free Ark Tribe rally, Sydney, July 20. Unions cannot campaign effectively against Abbott by glossing over Labor's record.

For many union leaders afraid of a Coalition victory on August 21, campaigning against Tony Abbott in the federal election simply means campaigning for Julia Gillard.

With a conservative win on the cards, unions have escalated their pro-ALP campaigning. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) — which has filled Labor’s coffers with more than $340,000 for the election campaign — has enlisted officials for ring-arounds in marginal seats.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has levied affiliates $1 per member, raising a further $1.8 million for electoral advertising. After three weeks of campaigning, it had spent $2.13 million on metropolitan TV and radio ads, with the Australian Nursing Federation adding $475,000 of its own.

Workers have every reason to be concerned about a Coalition victory: a triumphant Abbott would doubtlessly try to reintroduce aspects of Work Choices.

But can unions campaign effectively against Abbott by glossing over Labor’s record and the reality of its Fair Work Act (FWA)?

Unfortunately, in their desperation to build support for Labor, most unions are being dishonest about its industrial relations record.

For example, the ACTU executive’s pre-election resolution lists “protection from unfair dismissal for all workers” as a gain under Labor. But most workers in small businesses for less than a year have no right to appeal against unfair dismissal.

Another supposed gain is protection of delegates who exercise their workplace rights. But any union official who leaves the office desk knows union activists are regularly targeted and sacked.

Many hail Labor’s Fair Work Australia as a return to collective bargaining. Some FWA provisions do force the boss to negotiate. But this law also gives employers an arsenal of weapons to frustrate bargaining and no obligation on them to reach an agreement.

The right to strike remains one of the most restricted in any developed country and violates International Labor Organisation standards.

Workplace minister Simon Crean told the ACTU executive that there would be no “second tranche” of workplace reforms if Labor wins. It would also reintroduce legislation — blocked by the Coalition in the Senate — to replace the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), which targets building unions, with a similar body with “coercive powers”.

Labor’s only carrot for unions is its “Fair Entitlements Guarantee”, covering workers in businesses that go broke. This revamped version of the Coalition’s scheme significantly increases the guarantee to four weeks of redundancy pay per year of work.

A welcome reform, even if it comes too late for thousands hurt by the global financial crisis.

A number of unions have broken ranks. The Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), which disaffiliated from the ALP earlier this year, is backing the Greens, as is the Victorian United Firefighters Union.

The Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union is calling for a Green vote in the Senate, citing the ABCC and the charges against shop steward Ark Tribe. But the CFMEU has also contributed funds to Labor’s campaign and is backing Labor candidates in the House of Representatives.

The argument that unions need to support Labor to keep the Coalition out is most plausible in marginal seats where the contest is between Labor and Coalition. It loses all punch in ALP-Green marginals such as Melbourne, where Greens candidate Adam Bandt came within 4.7% of winning in 2007.

Bandt, a former lawyer well-known for his work defending workers and unions, is standing again, facing ex-ACTU official Cath Bowtell.

Reflecting the polarisation within the unions, the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s August meeting hosted presentations from Bandt and Bowtell. In discussion, Victorian ETU secretary Dean Mighell asked the ALP candidate if she would be prepared to break Labor caucus discipline and speak publicly on issues of concern to unions.

Bowtell said she would make a judgement about “the most effective way to achieve reform ... sometimes you will get reform working quietly and sometimes speaking publicly.”

Bandt replied, “the ALP caucus is where progressive voices go to be silenced”.

Despite the Greens’ record in moving for the full abolition of Work Choices and the ABCC, some unions have gone into overdrive to support Bowtell. The ACTU has also approached affiliates seeking access to their membership data to allow a “cold-calling” campaign.

The Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, Community and Public Sector Union and Australian Services Union have donated funds, staff time and office space. Left-wing unions such as the Maritime Union of Australia and AMWU are also reported to be assisting.

Responding to an ACTU request for membership data, Dean Mighell told the August 3 Australian: “I just question the judgment of the ACTU on a whole range of matters, given the Greens policy on industrial relations is far more favourable to Australian workers than the ALP’s, yet the ACTU issues a call to arms to support that party.”

On August 10, Crikey.com reported that CFMEU national president Dave Noonan said “a Bandt victory in Melbourne was a ‘zero sum game’ in terms of worker rights because it did nothing to keep Tony Abbott out of power”.

This is nonsense. A Greens victory in Melbourne wouldn’t deliver government to Abbott, but it would deliver an MP able to speak out against the ABCC — which all unions say they oppose.

Urging workers to put Abbott last would have been part of any serious union campaign at this election. But glossing over the reality of Labor in government only helps breed cynicism, confusion and disengagement.

Such a mood can let the Coalition back in and allows Labor to get away with its own anti-worker policies.

By contrast, if the Greens win the Senate balance of power at this poll, a returned Labor government will have to publicly block with the Coalition to keep anti-worker laws in place.

Unions have a duty to be honest with members. When workers fully understand Labor’s failure to deliver, they are hardly likely to vote for more punishment under Abbott.

They will look for other parties to support, those — like socialists and Greens — that really do defend our rights at work.

[Tim Gooden is a Socialist Alliance member and Geelong Trades Hall Council secretary. Written in a personal capacity.]

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