Workers’ political organisations

After the Waterfront – the workers are quiet has discussed the broad trends in the Australian labour movement within a context of dwindling socialist ideas and organisations. We have argued that the historic mission of the Australian Labor Party has been the modernising of capitalism in moments of crisis, and subsumed workers’ interests into the so-called national interest, thus thwarting attempts to achieve socialism, specifically worker control of production.

We have shown how the ALP-style approach has been used by the union leadership to manage class conflict. The net outcome, we argue is a gradual slide in workers’ conditions and a retreat from the socialist aspirations once held as a fundamental tenet by workers’ organisations. Alternative approaches to workers’ struggle were also discussed, with historic examples provided, showing that on occasions when alternative approaches were adopted, far from being utopian, they delivered better outcomes for workers and contributed to the developing strength of the trade union movement in the early and middle years of the twentieth century. Yet the organisations of that period carried their own weaknesses, which were later exploited by a class determined to roll back any advance that the working class had made, in order to maintain their wealth and power.

So, where to from here?

For those who maintain their socialist aspirations the challenge seems daunting. The demise of the Communist Party of Australia, and the shift of those who had been active in the New Left into ‘issue politics’ meant that there are no organised formations of the political left that have any significant leverage within the organised workers’ movement. Those with an uncompromising class perspective have been pushed to the extreme margins of workers’ struggle.

A generational shift has compounded the problem. Many of those militant unionists who cut their teeth in struggles of a previous epoch retired, and became increasingly out of touch with the day-to-day state of the working class. Younger militants joined environmental organisations and fought for peace and the rights of refugees, but strangely kept their distance from union organisation. There was no counterweight to those individuals from Labor families who sought personal gain and advancement through the union movement, convinced of their own working class credentials; they mistakenly viewed their advancement as a legitimate substitute for the advancement of the class as a whole.

With the failure of the radical left to engage seriously with Australian workers and their organisations the Australian union movement, the gap between socialist ideas and unions engaged in day-to-day struggle widened. Unions became part of a romantic narrative that increasingly had taken hold in the left. They took on a distant and elusive character, idealised into a static mythical past, but in their current state seen as a corrupted shadow of their former selves. Yet we have shown that the dynamic within the union movement, between leaders and members, between progressives and conservative elements has characterised the whole history of the movement and that the present is a particular moment in this dynamic relationship. That is to say, the debate to which we have contributed has been going on for well over a century, and will continue to inform working class struggle, with all its ups and downs for some time to come.

In the early years of the twenty-first century the conservative trend within the labour movement has been ameliorated by some militants within the workforce who have taken up the challenge of becoming active within their unions. However they face many hurdles including:

  • the mistrust of fellow unionists who are ALP members, particularly those in the union hierarchy who are deeply involved in ALP machinations, preselections and electioneering, (and intent on containing their members aspirations to a Labor victory);

  • the indifference of fellow workers who are not interested in their politics;

  • the bemusement of other active unionists who try and ignore them (except when they offer useful left cover); and,

  • the lack of rank-and-file structures which allow them to engage directly with workers on the job.

While the prospect for worker organisation is limited, however, out of the contradiction of master and servant (boss/worker) comes conflict. When workers take action to advance their own interests, there is an opportunity to link with other workers engaged in similar industrial disputes. We argue that as the political nature of workers struggle emerges there is a need for new structures or organisation to take workers out of the bureaucratic framework that confines unions today. A new possibility may be realised — workers’ political organisation.

Workers’ political organisations (WPOs) have significant historical precedents in Queensland, inasmuch as they successfully laid the foundation of labour organisation in the early part of the 20th century. For example workers’ political organisations in Rockhampton, Fitzroy and Ipswich were the vehicle for taking workers into the ALP. Similarly the women workers’ political organisation, under the leadership of Emma Miller sought political representation in state and federal parliaments, and the promotion of the interests of women in the body politic. Grass roots organisation leading up to the federal election of December 1903 were aimed at achieving these aims. Their activities included three mock elections, public meetings distribution of leaflets and door-to-door canvassing, and visits to women in factories and workshops.

Subsequently we have seen the formation of many organisations that might be characterised as workers’ political organisations, including strike committees, union support groups and rank-and-file committees. Their role has been critical at times, and less successful at others due to circumstance and their own organisational capacity. While not necessarily consciously related they have had as a common element their focus on grass roots activity, and especially shop-floor organisation.

What would workers’ political organisations look like today? We would not presume to offer formulaic prescriptions but for what it is worth, offer some general guiding principles, which are open to interpretation within a specific context. We would argue that workers’ political organisations:

  • are founded in workplace organisation;

  • are focused on workers themselves achieving their goals without appeals to members of the ruling elite;

  • seek to extend democratic principles throughout their workplace and unions,

  • aim to advance workers interests as a whole, not on a sectional or even national basis;

  • cast aside the dogmatism and narrow discipline of the sect and seek an engagement with workers as human beings, not on a one-dimensional ideological basis.

  • should ignore zealots, and be wary of agent provocateurs and adventurists;

  • strive for unity between workers, organisers and officials of their unions. Their argument is with the boss and their lackeys;

  • are based upon the aspirations of workers to socialism, the abolition of private property and worker control of production.

There may be other options to tackle the entrenched dominance by the captains of industry, the global moghuls and their business empires, who have for centuries inflicted misery, wars and mind-numbing propaganda on the working class. We are hopeful that this book will move the debate into a space from where can examine all options that will help build organisations that effectively challenge the capitalist might, and usher in a truly human age.

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