What workers face

I write this in response to “The problem with ‘Join your union’” by Max Chandler-Mather and Joanna Horton. The article raises important questions about the future of unionism. I wish to address specifically failure by the ALP-led ACTU. I add these comments below in a constructive way, not to belittle important critiques offered by others.

No union affiliation with political parties!
Firstly, I think it is important to go to union meetings, to challenge the power of the boss, to organise at the grassroots and to challenge  affiliation with the ALP. But where is the political organisation of the Left that can do that? And don’t pretend that there are socialist or political parties of the Left  that can do this. Especially when such parties and organisations lack the ability to draw working class people into their own organizations, let alone organise in unions.

‘Don’t ask, you’ll get nothing’
Secondly, ‘the Accord’ referred to in the article was actually called ‘The Prices and Incomes Accord.’  While ‘the accord’ restricted wage rises in exchange for medicare, social security, family allowances and superannuation it did not prevent price rises driven by the profit motive, by increases in interest rates and lowering housing affordability, by increasing cost of electricity, gas and rates, rising cost of education and health care – all major costs in household budgets.

Trade-off of conditions by unions were made prior to Labor’s win in 1983 that led to ‘The Prices and Incomes Accord’. My union, the Australian Clerical Officers Association (ACOA), one of the largest unions in Australia, was not affiliated with the Labor Party when the ACTU and Hawke government signed ‘the Accord’ and made many such trade-offs. Even the Communist-led metalworkers union had its own ‘accord’ prior to Labor coming to power. Laurie Carmichael (Metal Workers’ Union) and Bill Kelty (ACTU) were the main architects of the Accord.

In 1982, ALP’s shadow industrial relations minister Ralph Willis, addressing a mass meeting of commonwealth public servants at Brisbane Festival Hall, said: “Don’t ask, you’ll get nothing” – that our union should not expect anything from a Labor government if it won the 1983 Federal election. Yet the ACOA still signed the Accord!

A number of smaller unions did not sign the accord – the Builders Labourers Federation, Federated Confectioners Association of Australia, the NSW Nurses Union were some.  Willis lived up to his promise. More than the Accord, the real killer of union power were laws banning secondary boycotts introduced by the Fraser government under pressure from the National Farmers Federation (NFF) originally intended to stop pickets at wharves in solidarity with meatworkers who opposed live export of cattle and sheep and therefore loss of their jobs.


Photo: Meat-workers picket against live cattle export, Brisbane wharves, 1978

Secondary Boycotts
It was the failure of the Hawke labor government to repeal these laws (s45D&E of the Trade Practices Act) that led to millions of dollars in fines against the Meatworkers Union, thus crippling that union and many other attempts at sympathy strikes. This led to ‘the Cobar option’ where employers were able to sack whole workforces without solidarity strikes by other workers – Bjelke-Petersen sacked 1002 SEQEB workers in 1985, the bosses sacked 250 Cobar miners in the 1990s,  and the biggest of all: the sacking by Patricks Stevedores of its entire workforce during the 1998 MUA dispute.

The failure of the ACTU and mainstream political parties (ALP, Australian Democrats and Greens) to campaign effectively for repeal of  laws against secondary boycotts reduced the ability of workers to strike in solidarity, preferring legal tactics like the High Court challenge to the sacking of wharfies in 1998.

MUA – Here to Stay! 1998 May Day Brisbane immediately after the High Court ruled in favour of the union. However, in the wash-up, the union had to had forced redundancies, loss of wages and conditions.

The Seamen’s Union and the Waterside Workers Federation [now the maritime Union of Australia (MUA)] had spent over 100 years taking industrial action in support of other workers to raise wages and conditions across the board only to find themselves pole-axed by anti-secondary boycott laws. My union supported the wharfies but did not go on strike. It was the same with other unions.

‘the CUB55 workers won second prize …’

Unjust laws and the right to organise
It is correct for ACTU leader Sally McManus to say on the ABC’s 7:30 report on 16 March 2017 that unions should break unjust laws specifically when their members health and safety is concerned. But it is too little, too late.

Especially when the ACTU’s sole strategy in support of Carlton United Brewery workers last year was to call rallies and ask workers to boycott CUB beers at events like the Melbourne Cup and footy grand finals. Maintenance workers at CUB’s main brewery in Melbourne were sacked without notice and then offered a take-it-or-leave it non-union deal with an up-to-65 per cent reduction in wages and entitlements. Most of the workers rejected the new contracts and set up a picket-line. The campaign was dubbed (#CUB55). The response from the ACTU was pretty poor, especially when the leadership knew from experience that CUB would sack their workforce as soon as workers tried to defend their existing conditions. No wonder the CUB55 workers won second prize when the enterprise bargaining agreement was finally signed by management at Carlton United. Under the new EBA, CUB workers are required to implement “productivity and efficiency improvements.” And now they will get their penalty rates cut.

My old union (CPSU, formerly ACOA) will only take ‘protected action’ under the FairWork Act and will not challenge the secondary boycott legislation by confronting these bad laws with direct action. Neither the CFMEU nor the ACTU have challenged the reduction of penalty rates by organising secondary boycotts against Woolworths and Coles.

But at least some unions like the CFMEU do challenge the FairWork Act by mobilising their members; whereas the main union affected, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), with the largest membership of any union in Australia, did not call come out on the streets last week against these direct attacks on their members, mainly poorly paid retail and service workers. The SDA is a bosses union and needs to be replaced by a proper  rank and file union, it is not enough to challenge SDA’s sellout under the FairWork Act.

I agree that unions should not affiliate with any political party, and that unions should organise in their members interests but that has to be part of solidarity across workplaces, across industries, across countries and internationally.

Workers face many challenges in the workplace which they cannot fight alone, for example impermanence and alienation, the rise of fellow workers into management, longer working hours and unfair dismissal when you grow old and tired. It is only the collective strength of workers that can overcome this, an organisation that people can feel part of,  and organisers who know how to draw workers together.

Workers of all countries Unite! 

Ian Curr
17 March 2017


What We Face — Threats to Union Solidarity

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