Australia: After workers’ mass action against Howard’s Industrial Relations…

Workers need a political voice

On 30 June, tens of thousands of workers took strike action and demonstrated against John Howard’s Coalition government’s Industrial Relations legislation, which marks a big attack on workplace rights.

Before this mass action, a National Fightback Conference of union activists took place in Melbourne. The following Editorial (slightly edited) from the Socialist reports on the conference and points the way forward to step up successful industrial action.

The recent ‘National Fight-back’ Conference in Melbourne had a good turnout of about 300 people. This shows the thirst amongst the more politically advanced workers for an explanation and strategy as to how to defend their class from the imminent attacks of the Coalition.

There were great responses to fighting speeches from likes of Craig Johnston and WA [Western Australia] Maritime Union of Australia Secretary, Chris Cain. These more left wing, militant leaders are seen by class conscious workers as fighters who will use industrial action to fight the bosses, if necessary.

The most obvious split in the unions is between the ACTU [Australian Congress of Trade Unions], more generally pro-ALP [Australian Labor Party] or class compromising leaders, on the one hand, and the more class struggle leaders in the CFMEU, ETU, NSW NUW etc, on the other hand.

The former, at best, want to wait until Labor wins power again – at worst, they are preparing any rotten deal they can sell to Howard. But why would he make a deal now? In the face of such cowardice he is going in for the kill.

The militant unions have called various strikes or rallies on June 30th (on July 1st in NSW). They have a general uneasy relationship with State Labor governments and the Federal Opposition. However, they have no plans to create a new workers’ party and, therefore, have to slide back to supporting Labor in elections.

At the Fightback Conference, even Socialist Alliance (SA) member, Craig Johnson, called for unions to pressurise Labor. Of course, in general, this is correct. The ABC of politics tells us that Labor is a bosses’ party with capitalist ideas, policies, and leaders and has little left of its past working class rank and file. The D-Z of politics, however, is that they still have power, controlling every State. This side of a socialist revolution, unions must deal with every boss and every boss’s party that exists to get the best for their members. The trick is to see the ALP in this light, not as a wing of our movement. If you have illusions in them you will be disappointed each time. Rather, we should treat them as a party that we no choice but to deal with.

Wait for Labor or SA/Greens breakthrough?

Johnston said the alternative to pressurising the ALP was to wait until the Greens or SA make an electoral breakthrough – [but] this may never happen. It was, unfortunately, not pointed out at the Conference that SA got 0.1% in the WA State elections – despite having Chris Cain as a member there. Only the Socialist Party [CWI in Australia] has been able to win an election for the socialist movement, so far [Steve Jolly’s council seat in Yarra City Council, Melbourne].

SP members pointed out that there is a third alternative to Greens/SA or ALP – that is the creation of a new workers’ party, using the millions [of Australian dollars] given by militant unions to the ALP as seed money.

The strong militant unions have been able, in some industries, to force employers to sign early Enterprise Bargaining Agreements to nail down workers’ wages and conditions before the post-July 1st changes. We support this tactic.

However, with a mortgaged-up rank and file, there will be pressure on the leftwing, ‘pragmatic’ union leaders to buy out of the general fight-back against Howard, or at least only to get involved in the bigger rallies. This would be a big mistake.

Strong unions will not survive by putting their heads in the sand. In any event, the counter reforms of Howard will lower the standard of living of the working class (in terms of more expensive health and education, casualisation, user pays etc) – so, whatever wages a building or metal worker gets will be eaten into by the rest of their family having bigger and bigger bills to survive.

There is no alternative but a generalised industrial response to Howard and the bosses. If the ACTU and their rightwing mates won’t support this, militant unions must strike out anyway. This will force the others to follow, as has occurred many times in Australian trade union history.

We also need to open up a real discussion in the class around the need for a new workers’ party. The ALP is a wing of the class enemy. The Greens are a middle class party that caves into the ruling class whenever they get into power (see Yarra City Council, New Zealand, Germany). The Socialist Alliance is an electoral failure, dominated by the increasingly aggressive Democratic Socialist Perspective faction.

We in the Socialist Party will raise these ideas in the movement. If you agree with them, join our party now!

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July 2005