The recent disaffiliation from the ALP of the Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) is the most significant example so far of the tensions between the modern Labor Party and the more dynamic sections of the trade union movement.
This act cannot be understood without some historical context.
During the post-war economic upswing from 1950 to 1973, there was a two-way relationship between the ALP and the trade unions. Capitalism was booming and wanted continued production and class peace. When put under pressure, employers were willing to give a higher share of production to wages than is the case now.
The unions happily bankrolled the ALP. In return, ALP governments introduced relatively worker-friendly legislation, training grants for unions, and supported a more pro-union environment than today.
Today the world economic situation is totally different. The neoliberal policies of privatisation, free trade and deregulation dominated from the mid-1970s until 2009. This was followed by a rightwing form of Keynesianism which saw governments bailing out the private sector. The resulting state debt now has to be paid back and the capitalist consensus is to make the working class pay.
Since the Hawke-Keating ALP governments of 1983-96, the relationship between the ALP and the more militant unions has slowly begun to unravel. The ALP now stands for privatisation, user pays, and a general diminishing role for the public sector. Unions are expected to sell these cuts to workers on behalf of the party. This is the role that the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) plays today.
The past 20 years has not only seen the party shift to the right but it has been emptied out of its working class base. It lacks even the most basic level of democracy and it is now just as connected to big business as the Liberal Party. These developments have not gone unnoticed by some sections of workers.
The Victorian ETU, under the leadership of Dean Mighell, is one such organisation. This union has been transformed over the last 15 years from a stale branch into a dynamic, strong organisation that is full of active members. There has been growing pressure in the branch to ditch the link to Labor and this was proven by the overwhelming vote to disaffiliate.
At a ballot conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, 85% of almost 7000 financial members voted to disaffiliate from the ALP. The union has contributed more than $80,000 a year to the ALP and this will now be spent elsewhere.
The question is what now? One option is for the union to support the Greens and recently the Victorian ETU pumped serious money into the Greens Senate campaign and in the Federal seat of Melbourne. The Greens are the flavour of the month right now, as Obama and Rudd were in 2007, but they will disappoint once they get a taste of power. Already in Tasmania the Greens are part of a government that is privatising public housing stock and increasing electricity prices.
Workers need a political party of their own. A union can only protect its members in the workplace. Workers need their own political party to deal with other important issues such as health, education, climate change and public transport.
If working people want to reorganise society in order to meet their needs they need a party to fight for control over the economy and introduce democratic socialism. This need for a workers party was first learnt by Australian workers after the industrial defeats of the 1890s and this is what originally led to the creation of the ALP.
Similarly today we need to build a new mass party that represents workers interests. This would unify the militant unions, community, student and migrant organisations and the best of the existing left into one broad party. If it was organised along democratic lines with a campaigning approach, it would grow very quickly. The ETU has hopefully set a precedent that will be followed by other militant unions. This is a great first step but another big step still needs to be taken.