A campaign to get Labor elected in 30 marginal seats was the centrepiece of the triannual ACTU Congress held in Melbourne in late May. But with historically low levels of industrial activity and no appetite from the leadership to fight, the Congress felt like a flat version of every similar meeting since the defeat of Howard.

Anger against Abbott in the community still runs deep. Attempting to draw this together, the campaign launched at the Congress is branded “Build a better future: fight for our living standards”. This is designed to emulate what the ACTU (wrongly) sees as the strength of the Your Rights at Work campaign, and also the “We are Union” campaign that saw unionists hitting railway stations and door-knocking against the Liberal government in the Victorian election last year.

What the ACTU strategists miss is that these campaigns resonated, with union members and with “voters”, because they rode on the back of campaigns of strikes and mass demonstrations. It was the week-day rallies during Your Rights at Work that galvanised workers against Howard’s WorkChoices.

The NSW union campaign against the state Liberal government tried to copy the Victorian “We Are Union” model which unseated a Liberal Premier there. But in Victoria it was the workers who had fought the state government—nurses, teachers and paramedics—who made up its back-bone.

The attempt to door-knock against the NSW Liberals was far less effective because the public sector campaign against the government was wound down in 2011 as unions failed to challenge the 2.5 per cent pay-cap.

The biggest demonstration against Abbott’s hated 2014 budget was the week-day rally called by Victorian Trades Hall (where over 10,000 workers marched through Melbourne). But the failure to turn the Bust the budget rallies into an ongoing movement leaves us much weaker.

The Better Future campaign features six demands designed to harness anger at Abbott’s budget and IR agenda: workers’ rights (including penalty rates), Medicare, education, public services, a secure retirement and “a fair go for all” (about closing corporate tax loop-holes). After delegates held up the campaign placards for the now-obligatory photo shoot, they were given copies of the resolution to be moved (and photographed and then tweeted) in workplace meetings.

The ACTU has employed organisers for each of 30 target seats. This is being funded from the extra $10 million the Congress approved by increasing a levy on each union member from $4 to $6 each year. The AWU abstained rather than vote for the increase. Some state branches of the nurses union were also unable to vote because of a failure to pay ACTU affiliation fees. But there was no open debate, and the Congress remained entirely stage-managed.

An electoral campaign won’t drive back Abbott, or build the strength of our unions. The task ahead of us is to mobilise a real fight.

By Jean Parker

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