While the mainstream media gloat at the decline of union membership and record low level of strikes, the union movement is grappling with how to reverse its decline.

Having left the ACTU, Tim Lyons, its former assistant secretary for six years, has served up a critique of the union leadership’s inability to do the basic organising necessary to re-build unions, in an article in the September issue of Meanjin.

Lyons is not a leftist official, with his roots in the right-affiliated National Union of Workers (NUW), a former base of Bill Kelty and Simon Crean. And he tried to secure the support of the woeful Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA), the union responsible for so many concessions to the big supermarket chains, in his failed tilt at the ACTU leadership.

But he is arguing with inside knowledge of the failings within the trade union bureaucracy.

He even pines for the influence unions had during the Accord with Labor in the 1980s and 1990s, although it was the Accord that actually began the rot in union membership numbers.

The ACTU current leadership of Dave Oliver and Ged Kearney might dismiss Lyons’ thoughts as “sour grapes”, given he lost his leadership bid in early 2015. But his observations as a union and Labor insider make for both accurate and frustrating reading.

Lyons’ basic argument is that unions must return “to a focus on work and organising” rather than electoral campaigning.

He rightly condemns the union leaders’ focus on getting Labor elected or re-elected, rather than the basics of signing up union members and building workplace organisation. He claims that, “Over the last three years, the ACTU spent about as much money, or even more according to some sources, than it did on Your Rights at Work against Howard”. But all this effort “builds nothing real”, because, “the message is that it’s voting that is important, not joining a collective that has its own power,” and that, “All this work evaporates on polling day.”

Lyons is quite right that unions are failing to build workplace strength. But Lyons doesn’t really appreciate what is behind this failure. He makes no mention of the shackles created by enterprise bargaining that severely restricts protected industrial action to rigidly constrained bargaining periods.

What is needed is bottom-up organising and the use of unions’ industrial muscle. Yet, the major limitation to unions’ organising efforts is the officials’ steadfast refusal to defy the anti-strike laws.

The key success of both Labor and Liberal governments since the 1980s is to have intimidated the trade union leadership with tough legal sanctions against routine industrial action.

There is no strategy whatsoever within the union movement aimed at winning the right to strike. Even when the unions have had chances for mass defiance of the law, like the MUA lockout of 1998 or the CFMEU’s long fight against the ABCC, they have failed to take them.

Bureaucracy

Lyons identifies as believing, “in the Laborist model of a party with affiliated unions”. As a career union official and Labor Party loyalist he is trapped within the cage of reformist politics. The unions have focused on “general issues of campaigning and electoral politics”, he says, “because it’s easier than talking about and doing real organising”. The social position of the trade union bureaucracy, mediating between employers and the working class, negotiating the terms of workers’ exploitation, tends to conservatism.

The Polish-German socialist Rosa Luxemburg argued that unions are on the one hand “indispensable” for the working class and on the other, “totally incapable of transforming” capitalism.

The senior union officials have built up a stake within capitalism through their control of large union bureaucracies and union assets. Militant confrontation with the employers risks losing this in massive fines. They would rather seek a seat at the table with government and employers and accept whatever can be negotiated.

Lyons wants a more muscular reformism. He writes, “Organised workers are the only social movement that can support a strong left agenda and protect its achievements.”

He is vaguely aware that Labor has little to offer unions in the neo-liberal era, noting that, “Labor… is struggling to turn what remains of social democracy into a compelling electoral program.” Let alone one that actually benefits working class people.

As Lyons writes, “there is no future for trade unionism if people experience it as internet memes and random phone-calling each election”.

A shift to a more militant focus on organising and strike action by a section of the union officials would be a step forward. But the real hope for growth and militant unionism lies with rebuilding an organised and confident rank-and-file, and using its industrial power.

Tim Lyons, “The labour movement: my part in its downfall” Meanjin Spring 2016

By Tom Orsag

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