In the face of Abbott’s budget attacks on workers’ living standards, James Supple looks at whether union decline prevents the movement fighting back

The union movement’s Rights at Work campaign is rightly credited with a central role in the defeat of John Howard’s Coalition government in 2007. Now, with Tony Abbott unleashing unprecedented budget attacks on Medicare, pensions and universities, the unions’ response has again come to centre stage.

There was significant industrial action as part of the Rights at Work campaign, with mass stopwork rallies across the country. These were vital in generating a level of public opposition to WorkChoices that the Howard government was unable to reverse.

But the strikes and demonstrations were not what brought down the Howard government. The ACTU and senior union leaders baulked at campaigning to stop Howard introducing WorkChoices, or fighting it industrially.

In the end “Your Rights at Work—worth righting for” became “Your Rights at Work—worth voting for” and focused on mobilising at the ballot box to vote Howard out.

Far from emerging strengthened from either the Rights at Work campaign or the following six years of Labor government, union membership has continued to decline.

Unions lost another 93,000 members last year, with overall density falling to just 17 per cent of the workforce, after appearing to have stabilised at between 18 and 19 per cent since 2007. The decline has led some, including union leaders, to claim that the unions are now too weak to seriously fight Abbott.

Union membership has declined steadily since the early 1980s, when over 50 per cent of workers were union members. The period of the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, first with the Accord and then with enterprise bargaining, saw the beginning of a dramatic decline, as part of a conscious strategy of undermining unions’ industrial power. By the time Labor lost power in 1996 union density was just 31.3 per cent of the workforce.

But the union movement remains strong in key industries—with more than enough power to paralyse the economy and impose huge costs on big business.

Last year the rail union cost coal bosses $50 million with a two-day strike by 800 workers in NSW. MUA members on tugboats at Port Hedland in WA, who may strike in the coming months, could prevent the shipment of iron ore worth $100 million a day. Workers at Victoria’s Yallourn power plant were able to cut power production by 38 per cent during a dispute in 2013 simply by flicking a switch for two hours a day.

Union membership is well above the average figure in some industries. Across the power, water and waste industry, basic services without which business could not function, union membership is still 28.5 per cent. Construction unions maintain huge power in the industry through almost 100 per cent membership on large construction projects. Firefighters too have virtually 100 per cent membership. Two thirds of rail transport workers are unionised, almost half of all school teachers and 44 per cent of hospital workers. There remains an enormous potential to shut down government and industry.

There is also plenty of evidence that union action would win widespread support. An Essential poll last year found 56 per cent, more than three times the number who are union members, regarded unions as “important for Australian working people today”.

Union membership today is similar to that during the final term of the Howard government. The weekday rallies against Howard’s WorkChoices, that mobilised hundreds of thousands of unionists, many of them on strike, are still possible.

Tony Abbott’s budget is widely regarded as a budget for the rich. It hits pensioners, the poor and working class people hardest. An Essential poll found 47 per cent of people wanted the entire budget blocked. There is enormous anger for the unions to seize on.

A major industrial campaign, with a succession of stopwork rallies and strikes aimed at hitting Abbott’s big business mates, could shut down the country and force Abbott to resign or call a new election. By showing that the movement was serious about taking on Tony Abbott, such a campaign could also win thousands of new people to join unions and build their fighting strength.

Strikes build unions

The willingness to take strike action has been key to individual unions reversing the overall trend of falling union membership. When unions take strike action, they grow. In 2005, as the unions began their campaign against WorkChoices with a series of mass delegates meetings and stopwork rallies, union membership increased by 70,000.

Under militant leadership, the Victorian branch of the ETU has grown from 8500 members in 1995 to around 19,000 today. Over this period wages for electrical workers have nearly tripled, and the union was the first to secure a 36-hour week in construction.

One of the stand-out campaigns of recent years has been the Victorian nurses’ victory over the Liberal state government early in 2012. The nurses defied threats of $6600 fines against individual nurses and up to $33,000 against the union for defying court orders banning industrial action. Their eight month campaign, begun in mid-2011, increased their membership by almost 6000 that year.

The Sydney University NTEU branch recruited 300 new members during the course of its campaign of seven days of strike action last year—and beat back management’s attack on conditions.

Other unions have also shown a willingness to fight. The NUW in Victoria has organised a number of sustained strikes, like the 13-day strike by Baiada chicken workers in 2011 and a two week strike by Toll warehouse workers in 2012. On both occasions the union sought community support to help sustain workers’ picket-lines.

But this is far from the dominant approach among union leaders. There was no significant rise in industrial action during the period of the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments. Employer organisations and the Liberals talked in frenzied terms about the danger of a “wages breakout” and renewed union militancy when the number of working days “lost” to strikes increased slightly in 2011 and 2012. But the increased figure was only a return to the level of strikes before the introduction of WorkChoices under the Howard government.

During Labor’s time in government strike days averaged only half that during the period of operation of Howard’s Workplace Relations Act and WorkChoices (1997–2007).

Most union officials were only prepared to stage small-scale or token efforts at industrial action in order to push employers into the bargaining process, but held back from the kind of action that could win real gains for workers or build membership. Almost 60 per cent of the strikes in 2013 lasted for one day or less.

Community campaigning

At an official level, unions often refer to the importance of community campaigning.

But too often “community campaigns” are seen to be a substitute for industrial action.

Most union leaders see the main success of the Your Rights at Work campaign to be the community groups that organised in marginal electorates to get the vote out against Howard in 2007. But this focus on electioneering shifts attention away from the real power of the unions to take collective action.

We have seen the same process at work when conservative governments were elected in NSW in 2011 and in Queensland in 2012. In Queensland, a stopwork rally put 10,000 unionists on the street. But the union leaders called for a 1000 day campaign against Campbell Newman (read “wait until the next election”) and have paid for it with over 14,000 jobs lost.

In September 2011, 35,000 NSW unionists marched against the wage-capping policies of Barry O’Farrell. On that day, 67,000 teachers took strike action.

But rather than wage an industrial campaign, the NSW public sector unions retreated into an electoral campaign, shown by their concern to mobilise union members to get a Labor MP elected in the Miranda by-election in 2013. This is clearly the model for the ACTU’s campaign against Abbott’s budget cuts too.

A variant is United Voice’s CleanStart campaign, which has organised protests at shopping centres in an effort to demand a pay rise for cleaning workers. The union’s focus has often been on applying pressure through “community” protests outside shopping centres run by union officials, as opposed to a focus on mobilising industrial power.

Criminalising industrial action

The union officials also claim that an industrial campaign is now impossible because courts will declare strikes to be “illegal” and the unions will face massive fines.

It is true that unions in Australia face some of the toughest restrictions on strike action in the world. Labor’s Fair Work Act retained the anti-strike laws that Howard had introduced. The laws are designed to tie unions up so that effective strike action is almost impossible. Strikes are only allowed in official bargaining periods. Even then, organising a secret ballot and winning a vote for strike action can take months, and there are numerous ways for employers to get court orders to interfere to stop the action.

But the risk is exaggerated by the officials. Determined action can face down employers and the government.

The NSW Teachers Federation’s retreat from taking action against the state Liberal government since late 2012 has been justified by fear of fines. Yet when the union defied the law and was fined, following the 24 hour strike in 2011, it was fined just $6000—less than 10 cents for each of the union’s 60,000 members.

It is possible to defy the law—as Victorian nurses, construction workers at Abigroup in Brisbane, the NSW teachers’ own strike in 2011 and even the recent construction stopwork against the budget in Melbourne have shown.

The conservatism of the bulk of the trade union leaders holds back the possibility of struggle. But this timidity is not just a product of personal failings, but of the officials’ social position.

Union officials are “professional negotiators” responsible for striking deals with the employers on wages and conditions. This means they have to be able to both organise campaigns for higher wages, but also turn them off in exchange for concessions from management. This role is inherently conservatising.

The full-time trade union officials form a bureaucracy removed from the day-to-day experience of drudgery and control in the workplace. Their conditions do not depend on the success or otherwise of members’ industrial action. Their positions often allow senior officials to amass very large salaries and privileges. The fact that their pay and positions rely on the union’s assets and financial strength leads them to place an exaggerated value on the buildings and bank accounts it holds—and an associated fear of fines and legal threats to the union.

Industrial action, with the potential to get out of hand, or land the union in court with no guarantee the union will win the dispute, can seem to them a nuisance that’s better to be avoided. Far easier for them to try to cultivate a “working” relationship with the employer and rely on “professional” campaigns run by the unions’ full-time staff, in which members are at best a stage army.

The officials’ distance from the rank-and-file in the workplaces and their desire to avoid industrial action means that, even when they think action is necessary, they often underestimate the capacity of the rank-and-file to fight. This is particularly so in a period like the present where in many unions too much time has been spent trading off conditions and large, decisively successful strikes are a distant memory.

This understanding of the role of union officials also helps to explain the unions’ unwillingness to organise serious mobilisations against Abbott’s horror budget. For them, unions are about working conditions and parliament is about politics.

Despite the unions’ continued large membership and much deeper social roots, it was March Australia that organised the first large, successful demonstration against the budget.

Even some of the most left-wing officials are unwilling to organise action in defiance of the law, since they are subject to the same material pressure as right-wing officials.

But the examples above and the continuing strength of the unions mean that much more is possible.

Pushing for defiance of the law, and for more serious industrial action to “Bust the Budget”, will require pressure on the officials from delegates and the rank-and-file membership.

This shows the need for socialists and union activists to build rank-and-file confidence and organisation, and their capacity to act independently of the union officials.

Even the last few years show many examples of how unions can wage a successful fight—and these can serve as examples for the movement as a whole.

The campaign against Abbott’s budget needs strike action at its heart. If unions mobilised against Abbott industrially through protests and stopwork rallies, they could stop the public sector pay cuts and job losses.

Such a fight could defend Medicare and finish off Abbott, and see unions emerge from the fight in a better position to face future battles.

The ACTU has called delegates meetings for September and another national day of action on 23 October. October needs to be the biggest strike day we have seen so far. And it needs to be the beginning of an on-going industrial campaign, not a one-off hurrah. There’s too much at stake to wait until the next election to get rid of Abbott.

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