In late June the NTEU National Council decided to support Greens candidates in the federal election for the first time. This is an important shift that has the potential to spark a wider debate, both within the unions and within The Greens, about how to build an alternative to Labor’s neo-liberalism. But there has also been some disquiet in the NTEU because of the way the plan was pushed through the union.
Some on the left have opposed the NTEU’s position on an anti-political basis—that the union should not be involved in “electoral politics”. But the union is absolutely right to intervene into the election debate.
In fact the NTEU has already marked itself out this year as one of the very few unions prepared to publicly campaign against the Labor government’s cuts. When Labor moved to slash $2.3 billion in funding from universities in the May budget, the union put real effort into mobilising its members to rally against the cuts on budget day.
This is an important break with the approach of going quiet on criticisms of Labor that dominates most of the rest of the union movement and the ACTU. As Solidarity has long argued, it’s quite wrong to think that criticising Labor from the left will help the election of Tony Abbott. There have been concerns that the NTEU’s election campaign proposal will detract from industrial campaigns, but there is no reason why this should be that case.
The shape of the NTEU’s election campaign, and where it will put its money, is not yet completely clear. The motion passed at its National Council meeting indicates that the union aims to run an independent electoral campaign under its own name, as opposed to simply donating to political parties or individual candidates.
But what is most important about its shift is the decision to support The Greens in the Senate as well as potentially Adam Bandt in the seat of Melbourne. Less usefully there is also talk of supporting independents like Andrew Wilkie if they agree to oppose university cuts.
As the NTEU leadership has spelled out, the intervention in the election is a result of frustration at the failure of either major party, Labor or Liberal, to consistently support university education. By contrast The Greens have taken a high profile in opposing the latest university cuts.
Over the last decade The Greens have consolidated a support base to the left of Labor, winning the votes of a large number of former Labor voters. But the party still lacks any formal connection with the organised working class. It rarely recognises the strategic importance of relating to the union movement, with unions banned from affiliating and often viewed as just another “interest group”, lumped together with corporate developers. Working class issues are rarely “front and centre” of The Greens’ campaigning.
A number of unions have made donations to The Greens in the past, including the ETU’s Victorian branch, the CFMEU and the AMWU at the last federal election. But they also continued to support Labor candidates (and mostly remained affiliated to the Labor Party). The NTEU has gone a step further by simply calling for a vote for The Greens.
This can help spark a more serious debate across the union movement about its support for Labor as well as increase pressure on The Greens to more clearly take up working class issues. In particular, there needs to be a discussion in The Greens about the significance of an orientation to Labor’s working class base and the potential of union affiliation to more explicitly build a left alternative to Labor.
The NTEU’s election campaign may not be perfect. Rather than an outright support for The Greens, there are similarities with “balance of power” electoral campaigns to keep the bastards honest. Little attempt was made to discuss the union’s shift with its membership before the National Council decision was made. As a result a small number of NTEU members who oppose supporting Greens candidates have left the union.
While the NTEU is not directly donating to The Greens, it has talked of mobilising members to assist some Greens candidates on polling day and through paid advertising. But simply spending large amounts of money on paid advertising will not be as fruitful as mobilising members to demonstrate against cuts and argue with other university staff about the election.
Union activists need to push for efforts to mobilise through a further pre-election rally against the cuts and pre-election forums on individual university campuses. These can send a message to Tony Abbott that university unions and students are prepared to fight him every step of the way if he cuts university funding further.
Nor should the union simply rely on electing Greens Senators to halt Tony Abbott’s attacks through maintaining the balance of power. After all Labor’s cuts are already locked in. It will only be the union’s own fighting strength on the campuses that can stop this resulting in job cuts and worsening conditions for staff.
But the NTEU is right to argue that a larger vote for The Greens will send a message to Labor that cuts and neo-liberalism are not good enough. The more unions refuse to accept Labor’s right-wing policies as all that is possible, the stronger will be the fight to build a genuine left in this country.