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Unions and Labor: is Dean Mighell right?

By Tristan Ewins - posted Wednesday, 24 February 2010


Left-wing State Secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (Victorian branch), Dean Mighell, dropped something of a political bombshell recently, arguing in an essay that appeared in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald for unions to disaffiliate from the Australian Labor Party.

This stand has developed against a backdrop where Mighell had been condemned as a maverick by powerful figures within the Australian Labor Party: a figure whose militancy threatened to “spook” swinging voters. The cynical might suppose the expulsion of Mighell from the ALP in 2007 was really about setting to rest the “bogey” of militant unionism. Unfortunately, few in the ALP leadership seem to recognise that the real problem is that union militancy is considered a “bogey” at all: this in a context where the rights of labour have been severely curtailed in violation of International Labor Organisation (ILO) conventions to which Australia is a signatory. Mighell himself has referred to provisions against pattern bargaining - among other areas.

Dean Mighell’s call for a more independent Australian labour movement will have upset many powerbrokers within the Australian Labor Party. And there will be ordinary members who also feel Rudd Labor’s spirit of compromise - including accommodation of corporate interests when it comes to Industrial Relations - is the only way to achieve anything.

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Even though the ACTU represents almost two million workers, the power of capital is hardwired into the political and economic systems. It is the “elephant in the room” that no one dares acknowledge openly: both because of the dominance of capitalist ideology, and for fear of antagonising corporate interests, including monopoly media, who have the power to make or break any government. Although liberal democratic ideology permeates Australian society, democratic practice is fatally compromised by this state of affairs.

But workers have power as well, as the ACTU showed in the run-up to the 2007 Federal election in Australia, when its campaign against the conservative Howard government’s repressive WorkChoices industrial relations legislation helped bring that government down.

Given the importance of the ACTU campaign in bringing about the demise of the Howard government, one would have thought unions would enjoy more influence under Rudd Labor than has turned out to be the case. Instead there has been one disappointment after another.

Most glaringly, before its election, Rudd Labor committed itself to an “Award modernisation” process through which (supposedly) no worker would be worse off. For those who are not familiar with “Awards”, they comprise minimum standards for wages and conditions under Australian industrial relations law. In the process of “simplifying” the Award system it is now clear that many workers may be worse off, in both their wages and in their working conditions.

For example, in September 2009, Melbourne newspaper The Age revealed that some airline industry employees would “lose between $70 and $300 a week from their base pay”.

And in January 2010 the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) warned that, “thousands of aged-care nurses working in age care homes in Queensland and NSW will be forced out of the industry due to a wage decision that could see them $300 a week worse off.” Importantly here, undermining the position of skilled aged care nurses in the sector could also lead to a reduction in quality of care for vulnerable and elderly residents of aged care facilities.

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Many varied and complex Awards may be more difficult to administer. But it can be reasonably argued that this is an acceptable price to pay for fairness. And arguments about complexity can comprise a “fig leaf of legitimacy” behind which lurks an agenda of undermining the rights of workers.

Which brings us to Mighell’s call for unions to disaffiliate from Labor.

Mighell is right to call for strategic thinking from unions when it comes to relations with the ALP. Too often ALP strategists and power-brokers take union and grassroots support for granted. The conference process is often abused, stage-managed and manipulated in a fashion which silences grassroots voices, leaving many disillusioned, and threatening to demobilise Labor’s organisational and support base over the long term.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.
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