Unions seem to be in terminal decline. At their peak over 50 per cent of workers were union members. Today the figure is less than 20 per cent.
The question for the left has to be: how can we rebuild unions and unionism?
Tom Bramble in his new book Trade Unionism in Australia: A history from flood to ebb tide looks at this very question through the prism of the history of trade unions and their struggles over the last 50 years.
It is an ambiguous record. It ranges from mass struggles run by rank and file workers to class collaborationist policies like the Accord which concentrated power into the hands of the ACTU and other paid officials and saw a major decline in strikes.
In one vignette Bramble compares the 1969 struggle to free Clarrie O’Shea from jail for organising strikes with the 2007 Your Rights at Work Campaign.
O’Shea refused to pay fines imposed on his union for striking. John Kerr jailed him. Seventeen left wing unions, with mass membership support and involvement, organised rolling general strikes across Australia. With much of the country paralysed, the flow of profits drying up and with more strikes on the way, a mysterious benefactor paid the fines and after five days O’Shea walked from jail triumphant. The penal powers became a dead letter. Employers were too afraid to use them.
The timid and tepid 2007 Your Rights at Work campaign was run from the top down, involved tokenistic demonstrations and wasted millions on advertising rather than mobilising workers to fight the laws. Your Rights at Work was a failure. Oh sure, it helped get Rudd elected, but Rudd’s WorkChoices retain most of Howard’s anti-union laws. Failing to learn from their mistakes, the ACTU is about to embark on another round of useless Your Rights at Work advertisements, this time against the Labor Government. Why not strike against these laws, pussycats of the ACTU?
Why not indeed? The paid trade union leadership fears its membership and them “getting out of hand” more than it fears the bosses and the Government. At best it wants to use the threat of industrial action (but not the reality) to force concessions from the bosses and employers. When the bosses don’t back down the paid officials cave in with some rotten compromise.
The recent Fairfax dispute is a good example. Workers at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age struck against job losses. Printers were prepared not to cross picket lines. The leadership of the MEAA, the journalists’ union, backed down. Fairfax management have won a major victory - real wage cuts and large job losses.
Bramble argues a rank and file movement which controls its own union can transcend the class timidness of the paid officials and win real gains. Certainly that could have been the case at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Both are profitable and shutting them down could have forced the bosses into grovelling to their workers to come back to work with more staff and real wage increases. It didn’t happen because after 20 years of the officials centralising power in their hands, the membership didn’t feel strong enough to run the campaign themselves and relied on those officials for whom all out industrial action is the devil incarnate.
Union officials are not workers. They balance between labour and capital and their role is to sell the labour power of workers to bosses. Some are more inclined to threaten and take action, but in the main they retreat to the safety and comfort of negotiations with bosses.
Bramble describes the period between 1968 and 1974 as the flood. During this time unions, often under rank and file control, fought major strike campaigns to smash the penal powers, gain real wage increases and defend jobs. They imposed green bans, struck against apartheid and the Vietnam War and helped move society to the Left. This militancy contributed to the ALP victory in 1972.
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