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Issue #1548      23 May 2012

ACTU Congress

Some positives amongst consensus politics

One of the underlying themes of the ACTU Congress held in Sydney from May 16-18 was fear of an Abbott government and what it would mean for trade unions, workers and their families in Australia. Congress was used very effectively to sell the historic relationship between the ALP and ACTU and the importance of the trade union movement in bringing about change. Incoming secretary Dave Oliver won support for a permanent political Campaign Fund. An observer could be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that it was the launch of the Gillard government’s election campaign, a campaign that will be heavily dependent on the trade union movement bringing the community onside.

The 2012 Congress was a far cry from the Congresses of past eras with hotly contested battles between the Left and Right over leadership positions and policy. It followed the pattern of recent Congresses, firmly in the grip of right-wing Labor forces whose message of collaboration and cooperation was loud and clear.

Since the mid-80s there has been dampening of debate over key policy directions and a steady slide into “consensus politics” or class collaboration. Leadership positions have been largely divided up between the major factions in backroom deals. The 2012 Congress was no exception.

“I do not subscribe to the view that the union movement would seek conflict in the workplace, instead we would seek harmony, I believe. That is the Labor way,” Workplace Relations Minister and former national secretary of the Australian Workers Union Bill Shorten told delegates.

“I know what we’ve accomplished and I also know what – working in tandem with a Labor government – can be accomplished. I don’t believe – and perhaps some do, but I don’t – I don’t believe that the ‘us and them’ rhetoric is what describes the modern Australian workplace, or describes 98 to 99 percent of what Australian trade union representatives do. I also know that doesn’t also describe the Australian Trade Union movement.” Shorten said.

Job security

The main Congress slogan was “Secure Jobs, Better Future”, reflecting the campaign being waged by the ACTU for workers to be given job security and their full leave, superannuation and other entitlements.

The ACTU released a telling report, Lives on Hold, outlining the appalling conditions 40 percent of the workforce are currently subjected to in precarious employment situations. The report revealed that 25 percent of workers are denied the right to sick or paid leave, showing how far the employer attacks and anti-union laws have made inroads into winding back past gains.

ACTU president Ged Kearney reminded delegates of the past achievements of the union movement – from the eight-hour day battles, establishment of “fair wages”, aged and disability pensions, through to superannuation and parental leave. “This is what we stand for”.

Speaking of past struggles Kearney told delegates, “We also understood that change does not just happen, it has to be fought for.” She said, “Deregulation, and the privatisation of government services are seen as the only way forward and the public service is not seen as an asset, just as an expense to be cut.”

“… we must advocate for an economic alternative and to push a broader social agenda based on equal opportunity for all. We need to fight for an alternative vision of how our society and economy can function.

“Where opportunity and reward for effort can be balanced with a strong safety net and a genuine compassion for the vulnerable.”

Kearney does not refer to Labor or the government directly. Her speech was focused on trade unions and what they have achieved and what they do in the future and how. But other ACTU documents and speeches left no one in doubt that the “alternative vision” with a “strong safety net and genuine compassion for the vulnerable” would come from a Labor government.

Policies

The policy statements adopted by Congress are a mixed bag. Some are excellent and would serve the interests of the working class well. Others appear to be an unquestioning rehash of the Labor government’s policies with perhaps a few additional demands or “motherhood” statements. One of the big questions is which policies will be actively pursued and to what extent where they are contradict the Gillard government’s position before the next federal elections.

The policy on asylum seekers and refugees, for example, strongly challenges the Labor government’s actions. It calls for a more decent and humane treatment of asylum seekers and adherence to international law. It rejects the characterisation of asylum seekers as “illegal” and the use of the term “queue jumpers” which inaccurately represents the UN process for refugee settlement (see The Guardian next week).

In addition, the policy recognises the factors, such as war, that cause people to flee their home countries and calls for action to address them. It strongly opposes offshore processing, forced deportation and ongoing and indefinite detention of large numbers of asylum seekers, including children.

The international policy contains a number of important points, based on internationalism; peaceful resolution of conflict; higher levels of development assistance for the people of developing countries; pursuit of reform of international institutions, including strong global regulation and governance that puts people first; an independent Australian foreign policy; and the call for urgent action on climate change.

“Responding to the threats of climate change and the economic crises that are endemic under capitalism, the shape of a fair and sustainable globalisation will be influenced by our values, our activism and our unity through international unionism,” the statement says.

But it falls short of what is required, especially on climate change, foreign policy and military spending, in effect accepting the status quo. For example, it does not question the government’s plans to spend $39 billion on the military in 2012-13, or Australia’s involvement in US wars and its present war preparations. No mention is made of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan.

Its Better Bargaining Policy has similar strengths and weaknesses. It seeks some important reforms within the existing framework such as stronger right of entry provisions; extending the range of matters permitted in enterprise bargaining agreement; allowing “protected action” without a secret ballot during a bargaining period; and in relation to “protected action”, making it more difficult for employers to halt the action or bring in scab labour.

At the same time, the policy statement fails to address some of the largest barriers to trade union struggles and solidarity actions: it still leaves unions and their members exposed to massive fines and damages for strike action outside bargaining periods, in solidarity with other workers or around political demands.

It maintains the pretence that the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) has been abolished, whereas Labor has transferred it under the Fair Work umbrella, changed its name and made a few relatively minor changes. The ABCC is still the “strong cop on the block” trying to bankrupt unions and criminalise their officials and members for legitimate trade union activities.

Congress also adopted a number of resolutions on a range of topics including solidarity with current struggles, recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the constitution and international solidarity. (See page 4 for some of the resolutions.)

Political struggle

The details of the Fighting Fund are to be finalised at the June Executive meeting. But from the comments made by different officials, it is clear that the aim of the Fund is to run a campaign to defeat the Coalition, an attempt to repeat the successful Your Rights @ Work campaign that saw the defeat of the Howard government in 2007.

It is also aimed at countering the anti-Labor campaigns being run by big business groups – the mining corporations against a new tax, the tobacco corporations opposed to plain packaging, the pubs and clubs against poker machine laws.

The name of the campaign and the key slogans are still to be revealed. But the model, based on winning support from the community through trade union campaigning is similar.

It is a political campaign to defeat the Coalition and re-elect Labor. There is nothing to indicate that it is aimed at building an alternative to the ALP, nor is it for fighting employers in the workplace. The use of the term “permanent” suggests it will be maintained following the elections, which the Coalition at present look set to win.

The union movement has a huge task ahead to defeat the current employer offensive and prevent further erosion of social spending and workers’ entitlements.

Next week: Labor’s agenda for the union movement as revealed at Congress.

Next article – Editorial – Neo-liberalism’s long losing streak

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