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Issue #1549      30 May 2012

Labor’s agenda for the ACTU

The decision by the ACTU Congress at its meeting on May 16-18 to establish a permanent Campaign Fund was a political one. It is a political campaign aimed at mobilising trade unions, their members and the community behind the election of a Labor government. Labor, on its part, aims to bring a compliant trade union movement on side to co-operate during a period of radical and painful (to workers), neo-liberal, economic and social transformation.

Lawrence, Oliver and Kearney at the ACTU Congress.(Photo: Anna Pha)

As stated in last week’s Guardian, the recent ACTU Congress was firmly in the grip of right-wing Labor forces whose message of collaboration and cooperation was loud and clear. (“ACTU Congress: Some positives amongst consensus politics”, Guardian No 1548, 23-05-2012)

In their addresses to Congress, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten, outgoing ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence, the incoming secretary Dave Oliver and ACTU president Ged Kearney all emphasised the relevance of trade unions and their achievements in recent years.

These include: Safe Rates Tribunal for truck drivers; pay equity for community workers; reforms to Australian seafaring; outworker laws; abolition of individual contracts; the building of a safety net for the vulnerable; a new fairer minimum wage process; every worker a right to bargain collectively; and the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). (The ABCC is still hounding building workers and their unions. It has been transferred under the Fair Work umbrella and undergone a few relatively minor changes.)

Clearly, working families and the “battlers” would be far worse off under a Coalition government.

With the exception of Kearney who failed to mention the ALP directly in her opening speech, they all talked up the relationship between the ALP and the trade union movement.

Gillard described her presence at the Congress as a “real sense of homecoming” to “the great Australian trade union movement, the trade union movement that gave birth to our political party. It’s good to be home with you.” There were constant references to “your Labor Party”, “your Labor government”.

The message to delegates was Labor is their party and they are still tied by the umbilical chord.

Gillard repeatedly referred to “Labor values” and what Labor has done for different groups of workers to give them a “fairer go”.

Shorten used the term “our” more than 30 times in his speech, linking the ALP to the union movement. He indicated he was still a union member and would be until the day he dies.

“Labor movement”

The written copies of Gillard’s and Shorten’s speeches refer to “Labor movement”, as though the Labor Party and the ACTU are one movement. Neither Labor leader referred to “labour movement” which is a far broader term, encompassing non-ALP forces, such as non-affiliated unions, the Communist Party and other working class activists.

Gillard kept trying to reassure delegates that there “was nothing to fear”, “nothing to fear at all”, countering the widespread anxiety many workers have about the future and the economic crisis. Workers have a great deal to fear from the austerity measures in the recent budget and employer offensive on their wages and working conditions.

They are already hurting, as delegates heard when they were presented with the ACTU’s Lives on Hold report outlining the appalling conditions 40 percent of the workforce are currently subjected to in precarious employment situations.

Rejection of class struggle

“We have shown we can ignore past rivalries and see beyond factional alliances… We have been unified, and we have delivered for workers,” Lawrence said, referring to the consensus politics that have replaced the former struggles between the Right with its class collaborationist line and the Left’s class struggle position.

“There is a real danger of an Abbott government. We need to come out of this congress more unified than ever,” Lawrence said, reminding delegates of the employers’ wish list.

“The history of our movement comes from being part of our communities,” Dave Oliver told Congress, hoping for a repeat of the successful Your Rights @ Work joint trade union-community campaign that played an important part in the defeat of the Howard government.

Shorten said: “We should be very, very clear that as difficult as the political climate is at the moment, we shouldn’t hang our heads and be pessimistic and set the counsels of negativity and fear.” In other words, don’t give up, fight for a Labor victory.

Delivering change

Shorten repeated a number of times the need for unions to “lead not follow”, that “the Labor movement does well” when “we lead, not follow on the issues to do with our changing society”.

“That is what trade unions do best. We don’t turn our face against change. We’re not like the conservatives who sit opposite, who sell this lie and this myth that Australia never needs to change, that we can turn to the past rather than the future, that it’s too hard to compete with the rest of the world, that our farmers and our small business and our workers can’t compete with other parts of the world unless we slavishly imitate the labour relations practice of third world nations or other parts of the world.

“But I believe that unions and the Labor movement and the Labor Party have always been agents of helping people through economic change,” Shorten said getting to the main question – Labor steering in major changes that will hurt working families and “battlers”.

“We are the movement, which says that change and competition is not too hard, that we can actually make our way in the world, that we can actually help guide people through, and work with people to adjust to change. That is our DNA. That is who we are,” Shorten told delegates.

Referring to claims that productivity has declined, Shorten said, “This is what I would say to some of the conservative economic commentators who say that the union movement and Labor is shy about the productivity issue – no we are not.”

His message to the commentators and big business is that Labor with the help of the union movement will lead in increasing productivity – which is spin for reducing the costs of labour and increasing profits.

Labor will deliver productivity and other changes without resistance, without class struggle:

“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.

“We know what makes a good workplace. It’s a workplace where people can speak up. It’s a workplace where people can see transparently the decision making and that they’re capable of engaging in dialogue and creating value in the workplace. I have a great depth of optimism in the capacity of Australian workers and Australian enterprise to create value though positive relationships. Now I’m not naive. Sometimes there will simply be the arguments, and that is as it is. But we mustn’t let ourselves get fitted up – that somehow we are the class warriors,” Shorten said.

Workers speak up and the bosses welcome it? Who’s he trying to kid?

“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 what doesn’t also describe the Australian Trade Union movement.”

Shorten can deny the existence of the class struggle in the workplace all he likes. It will not change the reality. Workers know full well the reality they face every day, as bosses (them) attempt to take back past gains won through struggle, deny them secure employment, deny them their legal entitlements.

The austerity measures being imposed on the peoples of Europe are part of an overall transition of national economies being driven by the major global corporations and finance sector. Australia is no exception. A radical transformation of the Australian economy, of labour relations and social expenditure is on the agenda. This includes slashing corporate taxes, slashing government spending, sacking public servants, winding back the “welfare state”, further deregulation and privatisation, reducing real wages, and making Australia’s workforce more “competitive”.

These changes will be extremely painful to working people, pensioners and welfare recipients. Labor is setting the scene to be able to deliver them with the cooperation of the trade union movement. Just as Labor is attempting to “lead” with a budget surplus, Labor plans to lead in delivering future neo-liberal changes.

Accord model

This message was reinforced by the invitation of three former leaders – ACTU secretary Bill Kelty, Labor treasurer and prime minister Paul Keating and prime minister Bob Hawke to the Congress dinner. This troika oversaw a radical (economic rationalist) transformation of economic, industrial relations and social policies and structures in Australia.

The troika were invited for a political reason, not just to pay tribute to Bill Kelty. Labor has an agenda for the union movement, one that serves big business and the financial sector at a time of economic crisis and economic transformation, as it did in the 1980-‘90s under the threesome.

Keating summed it up in his tribute to Kelty, describing him as the most impressive of leaders produced by the trade union movement in the post-war years: “Certainly none more prepared to take responsibility for necessary change – to strike out, in directions many would otherwise be fearful of”.

Keating referred to the “abysmal levels of productivity and falling competitiveness”, lack of wage flexibility within sectors of the economy, the tariff structure, the Accord (social partnership) between Labor and the ACTU under which the unions agreed to restrain wages and “co-operate with employers”.

Keating praised Kelty for pressing on with the “abolition of centralised wage fixing for a system of enterprise bargaining,” which has since seen many workers’ working conditions and wages take a hit.

Hawke became prime minister in 1983, at the peak of a serious economic crisis and high unemployment. Hawke and Keating set in train major “free market” reforms – what was then referred to as a structural adjustment program or economic rationalism, but today called neo-liberal.

These included privatisation (Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, etc), deregulation, competition policy, trade liberalisation (tariff removals, etc), and the floating of our currency. They signed up to the World Trade Organisation and negotiated free trade agreements that undermined Australia’s economic sovereignty. The impact on manufacturing in particular was devastating, and is still taking its toll today.

They also commenced the process of dismantling the centralised award system which had provided comprehensive coverage of wages and working conditions for all workers. They did it in small steps by stealth. They brought in, “flexibility clauses”, wage rises were paid for by workers through trading off their working conditions. Real wages fell, profits soared but the promised new investment went offshore or into labour-replacing technology.

This was done with very little resistance from the organised trade union movement – something a Liberal government could never achieve. Struggle was suppressed by workers’ unions, a contributing factor to the decline in trade union membership rates.

Hawke promoted consultation – a tripartite corporate state model under which struggle was replaced by sitting around a table with the bosses and government. The employers welcomed the cooperation (class collaboration) and kept taking and demanding more blood.

Kelty’s role was critical. He delivered the trade union movement. Any union that stepped out of line, attempted to gain a real wage rise, was quickly jumped on. Opposition to privatisation and other economic and social measures, including the 35-hour working week campaign, vanished from ACTU policy documents.

“Lowest spending growth for 30 years”, the Australian Financial Review’s headline for its coverage of the May 1987 Keating mini-budget said it all. “The savings in government spending I will announce tonight centre on the abolition of unemployment benefits for 16 and 17 year olds, means testing family allowances, the abolition of the Community Employment Program, cuts in defence expenditure, sales of government assets and cuts in Commonwealth payments to the States,” Keating told Parliament.

Thirty-five years on, Kelty is telling ACTU delegates, the media and the big end of town that, “This is a transition in the Australian economy that for many people will be very hard but the truth is also this – that the very best people to manage that transition is a Labor Party, it is unions, it is managing in a Labor way.”

The message is that Labor can manage the next economic and political transformations that are underway in Australia and globally.

There is no doubt from the contributions of speakers that the ruling class’s agenda means there are rough times ahead that would normally be met with strong resistance, as seen in Greece, Spain, Portugal and in the Middle East.

Labor used the ACTU Congress to try to bring on board the trade union movement, what it sees as its movement, to not only gain working class support in the elections, but to be able to say to the ruling class it can do something the Coalition cannot do – deliver the union movement (as it did under the Accord) minimal resistance during another period of fundamental and extremely regressive and painful change for working people.  

Next article – Iraq Genocide Memorial Day

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