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Issue #1636      April 30, 2014

Which side are they on?

May Day is an international working class day, a day for the working class to celebrate its many fine achievements, to remember its martyrs and to focus on the struggles ahead. And there is no shortage of issues, with workers and trade unions under attack around the world. The Abbott government, Murdoch and Fairfax media and big business have launched an all out war on the trade union movement in Australia. The media are running an ugly ideological war against trade unions, doing their utmost to discredit any union that dares to defend its members.

(Photo: Anna Pha)

The government offensive includes the Heydon Royal Commission, Productivity Commission inquiry, anti-union legislation, increasing the powers of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), as well as a massive smear campaign aimed at criminalising and demonising legitimate trade union activity and militant unionists.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has singled out the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) for particular attention, in line with former Liberal PM John Howard’s strategy of first destroying the strongest and most militant unions, saying the rest would follow. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has defended the unions in the frontline of Abbott’s attack.

But the offensive is not just coming from the Big End of town or government. A growing number of individuals within the union movement, mostly but not exclusively from the Right factions of the Labor Party, have jumped ship to support the destruction of the CFMEU and MUA.

In a speech to the National Press Club on February 14, the then secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) Paul Howes spoke about the “criminal behaviour” of “traitors” in the union movement.

“There is no place for you in any corner of our movement,” Howes said, lining up with Abbott’s agenda to deregister and wipe out the CFMEU and any other union that refuses to collaborate with the bosses, and fights for workers’ rights – those who wage the class struggle and defend workplace health and safety.

“We must never confuse strength with thuggery”, Howes adds, repeating the language of the capitalist media and anti-worker Coalition government.

“We are about civilising capitalism,” parroting the capitalist myth that there is a civilised form of capitalism where workers get a “fair share” of the fruits of their labour.

In case anyone still had any doubts as to where Howes’ loyalties really lie and whose side he is on, he made that clear last month when announcing his forthcoming resignation as union secretary: “Sometimes we romanticise the working class,” Howes said. “The only good thing about being in the working class is leaving it.”

He identified his trip to Cuba on billionaire Richard Pratt’s private jet as the turning point in his rejection of socialism in an interview with the Financial Review (“Education of Paul Howes”, 28-03-2013). Prior to that he had been a member of a Trotskyist organisation. His engagement to senior Qantas executive and former adviser to Liberal Treasurer Joe Hockey, Olivia Wirth, raised some eyebrows in his union. Wirth was company spokesperson when Qantas locked out its workers, including AWU members, in 2011.

Howes promoted a Global Compact for class collaboration with employers and cooperation with the Abbott government – business and unions in the same tent.

Howes is off to the private sector where he will no doubt fit in well and be suitably rewarded for his years of loyal service and possibly a seat in Parliament. According to some in the ALP, he has the makings of a future Prime Minister.


Some call Howes a traitor, but traitor implies a shift in loyalties. Howes has come out and said what a number of his colleagues on the Labor Right believe, especially those aligned with Catholic Action (National Civic Council) and the late Bob Santamaria – also Tony Abbott’s idol.

With their ultra-conservative and backward social agenda, their aim is to serve capital. They settle for a few modest concessions for their members, and work to rid the union movement and Labor Party of those seeking to put the interests of workers first, before profits.

They serve time in the union movement, masquerading as representatives of the working class, and then are rewarded with a seat in Parliament or a six or seven figure package and consultancy fees in the private sector or both.

Martin Ferguson, a former ACTU president and former Labor minister for the mining companies, is a classic example. He is now chair of the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association’s advisory board. He went straight from Parliament, after six years of faithful service to mining companies, into a leading advocacy position for the oil and gas companies into battle against what he describes as the “radical environmental movement” that “despise market economics”.

He has called on Labor to abandon its opposition to Abbott’s restoration and strengthening of the already draconian powers of the ABCC. He is pushing for Abbott to go in harder with his government’s anti-union industrial relations legislation and wants enterprise agreements gutted to a few allowable matters.

Another former ACTU president, Simon Crean, has also shown his true colours. Instead of rallying support for a trade union under attack and possibly facing deregistration if not bankrupted first by the Abbott government, Crean has lined up with Abbott. He has called on the ACTU to take action against the CFMEU following its latest fines of $1.25 million. (See Guardian, “Assault on unions steps up”, #1634, 09-04-2014)

Labor leader Bill Shorten, also from the same right-wing camp as Howes, joined the swill, moving to distance the ALP from the trade union movement and the scandals and mud that might surface during the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption.

Witch hunt

The Royal Commission’s terms of reference direct the Commission to investigate the CFMEU; AWU; Transport Workers’ Union (TWU); Health Services Union (HSU); and the Communications, Electrical, Electronic, Energy, Information, Postal, Plumbing and Allied Services Union of Australia (CEPU). But its wide powers are not limited to these unions. With the exception of the CFMEU, the national leaderships of these unions are right-wing.

The name of the Royal Commission gives the impression that its target is just unions, but the government has a far wider, unstated agenda. The ALP, any other political organisation or group that acts in solidarity with trade unions and anyone else associated with them is also in the firing line. They are aiming high, Bill Shorten, Julia Gillard, Paul Howes, etc, with the media already drawing attention to slush funds for the re-election of officials. The employers who contributed to these slush funds in return for co-operation expect to be overlooked.

It does not take a crystal ball to anticipate some of the Royal Commission’s likely recommendations. These include:

  • Expansion of provisions for deregistration of unions to cover more offences
  • Deregistration of the CFMEU
  • Criminalisation and jail for breaches of industrial relations legislation
  • Strict restrictions on the use of union monies
  • Ban on political donations
  • Restriction of union activity to employer-employee relations

The Registered Organisations Bill (ROB), which is waiting for a supportive Senate to be passed, sets the scene for the enforcement and control over the use of union funds and activities.

The last three of these possible recommendations are aimed at hitting the Labor Party which is heavily reliant on trade union donations and union campaigns for re-election.

Trade union independence

Many of the attacks from within and outside the labour movement are calling for the ALP to distance itself from the trade union movement. This misrepresents the situation. It is the trade unions that are in the grip of Labor: to become an official in many unions, it is necessary to first join the Labor Party.

Union policy largely, but not always (eg the good ACTU policy on asylum seekers) is dictated by ALP policy. Right-wing Labor has a tight grip on a number of trade unions through such figures as Howes.

The examples of Howes, Crean, and Ferguson demonstrate the importance of trade unions taking an independent stand, with the interests of their members and the working class foremost in determination of policy and other activities.

The constant and pervasive barrage of anti-union propaganda, the repeated description of militant unionists as thugs, criminals, corrupt, etc, is having an impact. It does not help when repeated by leaders and former leaders of the labour movement.

If the union movement is to survive the current offensive then it will require maximum unity of all trade unions and strong relations with and support from the community. The independence of trade unions is an important part of this struggle – by those who are on the side of the working class.

Trade unions might, for example, consider standing their own candidates at the next federal or state elections. They could do so in a coalition of unions whose only commitment should be to their members and workers and the community in general.

And as Communist Party President Vinnie Molina told the Guardian, “What better day than May Day to affirm which side we are on and commit to building and strengthening the trade union movement and its relations with the wider community.

“Let’s march on May Day in unity for jobs and socialism!”

Next article – Public service wages – back to the future!

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