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11th CPA Congress

Delegates speak

ABCC

Dean Holland, a delegate from the Brisbane Branch of the CPA works in the construction industry, and spoke forcefully about the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). Dean’s message was clear: “Abolish the ABCC now!”

“The ABCC, from the time of its entry into the building industry has tried to cripple and tear away from workers long-earned rights, wages and conditions… This unmitigated police force of the construction industry that accuses union members and officials of coercion and illegal entry and denies them the right to address such matters as safety issues, wages and conditions must be stopped now. Building and construction workers have always stood in the shadows of uncertainty, at risk of injury and fatal accidents.”

The construction employers will not let up in their attacks or support for the ABCC. It will take total unity on a national scale to defeat the legislation, Dean said. The struggle under the Your Rights @ Work banner that saw the defeat of the Howard government demonstrates what is possible.

Dean made some comparisons with the anti-terrorism laws which give suspected terrorists more rights than those of a building worker under the ABCC’s powers of coercive interrogation.

He recalled the 1980s, the erosion of trade union rights and conditions commenced under the Hawke Labor government. This was picked up by union-bashing, barrister Peter Costello, a minister in the John Howard government and is continues today under the leadership of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

In the 1990s, Trouble Shooters and other labour hire firms made inroads into the industry, with workers being bought and sold on the national labour market. “Today we have the national agreement preserving the state award. This keeps a labour hire company from being tied to an enterprise bargaining agreement.

“Labour hire; human beings for sale or hire. Welcome to the 21st century of indentured labour, hence labour hire!” Dean concluded my making a comparison with the trade in human labour and companies paying to pollute under an emissions trading scheme.

Union Solidarity

Dean Turner, an unemployed worker from the Melbourne Branch of the CPA, also took up the question of trade union struggle. He spoke about the experiences and lessons gained from involvement in the organisation known as Union Solidarity.

Union Solidarity was an activist organisation which grew up from the grass roots level to counteract the Howard government’s anti-union WorkChoices and ABCC legislation. “The new laws prevented unions from supporting their members in the usual ways, so the community assembly was born. Union Solidarity would be told of disputes breaking out … and would then approach the workers in the dispute with offers of solidarity and assistance. They proved quite effective in assisting the conventional unions with their activites…”

Dean Turner spoke about the activities of his local branch and questioned why, once the Howard government had been defeated and Labor came to office, the Union Solidarity groups were wound up. Those unions that had given financial backing, he said, withdrew their support.

“There were some very positive outcomes,” Dean said. “The first is that when workers at one site were supported by Union Solidarity, they would then become aware of struggles at other sites, and would often offer their support… Many participants drew inspiration from this. Another positive outcome was that some real progress has been made towards unity between the various left groupings.”

Stolen wages

Another delegate, a legal worker in the field, addressed the exploitation of Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians since colonisation have been subject to discriminatory and restrictive policies.

“Under Aboriginal protectionist acts, various state and federal authorities restricted and controlled the movements, marriages, children, communities, employment and money of Indigenous peoples,” she told Congress.

In the remote Northern Territory areas, they were removed forcibly by police and government officials from their lands and put to work on cattle stations, the predominant employer of Indigenous people living in remote areas of the Northern Territory.

“Often, whole families were made to work on the stations in various roles, including as stockworkers, fencers, gardeners, irrigators, road and infrastructure builders, domestic servants and sex workers. Everyone from children to the elderly had a role in the upkeep of cattle stations. On occasions, this removal policy also went hand in hand with the policy of child removal responsible for the ‘Stolen Generations’.”

Some Indigenous workers were not paid at all, others had their income held in government accounts – under the Aboriginal Protection Acts.

“The placement of Indigenous workers’ income in government accounts or as credit on station stores meant they rarely saw any money at all. This contrasted with their non-Indigenous counterparts on the cattle stations who were often paid above-award wages, as well as provided with their keep.

“The policy of withholding wages kept Indigenous people subservient and at the mercy of governments and employers who controlled what they ate and how they were clothed and ensured they were bound to the government and employer.”

The Howard government’s Northern Territory Intervention effectively reinvoked policies that existed under the Protection Acts and which had led to many of the existing problems in Indigenous communities. “A key feature of the Intervention is the blanket quarantining of Indigenous welfare income in prescribed Indigenous communities. This policy echoes those of past governments responsible for the ‘stolen wages’ of Aboriginal people.

“The essence of the income control legislation is that it automatically assigns 50 percent of Indigenous peoples’ welfare money to a government account that can be reimbursed in certain (licensed) stores for items approved by the government. Centrelink staff determine the ‘priority needs’ of welfare recipients, their family and dependants, and regulate spending accordingly.

“At the same time, the federal government continues to dismiss arguments for repaying Indigenous stolen wages. It’s vital that as communists we see Indigenous rights as not separate to but intimately related to workers’ rights.”

Deaths in custody

Richard Titelius, a union delegate in the Community and Public Sector Union/Civil Service Association and member of the Perth Branch of the CPA is actively involved in supporting Aboriginal people in their struggles for compensation for abuse suffered as members of the Stolen Generations (as a member of the Bringing them Home Committee) and Black Deaths in Custody.

He reminded delegates of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island, of a Noongar man from Katanning who died from injuries suffered while being taken into custody in Perth and the most recent death in custody which occurred to a respected Aboriginal Elder while being transported in oppressive heat in a prison van.

“The community activism of which I was a part of with the Party and other community groups succeeded in applying pressure to have a coronial inquest and then having the government earnestly implement the recommendations of the Coroner,” he said.

Indian students

The violent attacks on students from India hit the media worldwide. There are more than 30,000 Indian students in Australia, a considerable source of cheap and vulnerable labour and an important source of “export income” in the form of course fees.

Dahni, one of several Indian students at Congress, pointed out that about nine months ago the Australian government started making restrictions on who could come here to study. The government is focusing on richer students for India and Asia who, he said, the government expects will become part of the capitalist class and not join the left in Australia.

The government’s strategy is “acting against working class students from Third World countries, if you are poor you shouldn’t come here.”

Media publicity of the attacks is affecting student intake. Approximately 50 percent are reconsidering coming here and now students are becoming involved in left politics, Dhani said.

There is a great deal the Party can do in the Indian community to expose the situation and to give support to the community.

Migrant communities

Several delegates talked about work in the migrant communities. “Most come to Australia because of economic and political reasons, because of war,” said Penny Costa, a school teacher and member of the Cypriot Branch. “They are marginalised, down trodden, given the worst jobs, and are low paid. It is important to build bridges with migrant organisations.”

The Greek Orthodox Community has been around for 110 years and left and progressive forces have worked hard in it to promote progressive Greek culture and the rights of migrants, Penny said.

Unemployed

Allan Hamilton, a pensioner from Cootamundra (south-west of Sydney), took up the question the unemployed in regional Australia where the recession has hit hard. He assists unemployed workers in their battles for their rights. “Some unemployed can go 10 weeks with no income because of the actions of some bureaucrat,” he said. “We need to assist these workers.”

Allan pointed to the need for a national unemployed union to cover victims of the crisis across Australia.

Andrew Hayward from the Perth Branch also stressed the importance of organising the unemployed. He pointed to the many newly unemployed who are facing the reality of capitalism for the first time. “They will be wanting change.”

New opportunities

The importance of and need for the Party was stressed, with the economic crisis bringing home to many more people the nature of capitalism. The situation opened up new opportunities for workers’ struggles, said Stratos Mavrantonis from the Beloyiannis Branch. It created a new situation with new opportunities for the growth of mass struggles Stratos said.

The capitalist crisis makes the necessity of socialism clear to more working people, said Georg Gotzis. It is the only choice for the future of humanity, George said, raising the importance of recruitment to the Party and the role the Party has to play.

Mick Power from the Maritime Branch has attended all 11 Congresses of the Party. He spoke very positively of The Guardian, saying he found the paper quite invigorating, especially the articles on the environment. He, like a number of other delegates, expressed concern that we were not growing as fast as you would expect in the present economic conditions.

Win influence

Sydney District Secretary Tony Oldfield (Auburn Branch) reflected on the influence that the Communist Party had before the splits in the 1960s and 1980s when it lost many supporters and its influence was weakened. “We have to build now and win that credibility and respect back. We have to fight every hour, every day, to maintain that.”

Tony, one of the newly elected members to the Central Committee, said that prioritising and planning our work was pivotal. “We need to focus our work, we need sharp targets. Our work and campaigns need to be co-ordinated.”

Privatisation should be one of the main campaigns, nationally co-ordinated and shaped and modified at the local level to suite the particular conditions. “The majority of Australians oppose privatisation,” Tony said. At the same time, “most people are passive onlookers, we need to change this, we need to educate them and mobilise them.”

Tony referred to the great public response the Party had when Congress delegates and other party members and supporters marched through the city streets carrying anti-privatisation placards.

Vinnie Molina, CPA national President, also addressed the question of recruitment. “Our best possibility for recruitment is all those places where our members work or study or have interaction with people such as our workplaces, schools, unions, rallies, a branch function, during a party stall at a May Day rally or simply while selling The Guardian on the street,” Vinnie said.

Organisation & planning

“Talking and inspiring people about socialism does not mean we walk away from the stages and forms of unity with left and progressive groups or that we shun the stages of development in building a movement or working toward realistic and achievable forms of social change….

“The correct line is vital and is the underpinning requirement to successful methods of work. We must always keep in mind however that once the political line is determined the main question becomes organisation… organisation… organisation.

“It is in this area I think we let ourselves down. A plan based on some real and honest assessment of our Party’s capacity and a plan that understands and recognises basic principles of organising is what is required.

“Organising is a science. It is not solely a trade union-based methodology of moving people to desired goals. It is a method and specific set of principles that delivers outcomes in a planned and conscious manner,” Vinnie said.

“We are soundly based ideologically but I think we need to move our thoughts to the way we work and look toward organisation. The political line is useless without organisation and application.”

Brenda Kellaway from the Newcastle Branch took up the question of planning, drawing on the experience of her branch. She outlined the more sharply focused approach to planning her branch had developed. As a result its work was becoming far more successful.

Party of activists

Another weakness identified by delegates is the uneven distribution of workloads. “There is a core of party cadres who are the core activists. They carry out party activity at risk to their health and family relationships,” Vinnie said.

“There are still a number of party members who feel that attending a branch meeting once or twice a month is enough to hold a party card. These comrades call themselves communists just because they carry and proudly show their party cards in their pockets. It is my humble opinion these comrades do not deserve the high distinction of being named leaders of the working class.

“A communist is a different type of person, a person who aims and works hard for social change. A communist is a good worker, a dedicated student, an active member of the community and a leader who is an example for others.”

Ideological struggle

The Party has an important role to play in the ideological struggle. Anna Pha described some of the methods being used to disarm the working class ideologically, such as the promotion of employee share ownership and dependence of workers on superannuation funds with their share and property portfolios for their retirement income. “It is a strange turn of events when workers are turning on the evening news to check their fortunes on the stockmarket,” she said. Some workers have become landlords and this raises the question of evictions when rent is not paid. As a result many workers see their interests as lying more closely with those of the capitalist class.

There were many other means by which workers and trade unions are brought into the capitalist fold, such as the extensive use of contract labour – “be your own boss” – and methods used by employers to divide workforces along ethnic and religious lines. The trade union movement has weakened in its defence of Medicare, a number of them promoting private health insurance.

The greater use of contract and casual labour, the rapid turnover of workers in some areas of the workforce such as call centres and more work being done from home makes it more difficult for trade unions to recruit, organise and mobilise workers.

Individual vs collective rights

“Many people on the left are enthusiastic about the prospect of a Bill of Rights for Australia, as they believe it will bring about considerable change,” Dora Anthony from the Greek Cypriot Branch noted. “However, Bills of Rights are part of the social superstructure of society, like politics, religion and culture. They generally reflect the economic basis of society, rather than change it. They offer an ideological justification for the existing economic order. They set out its values…

“So what kind of rights might appear in Kevin Rudd’s Bill of Rights? The main emphasis will undoubtedly be on rights of the individual and of individual choice…

“The right which is most fundamental to capitalism, and which notably appears in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is freedom of the individual to own private property. For private property is where capitalists make their vast profits. The freedom could not be more individualistic, as it stands in direct opposition to the freedom of society to keep property in public hands, and to benefit collectively from it.”

While many individual rights are no doubt important and essential, capitalist society glorifies these rights and paints them as absolute and supreme. “This is because individual rights best suit the interests of capitalists. Capitalists rely on individual rights to maximise their gains from society, such as with the right to property… Collective rights, on the other hand, which necessitate the sharing of property, do not suit the capitalist class.

“For capitalists, individual rights are their biggest weapon against the working class. Yet for the working class, their biggest weapon against capitalists is the achievement of collective rights.

“Collective rights, commonly called ‘economic and social rights’, include the right of society to public property; the right of the masses to adequate food, shelter, health, education, transport, culture and work; and the right of workers to join trade unions and collectively bargain for better wages and conditions.

“It is collective rights which we must promote as a Communist Party. For these are the rights which are most consistent with the interests of the working class. And unlike individual rights, collective rights are not double edged – they benefit the working class without exception.”

Dora concluded by pointing out “that it is extremely important for the Communist Party to take a leading role in developing a program of collective, economic and social rights. For it is the Communist Party that people look to for direction in achieving these basic rights for the working people of Australia.”

The discussion on the Party reflects a strong desire to build and strengthen the Party, for the Party to be seen and heard and win the support of the working class and other democratic and progressive forces for it to play its part as The Party for the Future.

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