Shortly after the federal election, I received an electronic survey from my union, the
Australian Services Union. The leadership was asking for members’ feedback on the
election and the Your Rights at Work campaign. I thought: this is great — members get
to say what we think.
Since the union movement’s focus on the Your Rights at Work campaign shifted from
fighting to voting, I definitely had things to say! Especially after my union did not
endorse an all-union rally in September to protest Howard’s anti-union laws, but instead
put all of our resources into electing a Labor Rudd government which had pledged to
muzzle militant unionists.
So I got straight into the survey. After preliminary questions about my union
membership, I hit the first snag: which of these parties did you give your voting
preferences to and which are you closest to — Liberal, National, Labor, Democrats,
Green, the ultra-right One Nation or Other. I was not the only unionist who voted for
socialist candidates, but there was no box for us. I ticked “Other/Independent” and
The next hitch was identifying the issues that influenced my vote. Political leadership,
healthcare, education, industrial relations laws, climate change, housing affordability
were all good offerings. But “security and the war on terrorism” (what about our
civil liberties!), “management of the economy” (the profit system needs an overhaul,
not management!), and “Australian jobs and protection of local industries” (reeks of
nationalism) bothered me. Absent were: the war in the Middle East, even though Rudd is
sending more troops into Afghanistan; women’s reproductive rights, even though parts
of the union movement are running campaigns for paid maternity leave and childcare,
and abortion rights is again a hot issue; rights for lesbian/gay/bi/transgender/intersex
workers, even though many unions have active queer caucuses, and same-sex relationship
rights is a national campaign; Aboriginal rights, even though unionists — Indigenous and
non-Indigenous — are involved in the resurgent Aboriginal rights movement. Worst of
all, we had to choose one as “the single most important issue” that decided our vote in the
election! This stumped me. I couldn’t answer the question.
I wondered about the purpose of the survey. I’m hardly alone in thinking of anti-capitalist
alternatives and acting on these many battlefronts. Union members talk about these issues
every day. We march in the streets, and we organise.
The survey highlighted the gulf in our unions between the officials and the members
they claim to represent. It froze out the voice of radicalism, which is growing in the
membership as the multi-issued struggles of our lives intensify. This is what scares top
union officials as they try more desperately to preserve a fragile status quo: they’re scared
of rank-and-file radicals and militants rocking the boat!