The role of socialists in the union movement today

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CPSU workplace delegate, Alison Thorne, addresses striking CPSU members at Moorabbin Call Centre, October 2005. Workers were campaigning to defend working conditions. Photo from

This article is an edited and updated version of a talk given by Alison Thorne at a Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) meeting on 31 August 2005. Thorne is a workplace delegate in the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) and an activist in the rank and file caucus, Members First.

With the Howard Government gearing up for a massive assault on unions, designed to weaken — or even smash — the ability of workers to collectively organise, it is timely to revisit some of the broad, guiding principles for socialists in the union movement.

Getting it right is a tricky, but essential, balancing act. On the one hand, there are those who abstain from the real struggles of the movement and confine themselves to abstract propaganda. We all know the types who will put out a fine-sounding leaflet calling for a general strike but who don’t see the importance of being involved in the day-to-day basic work of unionism in their own workplaces. They may raise a formally correct call about what is required, but are so disconnected from the working class that they do not have an audience for their ideas.

On the other hand, there are those who get so buried in the day-to-day activities of the union movement that they absorb its backward culture — to such an extent that you can no longer tell they are socialists. Worst of all, they lose their confidence in workers. When this happens, they become part of the problem, not the solution.

The basic principles the Freedom Socialist Party applies when working in unions have been developed over many years.

The ABCs of class. In 1977, Clara Fraser, co-founder of the FSP, gave a presentation, titled The role of revolutionary socialists in the labor movement, at a Trade Union Conference sponsored by the party.

She recapped on the Marxist ABCs of unionism. These underpin why socialists consider it so important to work in unions.

Firstly, the working class is the most decisive class in society, because it is the only class capable of taking on the capitalists. Workers have the daily power over the tools of production and can bring the capitalists to their knees, stopping production and, with it, profit.

Add to this the fact that working people own nothing but our ability to sell our labour and that workers are exploited because we do not get the full value of this labour. Bosses, however, need workers, because they cannot make surplus value out of machines: only human labour creates value. Workers are organised by the production process itself, which brings us together at a common worksite and requires us to work together in a disciplined manner. This prepares us to work together in a union against our exploiters. Our conditions are constantly being driven backwards. But because workers have nothing to lose but our exploitation, it is in our direct interest to struggle for power.

Clara Fraser also explained that unions are different from other types of organisations. They are not coalitions and they are not political parties. They are mass organisations of the working class and the basic weapon of struggle against the bosses for a larger piece of the pie.

Challenges ahead. Australian workers have a mighty struggle ahead of us to even keep the amount of the pie we now have. Not long ago, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane exposed John Howard’s real agenda. In an interview on radio 2GB, Macfarlane argued that Australia needed to cut its labour costs in order to compete with the cost of labour in New Zealand. This demolished Howard’s completely unbelievable spin that his industrial relations changes are about higher wages!

NZ introduced the Employment Contracts Act in 1991. By 1997 real wages were lower than they had been in 1977. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union has also released some comparative figures for companies which operate in both Australia and New Zealand. A cleaner at McCains gets paid $10.75 per hour in NZ and $16.29 in Australia. A Forklift driver at Visy gets $14.69 an hour in New Zealand and $22.74 in Australia.

Given this, the role as socialists in the union movement is to do all we can to ensure that our unions function as weapons of struggle against the bosses. We need wins on basic bread-and-butter issues, as these are survival questions.

Socialist aims and tactics. In 1924, James P Cannon, founder of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP), made an important speech at a Communist Party (CP) Conference of Coal Miners, held in St Louis, Missouri. A prominent leader of the Communist Party at this time, Cannon presented Our aims and tactics in the Trade Unions when the CP was developing practical policy for its work in the union movement.

Cannon reminded those assembled of their revolutionary aims. He proposed to the miners that “we weigh and judge every trade union question that comes before us, no matter how small or practical it may appear to be, in the light of our final aims.” He stressed that, as proletarian revolution is the final aim and the only solution to the exploitation of workers, the work of socialists in the union movement — like other work of a revolutionary party — must lead towards this goal.

Consequently, said Cannon, socialists sometimes have to take unpopular stands. He gave the example in the 1920s of the importance of the fight to push the union movement to organise against the Ku Klux Klan and reveal its reactionary nature. He argued that exposing the Klan was essential for combating the prejudice of the masses.

Similar examples today would be standing up for refugee rights or undocumented workers. Another example would be challenging union leaders who call for more tariffs. Or posing alternative tactics to union leaders’ calls for summits of bosses and unions to appeal to government for more industry assistance, given that such assistance is nothing but corporate welfare. When faced with these arguments, the task of socialists is to show that these are not solutions but temporary fixes for profit-addicted business. The aim is to win our workmates to the need for making common cause with workers around the world. To do this, we need to put concrete demands and alternative tactics.

When Cannon gave his speech, the CP was small and facing a backlash against it in the union movement. Cannon argued that the party’s primary task in the unions was to master the art of taking a practical stand on every question and relating it skillfully to the final aims of the movement. He explained that the main criterion for evaluating union work is to assess whether it deepens and extends the class consciousness of workers.

Cannon also emphasised that the work of socialists in the union movement is to organise the rank and file to work with us on the basis of class struggle. He said that it is far more important to get acquainted with ten new workers and make them a part of the organised fight than to win dozens of resolutions at a convention by an accidental majority. Cannon puts it simply and clearly when he says that we are fighting for hearts and minds. Union officials can turn our best resolutions into mere scraps of paper, but they cannot discard the workers won over to our way of fighting and thinking.

Standing in union elections. In this speech, Cannon also cautioned about holding full-time office in unions and becoming candidates in elections. He didn’t say socialists should never do it, but stressed that it must be governed by proper policy and based on a strong connection with a mobilised, class-conscious rank and file. He said that socialists never sneak into office by being vague about what they stand for or avoiding unpopular questions of principle.

For example, Members First, the rank and file group in the CPSU led by socialists, ran a ticket in the 2005 union elections. They rejected an approach to run a joint ticket with CPSU Action, a split-off group from the union’s leadership. The reason for this decision was that, after careful exploration, it was clear that there was insufficient political agreement between the teams. Members First ran its own ticket on a principled, explicitly class struggle platform and attracted an average of 20% of the vote in a three-way race for the seven national leadership positions. Members First candidates were also elected to a number of section councils. Jonathan Sherlock, respected as an open socialist, a workplace delegate and chair of his regional delegates’ committee, achieved 38% of Victorian Centrelink members’ votes to represent them on the union’s Governing Council.

Members First was clear that, while being in it to win, the point was to use the election to promote the need for democracy in the union. The candidates advocated an end to sectional bargaining that results in widely varying conditions across the public sector. Members First also placed the need to actively resist Howard’s assault on unions at the centre of its campaign.

The election campaign would have met with Cannon’s approval, because it was run on a clear policy with socialist aims.  

Cannon concluded his speech by emphasising that the party’s progress in the union movement is not measured by formal victories on paper, but “by the development of class consciousness of the workers and the influence of the Party, by the extent to which its activity inspires the workers with the spirit of determined struggle.”

Political independence. Another document which guides the FSP’s work in the union movement is the 1954 trade union resolution of the U.S. SWP, titled Class struggle policy in the unions.

The resolution emphasised a number of key points, including the need to break from the Democratic Party which continues to disorient union officials and workers who vainly hope the election of Democrats will protect and improve their standard of living.

While the Australian Labor Party is not the same as the U.S. Democratic Party, many of the points made are equally valid in Australia.

In the current struggle against the Howard Government’s anti-union agenda, we are faced with the very real issue of many union leaders and workers believing that the election of a Labor government will solve our problems.

My own union, the CPSU, is a classic example. It is not strongly mobilising workers to fight the anti-union laws. Instead, its strategy is to hide in a bunker, hoping to stay below the radar and survive until the re-election of the ALP. Meanwhile, working conditions in the public service will be decimated.

What those looking to the ALP for relief refuse to remember is that the party brokered the Prices and Incomes Accord in the 1980s: a pact between capital and labour to hold down wages, which caused grassroots union structures to wither away. It was the ALP that deregulated the economy and began the selling spree to privatise public assets. It was the ALP which insisted that workers be more productive, pay rises be tied to productivity and workers be required to bargain at an enterprise level. It was the ALP which introduced policies such as enterprise bargaining, which sent the quest for equal pay for women backwards.

And now, it is the ALP which has announced that, if re-elected, it will retain Australian Workplace Agreements which are specifically designed to undermine collectivity.

A primary role of socialists in the union movement must be to argue that under both Coalition and Labor governments, workers have to struggle — and must organise independently. It is essential to explain that working people cannot rely on Labor to save us. Socialists need to expose the ALP’s appalling track record of having concessions forced out of it by massive resistance. However, while having no illusions in the ALP, socialists must make demands on Labor, mobilise to extract promises and hold Labor governments to them.

Look to the oppressed. A second crucial element of the 1954 resolution was a call to orient to women and people of colour in the union movement. To quote: “It would be disorienting to count on vanguard action by the old militants who stormed the open-shop bastions to found the modern union movement. They are wearing out along with the limited union program of their militant days. The party must look to new young layers of potential militants and to the women workers, the Negroes and other minority groups. They are the ones who will spearhead labor’s political radicalisation.”

In Australia, we need to only examine public opinion polls to see the potential of new forces if we can find ways to connect and organise. A clear majority opposes Howard’s anti-union plans and disagrees with statements such as “unions have too much power.” This tells us that many workers who are not in unions, who work as casuals and in unorganised workplaces, are open to being organised. And it is often new forces who have not absorbed some of the more conservative culture of unionism, who will surprise with their radicalism.

Unite, the union in New Zealand which has organised workers in fast food chains and call centres, highlights what is possible. Workers at Pizza Hut are demanding that the boss super-size their pay, and the first strike of Starbucks workers in the world — organised by Unite — took place recently in New Zealand.

Revolutionary unionists… The third key element in the 1954 resolution is that party branches need to have regular discussions about party work in the union movement to ensure that it is firmly integrated with the party’s general work. Campaigns to expand the circulation of the Freedom Socialist and the Freedom Socialist Bulletin must be part of our union work. And, of course, we also want to invite militants to join the party.

In Clara Fraser’s 1977 speech to the FSP Trade Union Conference, she elaborated on what it means to be a revolutionary unionist.

We take up the fight around every so-called bread-and-butter issue, but we do not confine ourselves to these issues. Lenin called radical unionists who did so “economists.” Economists believe that organising in unions for better pay and conditions is the only task needed to make a revolution. This counterposes the struggle against the bosses with the struggle for state power.

In the union movement, revolutionary unionists should be candid, open radicals who connect social, community and union issues. We work to raise political consciousness and are the best defenders of workers’ interests. We must also be prepared to take up, and fight around, seemingly small concerns.

…versus trade union bureaucrats. In Clara Fraser’s speech she looked to Trotsky’s Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay.  In this piece, Trotsky examined how unions were becoming fused to the capitalist state. When this happens, the trade union bureaucrats become the bosses’ political police against the rank and file. The union bureaucrats often rely on the capitalist state to prevent strikes. I see this in the CPSU where the elected officials refused to support workers stopping work to protest Howard’s industrial relations laws, arguing that it’s illegal unless in a “protected bargaining period.” Or they rely on the state to impose arbitration. This is not surprising, as the role of the officials is to settle disputes, not mobilise workers to take state power. This makes the fight for union democracy a crucial one which we must always take up.

But the union bureaucracy is not a monolith. There are divisions within it. Some are more conservative and some more radical. We should consider how to work with the best. In our own fight against Howard’s workplace changes, there are huge differences between the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) — which did not want the June 30 strike — and the Victorian Trades Hall Council executive’s pivotal leadership in calling a delegates meeting and recommending action.  This action meant that other states could be brought in behind the Victorian action, despite the role of the ACTU.

Looking ahead. Socialists in the union movement should not just advocate one “S” word — Socialism. We also need to popularise another key word for these times — Strike! When workers collectively withdraw their labour as part of a political struggle to defeat anti-worker legislation, that is a level of class consciousness we want to see.

All aspects of the anti-union laws must be resisted. Building workers are under serious attack. Legislation passed by the government means that a mass murderer now has more civil liberties than a construction worker. The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union is calling on the whole union movement to be ready to take mass action — as it did in defence of the Maritime Union of Australia — should any one of its members be prosecuted.

Another task we have is to challenge those with an economist approach by linking the attack on unions with the government’s Welfare-to-Work agenda. Howard’s changes to welfare are about creating a pool of workers who have no choice but to accept the low-wage jobs, which the implementation of the anti-union laws will bring. We need to resist these laws and the welfare reforms together, as the twin pillars of Howard’s fourth-term agenda.

The leadership of the union movement needs to hear, loud and clear, from rank and file workers, and it is the job of socialists to ensure they do. For example, every socialist in the union movement should get behind the petition to the ACTU Executive which calls for an industrial campaign to be conducted in tandem with the current community campaign. (Contact: for a copy.)

We must do all we can to ensure that the campaign ahead takes up the fight against every attack. We must also aim to stop it being derailed into an ALP re-election movement. If the ALP is re-elected on the back of a union movement fightback, without being forced to commit to repealing the anti-union laws in their entirety — including AWAs — then working people could become demoralised and cynical. Our job as socialists is to convince our fellow workers that there is a way forward and to provide that lead.

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