The tale of two conferences: National Union Fightback and the Socialist Alliance National Conferences

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The contrast could not have been greater.  On Saturday 11 June, Socialist Alliance (SA) organised a militant National Union Fightback Conference, involving not only rank-and-file unionists, but the leaders of fighting unions across the country and representatives of the combative UNITE union from New Zealand. Arising from this historic gathering was a defiant statement pointing out that only a sustained campaign on many fronts would defeat the Coalition Government’s broadside attack on workers’ rights. Among the action proposals was a pledge of a solidarity campaign in the event of unionists getting prosecuted or jailed under the anti-union laws. United front organising is what Socialist Alliance does best.

The two following days saw sectarian tensions boil over as the Alliance’s dominant faction, the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP), used its numbers to ram through a series of fundamental changes to the Alliance’s structure.  And far from the comradely solidarity of Saturday, the arrogant triumphalism of many DSP members put non-DSP members of the Alliance on notice that it’s winner-take-all from now on.

Build a solid resistance. This was the central message of the Fightback conference, repeated by speaker after speaker. Unions are going to have to fight the government, and the fight has to be unified. Conference delegates were inspired by the commitment of those union leaders present to lead. Contrast this to those unions which have already adopted a “bunker union” strategy, planning to hide in a deep hole until, they hope, an ALP government is elected in 2007. In contrast, Fightback conference participants were determined that the campaign has to be built from the ground up and rooted in the wider working class community.

Craig Johnston, recently released from Loddon Prison after serving nine months for defending sacked workers, spoke of the need for a union presence wherever working people are. Consulting a few of the leaflets he’d picked up from tables in the foyer, he mentioned upcoming rallies for refugees, for single mothers and for women’s reproductive rights and said that unions had to be there.

Action proposals arising from the conference included an all-out effort to maximise the turnout at the rallies on June 30, establishing a national union fightback network, and encouraging mass delegates’ meetings. In the spirit of what Craig said, the conference also pledged support for the National Student Day of Action on August 10 and the Campaign for Women’s Reproductive Rights July 30 rally in Melbourne. The Fightback conference concluded on an inspirational, defiant note.

Factional manoeuvre. In December 2004, DSP leader, Peter Boyle, published an article in SA’s discussion bulletin setting out DSP perspectives for SA in 2005. These included centralising administration and substituting local branches with “city-wide caucuses.” SA’s Membership and Finances Committee, a group comprised of DSP leaders and Dave Riley, a self-described “non-aligned” SA member from Queensland, then sprung a formal version of the Boyle proposal on the National Executive (NE) in March. There was no attempt to involve the wider Alliance membership in the discussion.

Subsequently, Riley and the DSP put their proposal. The NE was to be slashed in size and denied automatic representation. People who didn’t agree with the DSP view of things were to be dumped off the liaison committee with the DSP’s Green Left Weekly (GLW) newspaper.

Finally, to make absolutely clear that this was a hostile takeover, the DSP/Riley proposal included a $1 per week, per member levy on all branches to pay for the SA National Office. This was after branches had been stripped of funding. The penalty for less than 100% compliance was a refusal to accredit any of a branch’s delegates for the 2006 conference.

Counterattack.  Faced with this assault, Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) and others made proposals aimed at exposing the DSP’s factionalism. FSP proposed that all tendencies have automatic representation on leadership bodies and that no tendencies have more than 40% representation. Upon our draft resolution reaching the National Office, the DSP/Riley contribution was hastily modified to include the 40% cap. FSP also proposed that the GLW liaison project cease and all affiliate publications be supported.

FSP supported propositions by the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) that local branches keep part of the income and that the national levy remains voluntary. We also backed a Workers Power proposal to politically strengthen the Australian perspectives document. All of these interventions were attempts to counterbalance the DSP’s organisational transformation of SA into a slightly looser version of itself.

Sunday ended with most of the minority feeling that we’d won the political argument, even if we’d lost on the floor. We were also bouyed by an evening report from UNITE’s Mike Treen, who regaled us with success stories — like a three-week organising drive in Auckland which recruited over 400 super-exploited workers in McDonalds, Starbucks and KFC!

Numbers game. Monday opened with a definite shift in the behaviour of both the majority and the minority. While there was some defeatism on the minority side, there was a general consensus that it would be a cold day in hell before the DSP had the satisfaction of seeing us quit. Rank-and-file members from across the country came to our literature table to congratulate us on standing up for our principles. Meanwhile the triumphalism of certain DSP members escalated. Childish snickering, finger pointing, partisan applause and talking over minority speakers was common. Peter Boyle felt emboldened enough to openly abuse DSP opponents, accusing us of talking “bullshit,” and vilifying the Wills branch, the largest and most successful united front branch of SA. This was ugly, but it had the benefit of exposing the viciousness of the DSP leadership’s sectarianism. The attempted bullying won Boyle no friends.

The election for the pared-down 15-member NE was in the afternoon. This was where the coup d’état was supposed to triumph. It didn’t work out that way, and the fact that it didn’t speaks volumes for principled politics and mutual respect, and it provides some hope that SA will survive the DSP’s power grab. For some reason, the DSP leadership, with only 53 first preference votes (out of a possible 113), believed that it could win 12 of the positions in a proportional election.

In a posting to the GLW discussion group, Boyle accused all of his opponents of “engaging in unprincipled combinations.” Well, no Pete, it was a political bloc aimed at keeping SA politically diverse and democratic. Tight preference swaps were agreed. FSP’s candidate, Alison Thorne, was elected outright, with nine first preference votes. Both the ISO and NAC ended up with two representatives. Craig Johnston and veteran Indigenous leader, Sam Watson, were elected, which is good news because neither can be pushed around. Craig has stated his support for SA diversity and Sam is a comrade who sees collaboration as vital. So the NE is, objectively, split 8/7 on the question of DSP control. It was a great pity that comrade Humphrey McQueen, perhaps the country’s leading intellectual activist and a key member of the editorial board of Seeing Red, SA’s broad theoretical journal, was relegated to 12th place on the DSP’s ticket. He would be a great addition to the NE. But the DSP clearly wanted control rather than Humphrey’s input. Hopefully the DSP will support him as the NE representative from the ACT.

Clear choices. FSP is collaborating with SA comrades from around the country to continue efforts to maintain the Socialist Alliance as a diverse, democratic united front. The DSP has already started to shrink the organisation. How else does one explain the paltry 38 people who attended the July 4 Break Bad Laws event in Melbourne which featured Craig Johnston as keynote speaker? Building from the top down never works. Central control, without rank-and-file democracy, destroys organisations. FSP wants the Socialist Alliance to grow and become the mass party of opposition to the Howard Government and to consolidate its position as the anti-war party.

The 2005 National conference was a challenge for all who want the Socialist Alliance to become a party for Australian working people and an organising centre for socialism: an Alliance which really works to stop Indigenous deaths in custody and to fight for real land rights; an Alliance that really opposes homophobia, fights for reproductive rights, defends militant unionism, and builds international solidarity; an Alliance which really fights anti-terror laws and demands justice for refugees; an Alliance which fights for the working class in all its diversity.

Not an Alliance which is a pale echo of the DSP.

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Take back the Socialist Alliance!

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