Sexism is a deadly poison for movements. It decays from inside, rendering a body weak and vulnerable to attack. This happened to the mighty Black Panther Party in the 1960s. Recently, it caused the U.S. International Socialist Organisation’s collapse. The Labor Party (ALP) is seizing on it to conquer the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) — a union renowned for its strength and militancy, which the capitalist class is hell-bent on smashing.
News broke in May that CFMMEU Victorian Secretary John Setka would plead guilty to charges of harassing an unidentified woman (later revealed in court as his partner, Emma Walters). Soon after, someone attending a union branch executive meeting told The Age that Setka had accused anti-domestic violence campaigner, Rosie Batty, of undermining men’s rights. Federal ALP leader Anthony Albanese then publicly vowed to expel Setka from the party. This is despite Setka and everyone else at the meeting insisting that he said no such thing. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) fell into step with its ALP partner, and Secretary Sally McManus called on Setka to resign from his union position. Setka is resisting, correctly arguing that he answers to the CFMMEU membership.
At the official level, the union movement is split along factional political lines: Left unions are standing with Setka; Right and other unions have stepped in behind Albanese and McManus. Given the long-simmering tension in the movement over its ties to the ALP, the party’s efforts to oust Setka could bring it closer to boiling point.
On the ground, social media commentary has been running hot. Some feminists demand Setka’s sacking, while ignoring the union-busting agenda. Some unionists call for the defence of the CFMMEU but sidestep the issue of domestic violence.
Unionism and women’s rights are not either-or battles, and violence against women is not only about aberrant individuals. Driving the offensive against Setka is a misogynist, anti-worker system, which devalues women and all workers. These are interdependent struggles, and we’ll win neither unless we take up both.
Capital’s all-out assault on labour. Strong unionism is threatening for bosses, and the capitalist class sets out to break the ones they can’t rein in. We should recall the 1970s/early 1980s, when unions were winning wage increases against an unsteady profit rate. Big capital had to pacify the union movement, using the carrot and stick as necessary. Bosses were able to bring most of the movement to heel through the Prices and Incomes Accord, brokered by the ALP and ACTU. But unions showing militancy were singled out and bludgeoned, particularly the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), a predecessor of the CFMEU — ending in the BLF’s deregistration. The movement hasn’t yet recovered.
The CFMEU (which merged last year with the Maritime Union to become the CFMMEU) still rubs against the interests of big capital. The union continues to use the stopwork and picket line to enforce safety standards in this notoriously dangerous industry and to defy the retaliatory court orders and heavy fines. Industry bosses and their parliamentary minders (ALP and Coalition alike) constantly repeat “CFMEU” and “thuggery” in the same breath. They’re preparing another bludgeoning.
The legal infrastructure is almost in place. The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) is framed around CFMEU “lawlessness.” Called a “Star Chamber” by unionists familiar with its repressive powers, the ABCC’s purpose is to make it impossible for the CFMEU to be effective as a union. The Registered Organisations Commission (ROC), allegedly set up to stamp out “union corruption,” supervises how unions govern themselves and use their money, with powers to exact punishment. Right now, Scott Morrison’s Coalition government is working to ram through the Ensuring Integrity Bill, which would give the State more power to meddle in union affairs, sack leaders and shut down unions. Minister for Industrial Relations, Christian Porter, has flagged the government’s aim to deregister the CFMMEU for its “extraordinarily high standard of unlawful activity.” The witch-hunt is on.
Build unions’ autonomous, democratic, feminist muscle! In every union, including the CFMMEU, sexism and every form of bigotry must be called out and addressed. Domestic violence and any act of discriminatory, abusive behaviour is union business. Within a union, anyone guilty of this must face the members, especially women and other groups who benefit most from stopping it.
Appealing to the State or the ACTU to sack Setka plays into the hands of the union busters. Contrary to its neutral façade, the State under capitalism is purpose-built to serve the bosses. This misplaced appeal also denies union members’ authority, which is the bedrock of unionism and source of its collective strength.
Democratic union structures and protocols must be in place, under membership control bolstered by women’s leadership. Women are nearly 47% of the Australian workforce. Historic discrimination makes them rare in some industries, like construction, where they account for less than 3%. But everywhere, women workers share unique qualities: They are the doubly downtrodden of every oppressed nation, race and group. Still the mainspring of the family, women bring into the union movement issues beyond the narrow confines of “bread and butter” — such as discrimination and harassment, childcare, healthcare and education. This is especially true of women of colour, immigrants, queer and trans women. Oppressed on multiple fronts, women have a great ability to unify struggles and reach into communities, making union organising more effective.
Union women have the strongest motivation to be militant. For them, “Solidarity” and “Union Power!” are more than ringing slogans — they’re necessary to overturn injustices and overcome oppression.
Defend unionism, fight for women’s rights. First, we need to heed the women at the centre of this fight. Emma Walters and Rosie Batty both warn about allowing the case against Setka to undermine the union movement. Walters’ decision to back Setka, who is seeking help to change, must be respected. Setka promises to help raise awareness about family violence. Men are capable of change, and those who do should be supported.
An all-union defence of the CFMMEU is urgent — initiated and built from below. It will require breaking through the sectoral barriers that keep union ranks atomised and disempowered. A rank-and-file fight for democracy within and across our unions will be crucial in this. So will freeing our unions from the ALP and building an independent, combative movement.
Workers fighting in our collective class interest is at the heart of defending unionism. End State interference in unions, dismantle the ROC and ABCC, enshrine all workers’ rights to paid domestic and family violence leave, equal pay, a living wage for the jobless as well as employed. We’ll have to break the rules: flex our labour power through strikes, stopworks and other strategies, and support each other’s industrial actions.
If bosses succeed in vanquishing union militancy, we will also lose to other colossal onslaughts on workers: women’s reproductive rights and freedom from violence; the rights of LGBTIQ folks, immigrants of colour and refugees; our civil rights to organise in the streets. Uniting these struggles and resisting as a solid front are a matter of survival.
Issued by Radical Women and Freedom Socialist Party (Australia)
14 July 2019