Stop the assault on workers: A call to unionists ready to take the reins of union business

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On November 28, the Morrison government’s Ensuring Integrity Bill, dubbed by the media as the “union-busting bill,” failed to pass. A tied vote in the Senate showed how close the union movement came to being brought to heel by this anti-union government — the first attempt being soon after Morrison’s election in 2017. 

If the bill had passed, the State would be able to wield enormous power against unions that buck Australia’s highly restrictive industrial laws. It could interfere in union affairs, ban or jail officials, block union mergers voted on by members, and impose administrators or deregister unions for the most minor breaches.

The bill didn’t fail because of any show of union power in the workplaces and streets. It failed because One Nation’s two Senators withdrew support and voted against it. The shocked Morrison government vows to bring the bill back to Parliament next year.

The bill is not dead, because the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) refuses to organise workers and kill it. It will come back, because the big employers are demanding workers’ complete subservience. 

ACTU’s class treachery. Responding to the shock result, ACTU’s beaming president, Michelle O’Neill, said, “The vote today to defeat the Ensuring Integrity Bill is a victory for all working people in this country.” She thanked One Nation, along with the Labor Party, the Greens and rightwing Senator Jacqui Lambie for making it possible.

Unionists are voicing their rage over this whole unfolding of events. 

First, the ACTU did nothing to mobilise unionists to collectively resist this do-or-die bill. Instead, the national union leadership sent 45,000 emails to members in the lead-up to the Senate debate with instructions to politely implore One Nation, Lambie and a few other critical crossbenchers to reject it. Contrast this to the ACTU’s massive “Change the Rules” mobilisations in 2018. Its only “solution” to plummeting rights and wages was to elect the Labor Party. Still, workers — having lost faith in the ALP long ago — grabbed the opportunity to show our strength in the streets. In Melbourne alone, up to 200,000 unionists marched, twice. Our chant, “Union Power!,” was loud enough to almost shake the city’s buildings. 

Tied to the ALP and parliamentarism, the union movement “leadership” lags way behind the membership. It’s not fit to lead, especially as the conflict between Capital and Labour intensifies. It will sell out workers every time, because our unaccountable “leaders” are as terrified as the bosses of our militancy. 

Second, unions must never appeal to, nor make deals with, the hard right. One Nation leader, Pauline Hanson, is basking in the glory of allegedly saving workers, as O’Neill would have us believe. A one-time fish and chip shop owner in Ipswich, Queensland, Hanson comes from the small business sector — the petty bourgeoisie, or middle class. Caught between two powerful classes — big Capital and workers — this unstable, nervous class loathes both. Hanson’s explanation for her last-minute switch against the Ensuring Integrity Bill demonstrates this antipathy. Pointing to the recent scandal involving Westpac Bank — exposed for breaching anti-money-laundering rules, — she said her vote was in opposition to the double standard of treating one of Australia’s “Big Four” banks differently from unions. One Nation voted in 2016 for the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the notorious anti-union “watchdog” dubbed the “Star Chamber.” Hanson, a rightwing populist, believes the stick should be used against both classes.

Hanson and her One Nation Party are dangerous, but they are not fascist — as some in the labour and Left movements claim. Hanson is not building a movement to wage a civil war and crush workers’ capacity to organise. Reining in the union movement is not the same as annihilating it and assassinating its leaders or sending them to concentration camps. Hanson and her parliamentary ilk enable fascists, and she has associated with the likes of the True Blue Crew and the former United Patriots Front. She could turn fascist. But to be loose with the term is to miss the signs of fascism when it faces us, and therefore the opportunity to unite against it.

Democratic, militant unionism needed. While lobbying may sometimes deliver a temporary reprieve, it won’t save the union movement. Showing its muscle will. Big Business’s bill is an indicator of the deepening struggle between Capital and Labour, and this is a fight for power. Unions need to look back into our history of militant struggle, such as the General Strike in 1969 that freed Australian Tramways and Motor Omnibus Employees Association (now the Rail, Tram and Bus Union) leader Clarrie O’Shea from jail. Unions then were fighting the Penal Powers. They had had enough, and O’Shea was an example of leadership in step with the members. (See “Lessons from the 1969 General strike: Unity wins — every time!”)

We should also look around us, to the teachers of Québec, the United Kingdom and the United States and to the hotel, copper and auto workers across the U.S. Strikes are back! In many, rank-and-file unionists are circumventing their controlling leaders.

Instead of grovelling to hard-right Senators, we have to show politicians of all stripes that they must heed us, or else. To do this, we unionists need to free ourselves from the leash: fight for democracy in our unions; in the meantime, defy leadership that tries to hold us back. The conflict between Capital and Labour is sharpening, and we have to become the stronger side. 

If you share these views, let’s talk! Contact Freedom Socialist Party:

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