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Book Launch – the way forward for the union movement

By Passy - 23 September 2008 2

Speaking tour on controversial new book on the Australian union movement

Tom Bramble, senior lecturer in industrial relations at the University of Queensland, and a member of Socialist Alternative, will be touring eastern Australia to introduce his new book Trade Unionism in Australia: a History from Flood to Ebb Tide, just published by Cambridge University Press. The book tells the story of trade unionism in Australia between the highpoint of union militancy in the1960s and the state of the movement today.

But the arguments he makes will not be popular with those who run the union movement.

In a series of meetings that address the question “What’s the way forward for the union movement?”, Tom argues that a revival of the fortunes of the union movement depends on a revival of militancy. He goes on to argue that whether this collapses or is sustained will depend on the outcome of sharp debates between those forces trying to rein it in, and those that want to push the process as far as it can be taken.

The book argues that the current union leaders are not likely to pursue changes that challenge their position. Nonetheless, a revival is neither impossible, nor without precedent. At the start of the 20th century, and after the Great Depression, Australian unionism recovered from major setbacks. On both occasions the intervention of organised socialist groups provided the driving force to recruit and rebuild.

Tom Bramble argues that “At the heart of rebuilding membership lies the capacity to organise and struggle. Creating organisations that can rebuild such traditions of militancy is the crucial element in the struggle today to revive Australian unionism”.

Tom will be speaking at meetings sponsored by Socialist Alternative at the following times and places. Copies of the book will also be available at these meetings.

Canberra: 6pm Wednesday 1 October, Room G053, Hayden Allen Building, Australian National University

What’s Your opinion?


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2 Responses to
Book Launch – the way forward for the union movement
Granny 12:05 am 29 Sep 08

Passy said :

The recent Fairfax dispute is a good example. Workers at the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age struck against job losses. Printers were prepared not to cross picket lines. The leadership of the MEAA, the journalists’ union, backed down. Fairfax management have won a major victory – real wage cuts and large job losses.

Bramble argues a rank and file movement which controls its own union can transcend the class timidness of the paid officials and win real gains. Certainly that could have been the case at the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age. Both are profitable and shutting them down could have forced the bosses into grovelling to its workers to come back to work with more staff and real wage increases. It didn’t happen because after twenty years of centralising power in the hands of the paid officials the membership didn’t feel strong enough to run the campaign themselves and relied on those officials for whom all out industrial action is the devil incarnate.

I really do agree that the Fairfax dispute was a disgrace. Not happy, at all!

The unions have done some wonderful things in their time, and contributed greatly to the society we enjoy today. I love the green bans, for instance. I am a huge fan!

They have also hurt a lot of people, often the poor people are hit hardest by strikes as they have less options available to them. I have personal experience of this from my years as a single parent living below the poverty line and trying to raise three small children by myself.

I can’t believe that militancy can be great general strategy for the country at this time. All things in balance, Passy.

Passy 10:40 pm 28 Sep 08

Unions seem to be in terminal decline. At their peak over 50 per cent of workers were union members. Today the figure is less than 20 per cent.

The question for the left has to be: How can we rebuild unions and unionism?

(Presumably the right thinks the decline of unions is a good thing.)

Tom Bramble in his new book “Trade Unionism in Australia: A history from flood to ebb tide” looks at this very question through the prism of the history of trade unions and their struggles over the last fifty years.

It is an ambigous record. It ranges from mass struggles run by rank and file workers to class collaborationist policies like the Accord which concentrated power into the hands of the ACTU and other paid officials and saw a major decline in strikes.

In one vignette Bramble compares the 1969 struggle to free Clarrie O’Shea from jail for organising strikes with the 2007 Your Rights at Work Campaign.

O’Shea refused to pay fines imposed on his union for striking. John Kerr jailed him. 17 left wing unions, with mass membership support and involvement, organised rolling general strikes across Australia. With much of the country paralysed, the flow of profits drying up and with more strikes on the way, a mysterious benefactor paid the fines and after five days O’Shea walked from jail triumphant. The penal powers became a dead letter. Employers were too afraid to use them.

The timid and tepid 2007 Your Rights at Work campaign was run from the top down, involved tokenistic demonstrations and wasted millions on advertising rather than mobilising workers to fight the laws. Your Rights at Work was a failure. Oh sure, it helped get Rudd elected, but Rudd’s Workchoices retain most of Howard’s anti-union laws. Failing to learn from their mistakes, the ACTU is about to embark on another round of useless Your Rights at Work advertisments, this time against the Labor Government. Why not strike against these laws, pussycats of the ACTU?

Why not indeed? The paid trade union leadership fears its membership and them “getting out of hand” more than it fears the bosses and the Government. At best it wants to use the threat of indistrial action (but not the reality) to force concessions from the bosses and employers. When the bosses don’t back down the paid officials cave in with some rotten compromise.

The recent Fairfax dispute is a good example. Workers at the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age struck against job losses. Printers were prepared not to cross picket lines. The leadership of the MEAA, the journalists’ union, backed down. Fairfax management have won a major victory – real wage cuts and large job losses.

Bramble argues a rank and file movement which controls its own union can transcend the class timidness of the paid officials and win real gains. Certainly that could have been the case at the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age. Both are profitable and shutting them down could have forced the bosses into grovelling to its workers to come back to work with more staff and real wage increases. It didn’t happen because after twenty years of centralising power in the hands of the paid officials the membership didn’t feel strong enough to run the campaign themselves and relied on those officials for whom all out industrial action is the devil incarnate.

Union officlas are not workers. They balance between labour and capital and their role is to sell the labour power of workers to bosses. Some are more inclined to threaten and take action, but in the main they retreat to the safety and comfort of negotiations with bosses.

Bramble descirbes the period between 1968 asd 1974 as the flood. During this time unions, often under rank and file control, fought major strike campaigns to smash the penal powers, gain real wage increases and defend jobs. They imposed green bans, struck against apartheid and the Vietnam war and helped move society the Left. This militancy contributed to the ALP victory in 1972.

The fact that they turned society to the Left through their actions gives the lie to the claim that strikes alienate potential voters. By dividing society on cass lines they bring into focus (even if it is a soft focus) the politics of class, something which has traditionally favoured Labor.

The Accord, with its class collaboration and trickle down theory – what’s good for the boss is good for workers – laid the ground for Howard. Under the Accord union officials became more powerful while their memebrship lost any vestiges of control of their unions. This centralisation of power, with the paid officials acting as the policemen of the workforce, saw unions begin to lose more members.

The failure to fight Howard in any significant way – even the waterfront dispute was a victory for the bosses – saw the downward spiral in membership continue.

Bramble shows that when unions take concerted industrial acton with strong rank and file involvement, membership increases. Workers join unions so they themselves can control to some extent their workplace and get better pay and jobs. They don’t join unions for cheap cinema tickets.

Rank and file control and militiancy hold the key to the successful regeneration of the union movement in Australia.

Tom Bramble is launching his book Trade Unionism in Australia:A history from flood to ebb tide on Wednesday 1 October at 6 pm in room G 53 of the Hydon Allen Building of the ANU. Tom is a member of Socialist Alternative (www.sa.org.au).

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