The push for change and the resistance of union and Labor old guard

Unions and their members traditionally speak out on broader economic and social issues such as Australia's trade policy.
Contributed by Joe Montero

The report in The Australian (20 July 2017) about some former Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and Labor Party leaders are calling for sweeping change in the Labor Party’s relationship with the unions is not unexpected. There is nothing new here.

As a rule, it is unwise to comment on the internal operations of organisations that are the business of the membership. However, there are those times when the implications extend far outside the specific organisation and make it everyone’s business. The present argument over unions and the Labour Party is one of those times.

After all, these are the people who, during their tenure, delivered up the union movement in Australia to declining wages and conditions, deregulation of the labour market and its weakening as an important social movement.

Ushered in, was the shift from much more clearly identifiable representative unionism, closely tied to the membership, towards reliance on appointed functionaries in the glossy headquarters of amalgamated super unions, with much less connection to the membership. Unions began to change from organisations articulating the wishes of the rank-and-file, towards enforcing top down policy.

Of course, this shift was incomplete. There has been resistance. But there was enough to compromise the unions and make Labor almost indistinguishable from the Liberal Party for years.

These are the same leaders who played their roles in ushering in the era of neoliberal economics, with its freezing of wage rises, government cost cutting and selling off public assets. This had been imposed as Labor Party policy and lent justification to John Howard’s early claim that he was merely following and extending Labor Party policies to their logical conclusion.

Nothing epitomised more clearly the acceptance of trickle-down economics than Paul Keating’s often stated, “light at the end of the tunnel”. The then leaders of the movement saw that the way to set Australia to economic prosperity was to take away from the wage earner and hand over to the investor, a la Bob Hawke’s need for us to “tighten the belt”.

In a way, the former ACTU and Labor leaders paved the way to John Howard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.

Deep down, the argument now taking place is over whether there should be a fundamental change in direction or not. The position of the former leaders is that there should not be change. Their opponents want change. This is what lies behind the call by the former leaders for the Labor Party to distance itself from the union movement. Why? Because this is where the push for change is strongest.

Former ACTU secretaries Bill Kelty and Greg Combet and presidents Simon Crean and Jennie George have called for structural reform to the Labor Party, to remove union influence that Combet has called “suffocating”.  He used opposition towards the privatisation of the NSW electricity system as an example, suggesting that the unions worked against the Australian interest. It buys into the false accusation that the interests of unions, and by implication of their members, are somehow contrary to the interests of the rest of society, and that because of this, unions must be kept in check.

Their call for change has nothing to do with combating the factions and putting the Labor Party in the hands of the membership, as has been claimed. The purpose is to counter a growing mood that has been aired in the leadup and during the party’s national and state conferences.

Support for change is based on the increasingly restless workplaces, where the neoliberal course that has led us to where we are now, has not only not delivered positive change, but made the conditions faced by wage earners and small business worse, while the big end of town has gained all the benefits.

For this reason, consciousness of the need for change has bubbled up through the ranks and been felt by the present leadership. The same bubbling is also driving the counter push. One side wants to remove the legacy that continues to hang around the necks of the unions and Labor.

Chartering a new course requires a coming to terms with the truth of the past and overcoming its legacy. There is still some way to go in both respects.

At a certain level,the present leadership has recognised the need for change, being  acutely aware that if nothing is done, the support base that has slowly eaten been away over the years, remains brittle and could conceivably collapse under the weight of the disappointment and sense of betrayal.

Consequently, some policy changes are being brought in. Will it do the trick? No. It is not enough.

Circumstances call for more substantial change than promises and a few resolutions written down on paper. A new vision is needed. One that inspires enthusiasm and draws many into active participation in bringing about the change. To occur, the vision must be connected to concrete action that clearly heads in the new direction,  which in addition to redistributing the wealth of this country more equitably and building a sustainable economy, works to build a more inclusive, caring and just society than we have at present.

None of this is possible, without rejection of the old road, having faith is Australia’s working people and unashamedly embracing the building of a grass roots political movement that will empower the citizens of this country and remove the iron grip, of the economic and political elite that presently holds the power in its hands.

Without such a change and if the position of the majority continues to deteriorate, anger from below will become more pronounced and Labor’s base will continue to shift to the Greens. It may even give rise to alternative political formations.

In the the call of the former leaders to capture the middle ground by becoming more like the Coalition is both wrong and a dead end.

Labor has a good chance of replacing the Turnbull government at next year’s election by default. The problem it will then face, if it fails to be a real alternative, is how to cope with the impact of the once again, crushed expectations and anger of its supporters. If this is what we get, the prospect is a shirt-lived government, to be replaced by a Coalition that is  likely to be more firmly under the grasp of the radical faction.

The need for change will still be there. But more people may be asking whether the present setup has the capacity to make the transformation, and if not, what is the alternative?


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