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Issue #1484      8 December 2010

Power in the Union

Independent, Organised, Militant

The NSW ALP President stepped down from his post last week, forced out by an incredible ultimatum from Premier Kristina Keneally. Keneally had told Joe Riordan to quit as President or she would resign as Premier. Riordan is secretary of the NSW branch of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) whose journal Livewire had advised members to support candidates that would support them, including non-Labor Party candidates.

“In the interest of members, the ETU will support candidates but only if they support us,” the union’s December edition of Livewire advised members. “These candidates will include members from all political persuasions - including Labor, Liberal, Nationals, Greens and independents.”

The assumption behind Keneally’s ultimatum is that trade unions that are affiliated with the ALP or whose leadership is ALP are expected to deliver electoral support for the ALP. This is regardless of their democratic decision-making processes, policies or members’ interests.

The Liberals and mass media continuously accuse Labor of being in the grip of the trade unions. Just last Friday the Australian Financial Review (3-12-2010) ran an editorial calling on Labor to change course, that “since Labor came to government in 2007 it has gone out of its way to look after its union mates.”

As Keneally demonstrated, the reality is quite different: “its union mates” are expected to look after the ALP. The Rudd and Gillard governments, far from looking after trade unions, failed to tear up WorkChoices or abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). Gillard has no qualms about sending building workers to jail for refusing to attend interrogation sessions of the ABCC.

Unions poured millions of dollars and thousands of hours of campaigning into defeating the Howard government. The Rudd government did not live up to expectations on industrial relations, occupational health and safety, health or education funding and the Gillard government is even less promising. At the state level the ETU in NSW has given $750,000 in the past two years (Daily Telegraph, 3-12-10) and its members are still fighting for the defence of public services and their jobs.

For too long the ALP has had a tight grip on the trade union movement. Prospective trade union leaders are routinely asked or even told to join the Labor Party. If they don’t, then their development or election will not be supported, regardless of ability.

As the ALP fails to deliver, union officials become caught between the needs and demands of their members and the conflicting policies of Labor as it pursues neo-liberal economic policies in the interests of the big end of town.

Riordan is not the only trade union official to be stomped on for not toeing the line. The Victorian secretary of the ETU, Dean Mighell was forced to resign from the ALP by Kevin Rudd because of his militant defence of workers.


The NSW ETU has been fighting a long battle against privatisation of electricity assets, Sydney ferries and prisons. The various battles on the floor of state ALP conferences and within the parliamentary caucus have seen premiers come and go in rapid succession, one of the key issues being privatisation of electricity.

Livewire warns what the election of a Coalition government would mean for unions and their members, making references to what a former WA Liberal government did with individual contracts and public service cuts.

“Seventeen public sector unions will resist cuts to services. We will be collectively lobbying politicians from all political parties to support the Better Services for a Better State campaign in the lead up to the next election and we will hold the government to account over the next four years.”

The union “will support individual candidates in individual seats that pledge to protect the working rights of members.”

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) is one of a number of other trade unions that have warned Labor that they can no longer be taken for granted. CFMEU Mining and Energy Division general secretary Andrew Vickers spoke out angrily about the federal government’s failure to implement the recommendations of a mine safety report that was handed down in 2007.

Political alternative

A number of unions made donations to the Greens in the last federal elections. The Victorian branch of the ETU gave $125,000 to the campaign to elect Adam Bandt in Melbourne and a further $200,000 to help Richard Di Natale become the first Greens senator for Victoria. These donations were based on the industrial relations policies of the Greens, including the abolition of the ABCC. The ETU nationally donated millions of dollars to the ALP last year and as Mighell pointed out, it got them nothing.

No political party has the right to dictate trade union policy. Trade unions are independent organisations with their own democratic decision making structures. Trade union policy should reflect the interests of its members and their families. That is their primary role in the class struggle in Australia.

For too long the ALP has had a tight grip on the trade union movement. As Labor fails to deliver, union officials are increasingly under pressure from their members to take action and take on governments pursuing neo-liberal economic policies and supporting the interests of the big end of town. To defend the interests of their members, trade unions must be able to determine their own policies, take independent action and support parliamentary candidates of their choosing.

Both the Liberals and Labor fear nothing more than a militant, independent, left and progressive voice in the workplace or the political arena. Witness how both parties rather preferred to see the other elected than a single Greens member in the lower house in the Victorian elections. (See Editorial.)

Labor historically has played the role of a safe (for capitalism) alternative government that can deliver the union movement, especially during tough economic times. The strident attacks on Riordan, on Mighell and on the building unions are evidence of Labor’s unwillingness to tolerate militant, class struggle in defence of workers’ interests.

Labor has taken union and working class support for granted for too long. If trade unions are to win back lost members and improve working conditions and living standards of their members, they must be independent in addition to opposing privatisation, defending Medicare, defending public education as well as act on workplace issues.

In March 2011, unions in NSW have a great opportunity to work with the Greens, to stand their own candidates, support other left and progressive political forces such as the Communist Alliance. The opportunity is there to exert their independence and take steps in the parliamentary struggle as well as on the ground to begin building a government of a new type.  

Next article – Editorial – 2010 – Crisis year for the two-party system

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