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Issue #1498      4 May 2011


The AWU and the carbon tax

Unions have a duty to defend their members from attacks including the many that flow from government policy. But there is a type of “politicking” that has taken root in the Australian trade union movement that is turning potential members off and endangering future growth of the most basic form of working class organisation. It is also taking the Australian Labor Party even further off political course.

A notable example of this took place during the coup against former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd when Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes and his predecessor Bill Shorten (the current assistant to federal treasurer Wayne Swan) were locked in discussion about the future political leadership of the country. The pair – both members of the ALP’s right wing – had turned on Rudd when it appeared that the public was responding to the multi-million dollar scare campaign from resource transnationals to have the mining super-profits tax scrapped.

The tax was toothless and the compensation on offer to profit gorged corporations was more than generous but what the monopolies don’t want doesn’t happen in Australia. A similar thing is happening with the federal government’s long overdue response to Australia’s shamefully high level of carbon emissions. Again, the Australian Workers Union and especially its national secretary are making the headlines. “Not one job” will be allowed to be lost or the AWU will be at war with the federal government.

Once again, the tax being discussed would hardly turn a hair on any transnational’s head. Companies will be at liberty to pass on cost increases to consumers. That is why the government is talking about compensation to households. The details are not available but there is already a commitment of compensation to big business, particularly those in “trade exposed” industries like steel production.

Despite the assurances, there is already an unholy alliance between the AWU, the Coalition and the steel producing transnationals. “BlueScope and the AWU now both agree that a carbon tax will do irreparable damage to the Australian steel industry,” BlueScope Steel chief executive Paul O’Malley said recently.

Mr Howes is right to protect every single job currently held by workers in the steel industry though it does give rise to questions about the response to job losses in other sectors. Why was no such line in the sand drawn for the loss of other jobs over the years as a result of government policy?

Mr Howes is also right to question the effectiveness of a carbon tax in halting climate change that is already delivering disastrous consequences in the form of storms and floods to the people of Australia including members of the Australian Workers Union. But like every other politically aware person, the AWU national secretary has a responsibility to press the government for a range of climate change policies that will work.

They won’t be palatable to the transnationals. The necessary measures will involve an almighty effort on the part of the labour movement and the community against monopoly interests. It would be refreshing to hear some enthusiasm for that struggle coming from the leaders of the Australian trade union movement.

The AWU has a long history of king making and driving policy within the ALP – most of it in the rightward direction. The union is making much of recent growth in member numbers though some of those claims have been questioned. The suggestion is that the union leadership’s political outlook is popular with workers and that it deserves to have an even bigger influence on the ALP including the parliamentary party.

A recent report to the ALP’s national executive showed conclusively that this attitude is not correct. It has had disastrous consequences for the party with large-scale loss of membership and the folding of branches. Recent state election results prove that people do not approve of the backroom dealing style of politics that dominates the ALP. They don’t like the cosying up to big business interests over privatisation and other crucial policy decisions. The same could be said for the trade union movement. Workers want their unions and their leaders to be genuinely and consistently independent of the party or parties in government and to speak up for policy that is truly in their interests.  

Next article – A tribute to a tireless fighter for human rights – Victor Robert Williams

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