- by David Matters
- The Guardian
- Issue #2017
CPA Assistant General Secretary David Matters.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an edited version of a speech delivered by CPA Assistant General Secretary David Matters on the reissuing of comrade Jack McPhillips’ Communists and Trade Unions.
I acknowledge the custodians of this land, the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation. I pay my respects to all the clans of the Eora nation. Sovereignty was never ceded and I pay my respects to elders past and present. I pay special respect to the warrior Pemulwuy who led resistance to the occupation of these lands by the British imperialists. This always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.
I am also grateful to the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) for making their hall available and thank the NSW State Committee for its work in bringing this important book back to life.
I am honoured to be able to speak at this launch of the reprint of Jack McPhillips’ historic pamphlet. When I read through the pamphlet, I was reminded of how influential both Jack and his publications had been in my life and career in the trade unions. He was among those in our movement whose firm commitment to our cause, Party, and class was unwavering. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of unions, awards and the different aspects of the issues confronting the working class.
When this pamphlet was released, the class and the trade unions were in tremendous turmoil both here and abroad. Socialism was in immense upheaval, and huge struggles were afoot.
This period, from the ’70s to ’80s, saw significant changes in political leadership with the election of Margaret Thatcher in England, Ronald Reagan in the US, Bob Hawke in Australia, and Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union. Counter-revolution was on the rise throughout the world and the communist movement was being challenged both internally and externally.
With the overthrow of the Whitlam government, a new era in Australia began. The militant right was led by figures such as Peter Costello, who represented the National Farmers’ Federation in legal action against meat workers of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees. In Queensland, then-Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen was responsible for waging serious wars with the unions. One of the most significant struggles of this period was the 1982 strike by railway workers who fought for a thirty-eight-hour week, which lasted forty-eight hours resulted them being sacked. The SEQEB strike in 1985 between the Electrical Trades Union and the Queensland government over working conditions and the use of casuals was a major battle which resulted in over 1000 workers going on strike.
The 1983 Federal Election win of the Hawke-Keating Labor government with Paul Keating as treasurer exposed Australia to trickledown economics. In the lead-up to the election of this Labor government, major leaders of the trade unions started secretive negotiations over a new pact called the Accord. The Accord offered the concept of a Social Wage based on the principles that, if wages were restrained and business profits increased, this growth would trickle down to workers. The basic principles espoused through the Accord were that we could defeat the extreme right and guarantee the Labor government against the overthrow of the unions in a tripartite relation with government and the employers. A Social wage would be the payment for this trade-off. The Concepts were borrowed from Soviet and communist literature, but as they were gutted of their revolutionary concept, they represented a fake promise to workers. This was class collaboration masked as socialist rhetoric.
For example, as part of the Accord, no-strike clauses were inserted into all awards under the titles of dispute settling procedures. These clauses effectively gave away the right to strike and brought unions under the provisions of the arbitration courts more quickly. Consultative Committees that embedded class collaboration in workplaces were formed. These had been resisted for years.
To bring in these provisions a struggle took place at the ACTU to adopt these terms. It took six special congresses of the ACTU to overcome the resistance. Some unions still held out. The Builders Labourers Federation, the Food Preservers Union of Australia, were among those that were victimised or had their members assigned to other unions because of their resistance. Unions were pushed into amalgamations because they were protecting their right to exist. At later stages of the Accords, industry bargaining was banned, and enterprise bargaining was introduced. The introduction of enterprise bargaining, the abolition of federal awards, and the replacement of national standards were planned assaults on workers.
The difficulty for our Party was that prominent communist union leaders such as Pat Clancy, Tom McDonald, and Pat Geraghty from the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA), and leaders such as Halfpenny Carmichael and others from the then still existing Communist Party of Australia were not only supporters of this movement but were actual advocates. The divisions over this spilled into our Party, with some Party leaders refusing Party directions to cease class collaboration.
Our Party President Pat Clancy wrote a large op-ed attacking our Party and its opposition to the Accord in The Australian. Later these same forces opposed the development of the socialist alliance – a coalition of our Party with other progressive forces – as left sectarianism. The split involving Clancy and McDonald was further complicated when they took part in the formation of the Association of Communist Unity. Another less hostile force, the Maritime Unions Socialist Activities Association, was also formed. These splits separated, divided, and weakened the communist movement.
In this climate, McPhillips stood firm against what he called “the fraud of the Accord.” He led a struggle in the communist movement to restore the primacy of socialism and the primacy of the workers’ party, a communist party, in leading that struggle. Jack taught us to be prepared, to learn our industry frontwards and backwards. To know your award and build your union as an advocate for the industry. He taught us to build alliances with the users of your industry and the public. McPhillips was no sectarian. He looked at the proposals from ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty and his cohort and guided us on how to deal with these challenges.
For example, on award restructuring, while opposing the collaborationist methods, McPhillips urged those of us still in union positions to recognise the necessity to meet the challenges of technological and other changes in our industries to grab hold of restructuring and drive it to the benefit of workers. That advice saw us get in front of the class collaborators and advance the position of workers in the bus industry. However, the attacks didn’t stop. Fighting back against the resistance, class collaborators and the traitorous defection of so many former communist leaders formed an alliance between them, leading many of us to embrace guerrilla-style tactics in the struggle.
Additionally, despite the sinister objective of the social democrats and their collaborators in the communist movement, McPhillips saw that union amalgamation as necessary but that we should resist the conglomerate amalgamation model, instead pursuing industry amalgamation. In pursuit of this agenda, we created the informal Queensland Transport Union Federation with the Transport Workers’ Union (TWU), Rail Tram and Bus Industry Union, and MUA, which later gave birth to a national federation named the Transport Union Federation (TUF). It was built on the proposals by Kelty for industry unionism, a proposal that McPhillips urged us to support. This alliance of transport unions was used successfully in favour of a maritime union struggle. That it was later subverted to a Labor Party faction has not discounted its value to transport workers. The significance of this work can be understood in the attacks of then-ACTU President Martin Ferguson from the Australian Services Union, who attacked all the leaders of the TUF who stood up at a Sydney ACTU Congress urging the implementation of ACTU policy to create and build industry unionism.
Against these attacks, McPhillips’ advice was that comrades elected in this period needed to hold on fiercely to these positions because the objective was to drive all independence and independents out of the trade union movement. He believed that once we were removed it would be almost impossible to get communists back into elected positions. I reflected many times on this when under twenty-six years of constant attacks, watching how even independent-minded militants like Hughie Williams from the TWU were removed. There were quite a few others, and this is continuing in the movement.
The collaboration does not stop with changes to government. The rotations of the two-party system are used to consolidate each setback with Labor governments smoothing out the rough edges left by Coalition governments. This can be witnessed in the defeat of WorkChoices, which had some holes that enabled class struggle to drive through it. This was ultimately replaced by the far more effective Fair Work Act that shuts down struggle and strangles the union movement with well targeted measures.
It can take decades to build tried and trusted leadership. Workers seek and need competent leaders but when your most trusted and competent leaders go over to capitalism in the form of opportunism, this is an overwhelming situation. McPhillips was a giant against this opportunism. This was evident in the battle at the 7th SPA Congress over the Party Constitution and large parts of our Party Program, where McPhillips led a successful struggle in defeating moves to water down our program to transform our Party into an organisation that saw the social movements as primary over class struggle. This is the legacy of McPhillip’s work and leadership, which the reprinting of this pamphlet only reconfirms, renewing that pledge for a new generation of workers.
McPhillips was a legend of our movement. I urge Comrades to study McPhillip’s book, which is a strong argument in favour of communist work in the trade unions that places the priority of the Party as the leading force in that movement. Our Party must prioritise its work in this area. McPhillips was in firm agreement with Marx that the working class does not become a class until it is conscious of being a class for itself and conscious of its historic role as liberator of all classes in society. The creation of the communist party by the Australian working class resulted from that conscious role. The destruction of that party’s unity was a criminal act against the class. Those who put their sectarian views which support reformism as a priority over the creation of the class rule of the working class are responsible – just as any bourgeois politicians – for the continued decline of the working class and its organisation. We call on them to set aside those individual egotistic views that separate them from the interests of the class. Reformism and revisionism make the class a disarmed and atomised group to be the dominated by the bourgeoisie.
Read McPhillips and be inspired and join the struggle for human liberation. Red Salute, Jack. To your firmness, your bravery, and dedication to our struggle!