Good policies but will struggles follow?
by Warren Smith For four days 643 delegates from 35 unions, 7 Trades and Labour Councils, plus ACTU officials and staff, deliberated over trade union policy at the ACTU Congress in Wollongong last week. Most policy decisions were adopted unanimously reflecting a highly organised and managed affair where most of the final decisions had already been determined prior to hitting the Congress floor. The back rooms were alive with activity. Throughout the four days there was very little debate even over supposedly contentious issues. In reality there was no policy or ideological contest which had been a feature of many past ACTU Congresses. ALP Policy A main trend throughout the Congress was the re-election of a Beazley Labor Government. Kim Beazley spoke to the Congress on day two and received a standing ovation from the delegates and, playing to the audience, said much of what the trade union movement wanted to hear especially in relation to his attitude on industrial policy. He spoke of the need to promote collective forms of bargaining, re- establish the powers of the Industrial Commission to conciliate and where necessary arbitrate. He told the Congress of his intention to reverse the restriction of awards to 20 allowable matters and that he was going to throw out Australian Workplace Agreements (individual contracts) and the employment advocate with them. Forgotten was the fact that a number of these policies (eg. the paring back of awards) had been initiated by the Keating Government in the first place. The day before the Congress he was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying that he would place provision within the Industrial Relations Act to allow certain forms of secondary boycotts although he made no mention of this to the Congress. He also maintained his position regarding the pursuit of trade liberalisation and the policy of "free" trade, stating that the main thing within trade liberalisation was "access to other's markets". He made clear that a new Labor government would support the inclusion of core labour standard clauses within the auspices of the World Trade Organisation. This is a main demand of the TNCs although strongly opposed by third world countries. It would be fair to say that most leading trade unionists see the election of a Labor Government as the cure to many of the problems they are currently facing. Many of those problems unfortunately have arisen as a result of policies implemented by previous Liberal and Labor governments. Restructuring Significant changes are taking place within the structures of the ACTU. More power has been transferred to the ACTU Executive which will now have the ability to make or alter policy as well as to review and alter affiliation fees and impose levies. The ACTU Council has been discontinued but there is provision for Special Unions Conferences to be held with the same representation as the Council. There is also provision for proxy voting which means that a limited number of representatives can vote on behalf of a whole delegation. These developments introduce a dangerous trend towards bureaucratic control which could make debate at Congresses and even Congresses irrelevant. Provision has also been made to ensure 50 percent representation on the Executive for women and also among the Vice-Presidents. Young people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives will also be included on the Executive for the first time. The Executive will provide for the direct representation of unions with 8,000 or more members while a number of smaller unions with less than that membership will have one representative for all such unions. Charter of Workplace Delegates Rights The Congress launched a "Charter of Workplace Delegates Rights" and paid tribute to the role of the workplace delegate as 200 rank and file delegates marched into the hall. The Charter which lists twelve points will be pursued for inclusion in awards and in enterprise agreements. It is based around employer recognition of the delegate and provision of time and resources to adequately carry out his or her responsibilities at the workplace. In many industries the Charter will be a step forward when implemented. At present many delegates have very few rights to organise on behalf of members. Wages, Superannuation and Collective Bargaining Within the policy concerning "Wages, Superannuation and Collective Bargaining" most attention was directed to raising the "living wage" and to the importance of this for low paid workers. The current Federal minimum wage is around $400 a week and the ACTU is striving to raise this to a minimum of $500 per week. There is also a call to increase compulsory employer superannuation payments to 15 percent (at present it is 8 percent). Some very interesting and revealing statistics were put before the Congress highlighting changes to the wages-profit share of the national income. It would be no surprise to Guardian readers that the share going to wages has fallen drastically at the expense of a rising share going to profits. Company profits have more than doubled in the period from 1991 to 1999. Productivity has increased and the average hours worked has also increased with many workers performing unpaid overtime. With the onset of the GST further erosion of real wages are inevitable and the unions will have plenty to do to maintain the position of workers with all these factors in mind. Women Considerable attention was given to the rights of working women. Some of the main areas affecting women workers are equal pay, the balance of work and family life, parental leave particularly for casual employees, maternity and childcare arrangements. Women remain one of the most exploited sections of the workforce and it is imperative that action follows on from the policy decisions outlined at the Congress to improve this state of affairs. Communications and Campaigns Heavy emphasis was given to the question of union communications with main emphasis on the use of the Internet. It is accompanied with a new ACTU logo and the new slogan "Unions Work", which all unions are being encouraged to use. The ACTU has also revamped its website and is now providing the ACTU National Directory on CD-rom. The Economy and the Role of Government Congress rejected the idea that governments should "rely principally on market forces for solutions to the nation's problems and challenges". It calls for a social audit to examine the impacts of the policies of economic rationalism as well as for an emphasis on maintaining jobs growth and achieving full employment and for a review of the taxation system. The industry and trade section of the policy calls for a Trade and Industry development program that would see the creation of more jobs — 300,000 over the next decade — and the creation of a stronger manufacturing sector. There is also much emphasis placed upon reaching solutions to the many environmental problems facing Australia through a long-term plan to protect our natural and cultural heritage. Globalising Social Justice The delegates folder contains a "Globalising Social Justice background paper" but it did not contain any policy draft. This may be related to the media speculation over a rift between some unions and the ALP over the issue of "fair trade" or "free trade". Never- the-less the background paper is nineteen pages long and ultimately takes a position that could be termed a fair trade position. "Fair trade" was never really defined during the debate at Congress but seems to centre around the application of core labour and environmental standards. "Fair trade" is a general statement that in many respects needs to be defined more clearly before it can hope to be anything more than a general motherhood statement. The term mutually beneficial trade seems to make more sense but whether this is what is meant by those unions that have advocated fair trade remains unclear. According to the paper "The ACTU opposes any model of trade liberalisation which results in the exploitation of working people". Does any model of trade liberalisation carried out by conservative governments and trans- national corporations, the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF not result in the exploitation of working people? The reality is that it is these forces that are the ones pushing all the models of trade liberalisation. Furthermore, exploitation occurs in the process of capitalist production and is not just confined to matters of trade. There appears to be a substantial contradictions and lack of clarity in this debate and the paper must be read within the confines of social- democratic thought for it to ultimately make any sense. International campaigning and solidarity International campaigning and solidarity is high on the ACTU's agenda. This is particularly so with regard to the CFMEU's Rio Tinto campaign, which in many ways has qualitatively raised the level of international solidarity with networks of unions internationally getting on the front foot to take on this giant anti-union trans-national. International guest Richard Trumpka secretary/treasurer of the American AFL/CIO raised objections to China's human rights record within his contribution. One wonders whether the bombing of Yugoslavia was considered by him to be an abuse of human rights or whether his comments about China reflects an ingrained anti-communism. At the same time, Trumpka voiced strong support for the anti-WTO demonstrations at Seattle and Washington. The ACTU document lists trade union issues in Indonesia, Burma and China, claiming that "In China, [there are] state sponsored unions with no ability of workers to form and join independent unions." (Note: In Australia, since the establishment of the Arbitration system, trade unions have to be registered with and have their rules approved by the Industrial Commission which is a state sponsored body and they cannot legally function with out this approval.) The ACTU plans to continue working with some of the international trade union bodies around trade and labour standards issues, child labour, women and trade union development. One of the organisations listed is the Trade Union Advisory Council which is associated with the OECD, a peak body of the governments and big business organisations of the developed capitalist countries. Industrial Legislation This policy can be summarised in the following points: re-establishment of awards, collective bargaining, restoring power to the Industrial Commission, strengthening union rights in relation to industrial action, job security, protection of entitlements, capping working hours, balance between work and family life and strengthening access to unfair dismissal procedures. The incorporation of ACTU policy into legislation would create a far easier situation for unions in which to operate. Beazley has promised to implement many of the ACTU's demands but it would be best to wait until it is on the Statute Books before we get too excited. The ACTU's position on industry agreements and "pattern bargaining" is another positive feature of the policy. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders There are extensive policy proposals around the question of rights and the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. There is also support for a treaty and recognition of past injustices that have been carried out by unions as part of the history of white invasion, colonisation and settlement. Recognition of the injustices is seen as necessary in the development of a social justice partnership between the unions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and there are many good proposals for action. Union Education There is a shift in emphasis to workplace delegates and workplace campaigning which calls for delegate training as well as training of organisers. Training is moving away from a classroom-based style with a focus on integrating education with organising. This seems to be a sensible move making union training a less abstract concept. There will also be a focus on training the members as educators rather than just relying on the specialist union trainer. Youth Proposals relating to youth are mainly centred around increasing involvement of young people in unions and the question of discriminatory age-based wage rates and casualisation. The policy contains many good points, which if implemented would strengthen the position of young people within unions and see a higher rate of young people joining the union movement. Employment Standards Five key points are raised in this policy. They are 1. Reasonable working hours; 2. Work and family balance; 3. Employment security; 4. Casual employment rights; 5. Protection and portability of entitlements. Bargaining and strengthening awards incorporating these conditions is generally seen as the way to improve the position in each category. It is unfortunate however, that the answer to the whole question of casualisation is seen through the improved conditions of casuals as opposed to the struggle to secure permanent work for casuals who often work as many hours as permanent employees. Australia is now the second highest casualised country in the world. Many excellent policy proposals were advocated by the ACTU in addition to those mentioned here. Much work has been done around the extremely important question of Occupational Health and Safety. Too many workers die in the workplace, the number now reaching 8 every week in Australia. Policy has also been developed in the hope of eradicating the poaching of union members by referring conflicts, when they arise, to the ACTU for resolution. This was one of the areas of contention at what was a generally united Congress. One of the problems is that the unity was mostly around policies acceptable to the ALP and was achieved by backroom negotiations rather than by open debate on the Congress floor. It would seem, if anything, that the ALP has strengthened its grip on the union movement. Collaboration between the "left" and the "right" was a dominant feature. Numbers notwithstanding, the left's position seems to remain weak as questions of class consciousness and the class struggle are almost completely ignored by the union movement. The belief that the ALP will rescue the union movement is widespread but is a dangerous illusion as has often proved to be the case in the past. Although there is talk of a more independent position by unions as far as the Labor Party is concerned the realities of this Congress speak otherwise. Class struggle? There is no clear anti-capitalist, class conscious, or class struggle position being put by most trade union leaderships, let alone any mention of socialism. However, the class struggle exists independently of and outside the confines of the ACTU Congress as witnessed by continuing struggles by working people on many fronts. The Congress has to be assessed not only on the policies it did adopt but also on those policies on which it remained silent or unclear. The opportunity to bring forward an alternative progressive taxation system is an imperative of the moment but the opportunity was missed. If another accord is off the agenda then photographs of Kim Beazley, Greg Combet and a BHP Steel products President, Lance Hockridge, breakfasting together and the extensive corporate sponsorship displayed at the ACTU Congress would suggest that some arrangement of a formal or informal nature is not yet being ruled out.