The Guardian July 5, 2000


ACTU Congress:
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.

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