Trade unions, war on the waterfront, a pretty good time for dialectics
In their desperation at their failure to make any headway in the opinion polls, the ideologues of the Liberal-National Coalition are getting wackier by the second, as are the hysterical pundits of the ruling class in the media. Peter Costello even redbaited Kevin Rudd the other day in an extremely eccentric way, asserting that Rudd’s use of the word dialectic had a Marxist flavour.
The right-wing commentariat have also gone ballistic, attacking the ABC’s docu-drama about the waterfront dispute, Bastard Boys, which they say is labour movement propaganda.
From another corner, the DSP leadership and a couple of their hangers-on have also lashed out at the ABC drama. Peter Boyle, in particular, has made a kind of papal pronouncement from his post of general secretary, and his hanger-on, the ferocious and irascible Ratbag Radio Riley, sounds off about how he had difficulty watching the show because he hated all the personalities so much. Gee whiz.
Lenin repeatedly described such inane, moralising sectarianism as “scolding scoundrels” and pointed out what a dangerous practice it was to use this as an alternative to real analysis.
In fact, as docu-dramas go, Bastard Boys was pretty good, unless you require popular culture to be a type of prolet-cult, with only positive heroes, which as Trotsky constantly pointed out is idiocy when it comes to literature and art.
The political core of the DSP’s attack on the ABC drama is the implication that the waterfront struggle was a defeat, and certainly a betrayal. This standpoint is buttressed by inane moralising about the fairly obvious fact that it included a bit of a puff for Greg Combet, who is rapidly emerging as a serious figure in current circumstances, pushing the trade union movement to the right. For the DSP leaders, the current circumstances are extrapolated back to the waterfront dispute.
From a Marxist point of view, this approach to the waterfront dispute is false. The dispute ended in an awkward, qualified victory for the working class and the trade union movement in the sense that serious trade union organisation was preserved on the waterfront, which is in marked contrast to the British waterfront, where trade union organisation was effectively destroyed.
The DSP leaders’ inane, ostensibly leftist, attack on the waterfront dispute takes that dispute out of space and time. The dispute was forced on the workers’ movement by the ruling class and the waterfront employers by way of a lockout, with the intention of destroying the union. It took place at a time of relative trade union weakness and a certain working class demobilisation.
In retrospect, the tactics adopted by the Maritime Union leadership weren’t too bad. What was the practical alternative?
The ultraleft criticism of the dispute generally implies that there should have been a general strike. The problem with that proposition was that in the concrete conditions of that time the possibility of a general strike was nil.
The tactic adopted early in the dispute, of community mobilisation and picketing as an alternative to a general strike, or even to a sympathetic strike by the other sections of the maritime union, turned out to be very effective.
The community picket virtually stopped the waterfront in every city. Just about every labour movement activist, left and right, joined in the picket, as well as many other people, and it was a high point of defensive struggle.
The DSP critics of Bastard Boys seem to object to the unions having taken legal action in the courts. That’s totally nuts. The lawyers behind the legal action didn’t act in a vacuum, but in a climate shaped by the community pickets, and the courts made their ultimately favourable decisions for the union in the context of the problem created for the ruling class by the community pickets.
The courts were a kind of circuit breaker. It’s fantastic ultraleft bullshit to object to effective court action by a union in sync with community action.
There were many human tragedies associated with the struggle. One rather conservative federal official of the union, with a Communist Party background, had been a political opponent of rank and file militants in the MUA that I had been associated with for 10 or 15 years.
Nevertheless, this overweight, workaholic, rather conservative union official was up to his ears in the picketing during the dispute and had a devastating heart attack, which brought his trade union activities to an end. He was a casualty of the dispute. He was a political opponent from one point of view, but also a bloke who struggled hard for the union. Such are the real contradictions that exist in situations like this.
The ultimate settlement was a brutal compromise. A large number of the Patricks stevedores were eventually persuaded to accept a substantial redundancy settlement. That wasn’t a good result from a trade union point of view, but it was close to inevitable in the circumstances. It’s worth noting that quite a number of the workers were rather happy to take a redundancy package and get out.
In the previous 10 years many waterfront workers had been accepting fairly substantial redundancy packages under what was called the Robinson Formula, including a large number of the traditional militants. I’m proud to have been associated with quite a few of those militants in their dogged struggle in the 1980s to defeat earlier attacks on conditions on the waterfront, but eventually they were worn down by events.
Despite the loss of some conditions during the ruling class offensive, work on the trade-union-organised Australian waterfront still remains among the better blue-collar jobs available. There are a fair number of workers trying to get jobs on the waterfront in a unionised framework.
In Bastard Boys the lionising of Combet and the generalisation of necessary defensive tactics at the time into a whole theory of trade unionism grated on me. I was a bit amused by the fictional Bill Kelty character making noises about a general strike, which I’m pretty certain he would never have done.
Nevertheless, it was effective drama. The tracing of the high and low points in the dispute and the negotiations were credible, most of the casting was good, and the hysteria of the ruling class about the show is a better guide to politics than the pettiness, political unsoundness and personal vindictiveness of the Riley-Boyle perspective.
It’s worth noting about the necessary and effective legal action that Josh Bornstein has since taken a number of useful cases on the union side and the then more or less apolitical QC, Julian Burnside, has developed into an important defender of refugees and critic of the Tory government on a number of questions.
People like Riley and Boyle are becoming more and more tiny echoes from the ostensible left of the cultural-political wars conducted from the right by pretty well the whole of the bourgeois media.
The polls seem to suggest at the moment that the left side of Australia is increasing numerically as we speak, and has stopped listening to people like Piers Ackermann … and Dave Riley.
PS. The indefatigable Third Period wallah Norm Dixon has taken to more and more indiscriminately whacking up every item from the bourgeois media suggesting further betrayals by Rudd and the Labor leaders.
The other day he posted from the bourgeois media a piece of obvious ruling class propaganda, aimed at pressing Rudd to shift further rightward on industrial relations. The implication was that it was an accomplished fact that Rudd would back away further on individual contracts (of course, it’s possible that might happen eventually, given the constant pressure from the ruling class). Nevertheless, it didn’t happen, and the other paper of the ruling class was forced to report on the same day that Rudd was reluctant to retreat further because Labor’s own polling shows that the population is deeply hostile to Work Choices.
That’s the dilemma facing Bonapartists like Rudd and Gillard. That’s where dialectics comes in. Rather than the automatic and idiotic Third Period reaction of Dixon and co, implying that further Labor leadership betrayals are inevitable, it would be considerably more useful to focus on the contradictions as they proceed.
But Dixon, in his implacable hostility to all the official institutions of the workers movement, posted the propaganda item from the press trying to push Rudd to the right, but not the item that appeared the same day suggesting that Rudd and Gillard were for the moment resisting that pressure.
If anyone forms their view of the world in Australia from the selections from the bourgeois press posted by Dixon, they won’t have a clue about what’s happening in the world.
In his usual scissors and paste role as Jesuitical attorney for the Boyle leadership of the DSP, Nick Fredman posts a number of references to DSP articles of the time on the MUA dispute.
I have some disagreements with part of that analysis, but that’s hardly the point in this discussion.
Riley’s explosion of venom and Boyle’s pronouncement clearly represent a moving away from that more measured DSP analysis in the current DSP chatter about inevitable Labor and trade union leadership betrayals. I was particularly drawing attention to that.
Fredman’s comments are quite beside the point.