The left, the unions and the Labor ranks
There’s overwhelming sentiment throughout the workers’ movement, except among a small coterie of cranks, that the pressing question of the moment is the removal of the Howard Government and its replacement by a Labor government led by Kevin Rudd.
Many on the left hope this will be accompanied by a strengthening of the Greens in parliament.
Alongside this lies the difficult circumstance that Kevin Rudd clearly sees himself as an innovating conservative figure, and wishes to move the general policy and practice of the Labor Party to the right. Recent parliamentary leadership actions, such as declaring policies on IR that weren’t clearly decided on at the recent Labor federal conference, clearly indicate that he wishes to establish his right to decide policy rather than accept the policies decided by the structures of the Labor Party, such as federal and state conferences.
Rudd has also, in recent weeks, clearly indicated a desire to marginalise union influence in the Labor Party, if that is at all possible.
What part of all this represents his own aspirations and what part is an electoralist response to the relentless pressure of the media and the ruling class is not entirely clear.
It’s possible that Rudd and Gillard are telling the unions that this is necessary for the elections, but the reality after the election will be more pro-union than the current rhetoric.
Rudd and Gillard in these matters are Bonapartists, in the sense that they balance between the different forces and the pressures exerted on them. All this puts the trade unions and the Labor rank and file, both left and right, in a difficult position.
The desire of the left half of Australian society to get rid of Howard and elect Rudd is palpably apparent to anyone with even half a brain. Eccentric voices on the left, such as the man called Raven on the GLW list, who talk recklessly about driving a wedge between the unions and Labor are objectively playing into the hands of the reactionary forces in Australian society.
The overwhelming majority of the left half of Australian society, including the most active people, of whom there are many tens of thousands, recognise that it’s necessary to work hard to defeat Howard and elect a Labor government. It’s not possible, however, to evade the issues that have been served up to us by recent events. The ranks of the movement, both left and right, and the ranks of the trade unions, must unite to defeat the pressure coming in the final analysis from both the ruling class and the media, to marginalise the unions in the Labor Party. That’s the political imperative of the moment, along with the other political imperative of electing a Rudd Labor government.
The opposite argument, that it would be a good thing if the unions were pushed out of the Labor Party, is political poison from the point of view of the future of the workers’ movement. The result of such a development wouldn’t be any growth of a leftist alternative, it would be the further demoralisation and retreat of the socialist forces and the class-struggle militants in Australian society.
If Howard gets in again, it is unlikely to lead to a radicalisation, it’s much more likely to lead to further demoralisation and retreat of the left.
The major current project of the ruling class, that of driving the unions out of the Labor Party (even if Rudd is making major concessions to that pressure) is much easier said than done, thankfully from the socialist point of view. Left and right factions of the Labor Party, both federally and in all six states and territories, are factions in which union interests are very powerful and often dominant.
It’s clear that some Labor politicians both left and right would like to get rid of this “incubus” of trade union influence, as they see it, but it’s not in the nature of the unions, either left or right, and in this instance their leaderships, to easily give up their long-held prerogatives. Even most leaders of the trade union bureaucracy who in the final analysis make their living out of the unions and to their credit are emotionally committed to the institutions in which they’ve spent most of their lives, understand that the union movement is fighting for its life.
It flows from this conjuncture of contradictory circumstances that the leadership of important militant unions, both left and right, ought to take the initiative for the formation in every state of something like the Pledge Group of unions that existed in Victoria for a number of years.
A national Pledge should focus on a kind of minimum program, which should involve a “thus far and no further” kind of approach.
The first plank should be the election of a Rudd government. The second plank should be total defence of trade union affiliations, interests and prerogatives in the Labor Party. The third plank should be the insistence that the incoming Labor government adopt an industrial relations policy acceptable to the overwhelming majority of unions on key matters.
The fourth plank should be vigorous opposition to further privatisation. The immediate cutting edge to that battle is the latest push for electricity privatisation in NSW.
A fifth plank should be opposition to so-call public-private partnerships, which usually mean that the public shoulders the burden of debt and the private sector pockets any profits.
The whole of the labour movement should be mobilised to fight around this kind of minimum program. In the real world of politics, it’s obvious that the main momentum for such a mass Pledge-style movement will come after the election, rather than before. However, with the instructive experience of the past few weeks in front of us it seems to me the preliminary work on such a movement should begin now, and it has been forced on the unions and the ranks of the workers’ movement by the speed of events.
PS. A very important aspect of the coming electoral battle will be the question of the necessary comprehensive national exchange of preferences between Labor and the Greens. Feral Greens in a few places should be vigorously persuaded to accept a preference deal with Labor for the general good.
It is necessary, by negotiation, to remove any possible basis for the kind of thoughtless actions by the Labor leadership in Victoria at the last federal election, which led to the election of the Family First senator instead of a Green, and contributed to Howard’s (one hopes) temporary grip on the Senate. It would be a tragedy if sectarianism on the part of either Labor or the Greens damaged the chance of wresting control of the Senate from Howard, given the importance of a progressive majority in the Senate to make easier the necessary campaign for progressive policies from a new Labor government.
June 8, 2007
The lines are being drawn on pushing unions out of the Labor Party and Riley, Raven and their mates are on the side of the conservatives in this battle. Ratbag Radio Riley and the curious man called Raven have made their views quite clear: it would be a good thing, not a bad thing, if the unions were pushed out of the Labor Party.
That’s also the view of the current DSP leadership, although they don’t express it quite as crudely as Radio Riley.
Riley posts on the GLW list as good coin a lengthy article by Andrew West, who I know quite well. he’s a pleasant enough bloke personally, but he’s clearly one of the technocratic centre-right figures in the Labor Party who want to push unions out of the party to free up Labor parliamentary leaders from the pressure exerted on them by trade unions.
He’s the author of a reasonable, mildly critical, biography of Bob Carr, but his technocratic parliamentarist views and hopes are quite clear in that book.
He dresses it up with a bit of rhetoric about how he has been a unionist, but his core aim is to free Labor leaderships from trade union pressure.
Kevin Rudd’s staff is stuffed full of people like Andrew West, with similar views: get rid of the union incubus from the Labor Party, again dressed up in a bit of rhetoric about how unions would get a better deal for their members if they weren’t tied up in Labor politics. Pigs might fly in some alternative universe, but in the one we inhabit, freeing Labor politicians of trade union pressure would leave almost no restraint on how far they would go to the right.
No less a luminary than former Labor prime minister Paul Keating joined the anti-union push on Lateline last night, and this is reported with enthusiasm in the bourgeois press this morning.
It is true that the divisions between the organised left and right factions in the Labor Party have diminished and become a bit confused, but the most conservative force in both the left and right factions are the parliamentary aspirants who want to get rid of union influence. Blind Freddy can see that about labour movement politics at the moment.
The Murdoch newspapers, in particular, are in an absolute frenzy pressing Rudd and his supporters to push the unions out of the Labor Party. The Murdoch papers have taken to routinely referring to unionists as union thugs.
The chronic and sclerotic ultraleft politics of the present DSP leadership are carrying them into the same camp as Andrew West et al. Dick Nichols recently issued an eccentric press release that baldly said the Socialist Alliance was the major force that had generated the struggle against Howard’s Work Choices.
Delusional ultraleft politics can take you almost anywhere, in your mind, but in the real world of the labour movment, that cautious but reasonably militant body, Unions NSW, is busily organising two things in its current campaign. A Unions NSW bus will visit eight or nine non-urban marginal seats over the next couple of months, helping to organise and train several thousand activists in its marginal seats campaign. At the same time, as part of the same campaign, Unions NSW is preparing a petition directed at Kevin Rudd and the Labor leadership with five or six minimum demands on trade union and workers’ rights, in the most careful and respectful language.
My understanding is that the five or six demands are very concrete and Unions NSW is aiming for, and probably will get, several hundred thousand signatures to this petition in NSW. Unions NSW, at least, sees no Chinese wall between organising to elect a Rudd Labor government and insisting that such a Labor government represent the interests of unions and workers.
Riley and his mates are welcome to line up with Andrew West and his associates in trying to push the unions out of the Labor Party, but my choice is the trade union base of all the major Labor factions, which are asserting workers’ prerogatives, interests and rights in the ALP, and insisting that a future Labor government defend the interests of unions.