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  Issue No 106 Official Organ of LaborNet 10 August 2001  

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Letters to the Editor

Botsman Goes Crosby


The bottom line for Michael Crosby is: When will the "Australian version of the organising model" lead to a 5% or even 1% increase in union membership? will it take one year, five years, a decade? how much money is being spent on the model in the meantime? are there other alternatives being pursued? or, are all the Australian union movement's eggs in one basket? are the lack of results being disguised by slogan mongering, solidarity conjuring "class war" ideology?

Give me the much criticized Accord over ideological purity any time! I was one of Kelty's minor critics. But on occasion I think he disliked me almost as much as Michael Costa. But despite any criticism of Kelty I might have had I never varied from the view that Kelty was one of the best thinkers and strategists the union movement has ever had. As opposed to the one-dimensional meat and potatoes fare served up in Michael's letter, he seemed to understand that the world is a highly complicated place and that the union movement had to be involved at all levels of social and economic activity.

Sure he failed and made mistakes on a number of fronts, but they were failures that came of having grand strategy, over-stretching and perhaps being too insular at the top. He too needed to listen to his critics even the ones he didn't like or disagreed with completely. Bill sometimes mistook criticism as disloyalty and it wasn't that.

But why is it that when things get tough and hard, and murky and complicated, like some knee jerk reaction, we have to conjure up a class war? trot out the same old shibboleths? does it make our dwindling numbers feel better? What does "fighting a class war" mean? Does it mean that the union movement is fighting a class war between employers and employees? If so what are the unions obligations to the underclass, to the nation and to other labour movements in less fortunate countries beyond a facade of solidarity? What is the union movement's obligations to work for a macro-economy that supports growth and falls in inequality? What is the union movement doing to work with the one million unemployed apart from offering Kevin Brennan and UNEMPA one small room up at the Queensland Trades and Labor Council building? Is it because they can't pay dues that they're not an important part of the class war? Are they not core union business? What happens when unions win victories that favour their own minority membership over the interests of the broader working community?

It was a mark of the Accord years that Kelty at least put all of these issues, in one form or another, centrally on the table and had considered responses to them. All the opinion polls say Labor lost its own grass roots support because Kelty and Keating reached too high. But everyone is missing the point if they think that we need to go back to some solidarity culture to ensure that support comes back and they are certainly missing the boat if they think this is a way of winning new members.

John Howard has gone backwards to the future and so it seems has the Australian union movement. It seems the union movement wants to use the MUA victory, the current controversy in the building industry as talisman for strategy? No matter how sympathetic you are, those victories are no substitute for an alternative vision of the future. I don't hear it coming from you Michael nor any of the leaders.

But you are right to suggest I am six years out of touch. But from where I and so many outsiders sit, you feel like saying, hey the war is over. It's okay you can come out of the jungle. You can throw off those rags and get into new clothes. The air is sweet, the sky is blue. There are other fights ahead, but there is no need to fight the old ones.

Sure everyone with any compassion and sense of history supports justice on the waterfront, but no matter what the historical and ongoing importance of the waterfront to the Australian union movement we are talking about thousands of workers in a workforce of millions, in a world of power which just not reducible to a bi-polar class power.

The reason I keep talking about small business is that it would create a new culture of organising and thinking within the union movement. At its best the AMWU was and is about creating value from manufacturing to preserve high skilled, high wage jobs? It is also important to be thinking about creating value in areas which are highly labour intensive? Including in social wage areas as Mark Latham and I have argued. Michael, your reply is pretty cynical and bunkerish. We have our own Australian "organising" model and we are using researchers to target those members we think we can get and which will bolster our ranks. It reads as if you are suggesting young people and small business employees are either to hard to organise or not worth the

bother!

Also Michael recommended bed time reading Chapter 6: Organising an International Perspective in that old tomb Unions 2001 from six years ago. It takes you beyond the Americans and the Australians to the union movements that represent 80% of national workforces and don't have to use that tired old concept of the union movement as the biggest membership based organisation in the country as a screen to disguise what is a falling membership base?

What the hell does "trusted" researcher mean? Does it mean trusted not to tread on any union leaders toes? Does it mean trusted not to stray to far from the ideological line? Not to go to far from the jungle? Not to release too much truth if it hurts? Is a trusted researcher one that is not free to mention that union numbers are down and that union control of State Labor conferences has not been adjusted accordingly?

After Michael's letter I hear John Robertson read out his survey of the change around in community attitudes to unionism and you think when was that survey commissioned, just after a prominent dispute like Onetel where the CPSU did have a clear media and ideological win? Is it just a public relations stunt?

The demise of the Evatt Foundation and the tragic failure to release what I am sure was a highly creditable report on the GST is testimony to the fact that the union movement must play it absolutely straight with research. You do no credit to ACIRRT to say that they are trusted researchers. They are simply the best labour market researchers in the country. But then perhaps the union movement needs to even more clearly let that work speak for itself and lets not ever create a culture where people are afraid to question and debate the results of any organisation's research, no matter how well respected they are.

Jamie Galbraith's visit to Australia for the Hawke and the Whitlam Institute opened my, and no doubt, many other peoples' eyes to the need for an alternative, post Keynesian macro-economic strategy of the kind that Bill Mitchell up at the University of Newcastle has espoused for many years.

That's very hard work to develop, very hard work to administer properly, it requires a lot of education and training and discipline on the part of the union movement as well, if it is to be successful. Have we come so far from the union movement that once would have invested in these ideas? Or will the union movement just fight street battles defending its last bastions of representation, picking off new membership targets as they come, regardless of the big picture?

Peter Botsman


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*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 106 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: In Exile
Burmese's government in exile's Minister for Justice U Thein Oo talks about a struggle for democracy that has become a test of international solidarity.
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*  Politics: A National Disgrace
Labor's IR spokesman Arch Bevis gives his take on the workers entitlements issue and its mismanagement by the Howard Government.
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*  E-Change: 2.2 The Information Organisation
Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel look at how network technologies will change the way organizations operate in the Information Age.
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*  Media: The Fine Print
Mark Hebblewhite looks at how the major dailies handled the Tri-Star dispute and finds that the story really does depend on the telling.
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*  Human Rights: A People Besieged
Labor MLC Janelle Saffin, an active supporter of the pro-Democracy movement in Burma, sets out the issues behind the ILO sanctions.
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*  International: Postcard From Brazil
The CFMEU’s Phil Davey reports on a rural movement that puts our National Farmers Federation to shame.
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*  History: Indonesia Calling
They needed no resolutions. Soldiers and workers who did not know one another moved together, the black ban started to reach out across the harbour from the noisy, smoke-filled room.
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*  Solidarity: On the Frontline
Australian trade unionists are providing practical help for the Burmese through projects funded by APHEDA-Union Aid Abroad.
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*  Satire: Skase 'Too Ill' to Fly Home for Burial
Spanish authorities have deemed Christopher Skase too ill to return to Australia for his own funeral.
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*  Review: Living Silence
In these extracts from her new book, Christina Fink goes inside Burma to find a world where military repression is slowly crushing a people.
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News
»  Revealed: ABC Censors Industrial Reporting
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»  WorkCover Revisited – Public Sector Laws Rammed Through
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»  Bras First in Burma Boycotts
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»  Tri Star Only the Start of Entitlements Push
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»  New Spying Tactics Hit Work Cars
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»  Howard’s Secret Anti-Worker Plans
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»  Direct Action to Increase Nurses' Worth
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»  High Court: Courier Was Employee
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»  Victory for Academic Freedom
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»  Put A Stop To Acoustic Shock
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»  Builders' Bucks: Payroll Tax Evasion Rife
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»  Tassie Workers Brew Up a Storm
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»  HIH Collapse Hits Arts Industry
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»  Labour for Hire Not Entitlements
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»  Rail Inquiry Into Treatment of Homeless
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»  ACTU Awards To Reward Union Excellence
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»  Activist Notebook
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Columns
»  The Soapbox
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»  The Locker Room
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»  Trades Hall
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»  The Soapbox
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Letters to the editor
»  Botsman Goes Crosby
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»  Left Right Out
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»  Belly's Shout
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»  Ode to the New Serfs
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