History: Nest of Traitors
Interview: A Nation of Hope
Unions: National Focus
Safety: The Shocking Truth
Tribute: A Comrade Departed
History: Working Bees
Education: The Big Picture
International: Static Labour
Economics: Budget And Fudge It
Technology: Google and Campaigning
Review: Secretary With A Difference
Poetry: The Minimale
Satire: Howard Calls for Senate to be Replaced by Clap-O-Meter
The Locker Room
To the Victors The Spoils
The Story in General
Thinking of America
Itís Our Party
The union movement is angry, but this time not with the Howard Government or employers. Its anger is directed at seven of the eight state and territory Labor Governments, which are in its collective sights for either opposing the ACTU or standing on the sideline as the peak union body runs a test case in the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) to extend redundancy rights to casual workers and employees of small businesses. Only the Queensland Government is a supporter - and then only as it affects casual workers. Small business remains sacrosanct.
It is not the first time Labor states and territories have stood by as unions have mounted important cases in the IRC. It took the ACTU three years to persuade the states to present detailed submissions, including a specific amount, to the annual safety-net wage review. Finally, this year, they did so, recommending an $18-a-week wage rise - a decision unions believe was a factor in the IRC awarding $17 to the low-paid.
The unions' anger with Labor State Governments on industrial relations issues reflects a deep-seated disillusionment, anger and frustration with the party. There is a strongly held belief among union activists - as distinct from union officials intimately involved in factional infighting - that its political wing has no sense of core labor values from which policies, strategies and tactics evolve.
Although unions have developed a core set of beliefs (outlined in Future Strategies - Unions Working for a Fairer Australia, released at a union conference in Sydney on May 8) the union movement regards the federal Labor Party as still vainly searching for values since losing government in 1996.
For the unions, bitter frustration with their political brethren leaves them two options: use their institutional links with Labor to implement change, or begin to withdraw from the party. For Labor, the latter option would have dire financial, organisational and electoral consequences.
The ACTU secretary, Greg Combet, was circumspect in a speech at the Sydney conference - a three-day event to which no Labor politician was invited - but he did put the political wing on notice: 'There is widespread frustration in union ranks about politicians and political parties [read Labor]. There is a justifiable feeling that much could be done to assist working people and union organisations, particularly by Labor Governments.'
Judging by later comments in his speech, Combet is not attracted to the option of political withdrawal. He wants to take union values and instil them in the Labor Party. In other words, he wants to make a reverse takeover. 'Are we effectively making the case in the Labor Party for improvements for casual workers, for collective bargaining rights, for improved safety and workers' compensation, for low-paid workers? Are the candidates supported by unions for parliamentary elections genuinely committed to social and economic justice?'
The implicit answer is obvious: no. And the explicit response: 'The objective ... should be to broaden the opportunities for members to be involved in political activity - to be involved in setting the goals within the union and broader labor movement.' What the unions now believe (or at least hope) is that the federal Labor Party, largely devoid of a set of beliefs, is finally prepared to listen - for two important reasons.
∑ First, the Opposition Leader, Simon Crean - and any possible successor - realises that the federal Labor Party must reconnect with the broader labor movement. For now, it is far more crucial that Labor does this rather than focus on swinging voters and marginal seats. Re-galvanising the heartland must be the first priority. Unions are taking heart from Crean's reply to the budget speech, in which a core Labor policy, Medicare, was upheld. Although union arguments for the Federal Government's tax cuts to be directed to the low-paid did not make it into Crean's final draft, much of his speech was regarded as a step in the right direction.
∑ Second, in union eyes, Crean's timing could not be better. They argue that there is a huge philosophical divide between the main political parties. It is not about economics (few in the union movement now question the need for a free-market economy); it is about how the dividends of that economy are distributed in terms of policies on health, education, welfare and workers' rights. These are issues of genuine policy difference.
Unions believe that they have changed course, the focus now being on the workplace, on members, on organising. All of this has been achieved in the face of a belligerent Federal Government, largely non-committed state and territory Labor Governments, and emboldened employers.
The unions know that their task is far from finished, but they now expect their political wing at least to embark on the same journey.
This article first appeared in Business Review Weekly
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