Palestine movement can’t afford to dismiss Labor dissidents and unionists

Involving dissenting Labor members in the Palestine movement is necessary to pull in the large number of Labor supporters and unionists we need to win, argues Ian Rintoul

When WestAustralian Labor Senator Fatima Payman stood up to oppose the genocide in Gaza, her words sent shock waves through the establishment and shook the Labor Party hierarchy.

Her words were what the tens of thousands demonstrating for Gaza since last October have wanted to hear.

“I ask our prime minister and our fellow parliamentarians, how many international rights laws must Israel break for us to say enough? What is the magic number? How many mass graves need to be uncovered before we say enough? How many images of bloody limbs of murdered children must we see?”

Her speech included an explicit call to “Free Palestine from the River to the Sea”, the phrase that so disturbs Anthony Albanese and other apologists for Israel.

But when Payman came to show solidarity with the Sydney University Palestine encampment, instead of being welcomed, she was interrupted by members of Students for Palestine demanding that she “quit the party”.

Similarly, the attempted disruption of the Victorian Labor conference on 18 May has been heralded by some as a triumph for the movement.

But the hard facts are that if the Palestine movement is going to become a mass movement, it will need to involve many, many more rank-and-file Labor members and workers who vote Labor (and the smaller number who vote Green.)

The months of demonstrations have drawn large crowds but the movement is not yet large, or powerful, enough to force the Albanese government to call for an unconditional ceasefire, let alone break its ties with Israel.

To put real pressure on the Labor government will require direct industrial action to stop the genocide.

Albanese (the one-time parliamentary Friend of Palestine) and Penny Wong’s complicity in the genocide is disgusting. Their unstinting collaboration with US imperialism is a political crime.

It is sickening to see Labor collaborating with Dutton to condemn “From the River to the Sea” as antisemitic, and attack The Greens for supporting pro-Palestine protests.

Thousands of Labor Party members are disgusted with their leaders; hundreds of thousands who vote Labor are diametrically opposed to Albanese’s stance over Palestine.

The campaign’s task is to draw them into active struggle against the Labor leaders. But how? The attempts by union officials and Labor Party politicians to channel outrage at the system into the dead end of electoral politics have to be systematically opposed.

But attacking Labor Party dissidents is ineffective and counterproductive. Denouncing or condemning even sympathetic Labor members (or MPs) for not leaving the party, only creates a political obstacle between the movement and wider layers of Labor voters.

Welcoming pro-Palestine Labor dissidents is necessary to draw more workers who look to Labor into the campaign and in the process learn the limits of Labor and parliament.

That’s why Payman should have been welcomed into the Sydney University encampment.

Platforming Labor dissidents like Fatima Payman or NSW MP Anthony D’Adam, or representatives of Labor Friends of Palestine, is a way of highlighting, and building, deeper divisions within the Labor Party. Rather than creating illusions in the party, it can help drive a deeper wedge between pro-Palestine Labor supporters and the pro-Israel Labor leaders.

The juvenile, self-congratulatory attack on the Victorian Labor conference did nothing to win over any Labor members or any section of the organised working class to the Palestine movement. The invasion of the conference wasn’t targeting Albanese, it was targeting a conference that carried pro-Palestinian motions critical of both state and federal Labor governments.

People who think, wrongly, that they can influence the party from the inside can be broken from the party only by working alongside them in common struggle.

We need to work with those organising inside Labor at the same time as arguing that the key to ending Australia’s complicity in genocide and its alliance with US imperialism is not the Labor Party but building a movement outside parliament.

Labor and the unions

Any movement that wants to relate to the working class in Australia cannot ignore the inter-connections of the Labor Party and its affiliated unions (which is most of them.)

The Labor Party was formed by the union bureaucracy in the wake of the defeat of major strikes in the 1890s.

Having experienced the state using its courts, prisons and armed force to side with the employers, union officials thought by getting into parliament they could at least neutralise the state from taking the bosses’ sides in the class struggle.

Some 130 years later, Labor conferences, state and federal, still have 50 per cent representation from affiliated unions. Most union officials are members of the Labor Party.

Although the unions are themselves divided between left and right, and rarely vote as a block, Labor is “their” party.

One of the consequences of these ties is that many union members vote for Labor. Andrew Leigh’s 2004 study of elections between 1966 and 2004 found that 63 per cent of union members vote Labor. They see Labor as the party that represents workers’ interests—over wages, pensions, health and war.

So when Students for Palestine and the Victorian Socialists tried to storm into the Victorian Labor conference in May, at least half the delegates there were union officials and union members. Indeed it was CFMEU delegates that stood against the doors to prevent protesters actually entering the conference hall.

The unions have always tried to influence Labor policy. Indeed, as union membership has declined over the past 40 years, greater emphasis has been placed on influencing Labor policy, and getting Labor elected, than undertaking industrial campaigns to actually fight the bosses.

In April, Victorian CFMEU union boss, John Setka, argued explicitly for 1000 CFMEU members to join the Labor Party to increase its influence on Labor pre-selections and party conferences.

Zach Smith, national secretary of the CFMEU, who spoke at a side meeting at the ACTU congress, saying, “Australia must stop its military assistance and cooperation with Israel,” is a member of the national executive of the federal Labor Party.

So what attitude should the movement have to Zach Smith?

The ACTU’s latest statement calls for an urgent and permanent ceasefire and the ending of all military trade with Israel. Do we want to organise with workers in the CFMEU to turn Smith’s words, and the ACTU’s statement, into action?

Or should the priority be to condemn Smith for being in the Labor Party and demand he leave and denounce it?

Stifling struggle

The recent ACTU congress revealed the interdependent relationship between the ALP and the union bureaucracy, creating a mutual admiration society that stifles real struggle.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus was effusive in her praise for the Albanese government, “They have kept their word to the Australian people—delegates, we must never forget this Labor government did not walk away when things got tough.”

Albanese was just as effusive, telling the congress dinner, “Without the trade union movement there isn’t an Australian Labor Party, and therefore there isn’t a Labor government.”

The unions throw money and their members into getting Labor elected. In 2007, the Your Rights At work campaign played a crucial role in defeating John Howard and electing the Rudd Labor government.

The union campaign saw tens of thousands of workers strike and rally under the slogan “Your Rights At Work—Worth Fighting For”. But in 2006 then-ACTU secretary Greg Combet abandoned the industrial action and declared a new campaign, “Your Rights At Work—Worth Voting For.”

Since then, the union bureaucracy has placed an ever-greater emphasis on getting Labor elected over mobilising workers’ power.

When McManus was elected as ACTU secretary, she declared she supported workers breaking bad laws, but McManus has been very careful not to mobilise workers’ industrial power to break the anti-strike laws. But it is that industrial power that is crucial to fighting for change, and fighting for Palestine.

The union bureaucracy’s inclination to rely on political representation by Labor rather than workers’ industrial power will not be easily broken. Doing so requires increasing workers’ confidence to take industrial action and to fight Labor through drawing them into struggle, both around Palestine and other issues.

Denouncing union leaders and union members will do nothing to assist this process or build a more powerful movement.

Organising for Palestine inevitably confronts the limits of Labor politics. The union bans on shipping during the fight against South African apartheid are a rightly celebrated part of Australian union history.

To get such action again, the Palestine solidarity movement will have to work to make Palestine a union issue. Workers will have to break the anti-strike laws that the Labor government has maintained.

The movement has to combine uncompromising hostility to Albanese and Wong with a strategy to win and mobilise the organised working class that looks to Labor, yet has the power to defeat them.

Much greater working class forces are needed in the movement to organise action to directly target, and break, Australia’s links with genocide. Sectarianism towards Labor will prevent the movement effectively reaching those wider layers of people.

The Palestine movement needs to understand how to draw workers into the struggle.

It is in the process of struggle that illusions in Labor will be broken and workers won to see that far more radical politics—socialist politics—are needed to build the kind of movement that can break ties with Israel. And that ultimately a revolutionary movement will be needed to defeat the imperialist system that sustains it.

The potential for building far more seriously in the unions can be seen in the flourishing of Unionists For Palestine groups. Health workers, teachers and education staff, public servants, tech workers, finance workers all have active rank-and-file groups.

Understanding how to effectively relate to Labor and the union bureaucracy is crucial to turn that potential into the powerful movement we need.

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