Brisbane Casino: The union officials and the strike that never happened

It was so close. There were just eight votes in the decision at Brisbane’s Treasury Casino to accept the company deal (see story p 22).  There are two main reasons the Casino dispute went the bosses’ way—the laws and the union officials.

Under Howard’s WorkChoices laws all employees got a vote, not just union members. The company could “stack” the vote by encouraging non-union employees to vote for the company’s deal. Andrew, a Casino steward, told Solidarity, “ I was actually approached by one of my supervisors who told me to ‘vote yes [to the company deal], or we don’t get a pay rise this year. Do the right thing…’ ”
The company was also able to draw out negotiations and try to wear workers down. The Casino’s enterprise agreement ended in November last year, so workers went for months without a wage increase. A further ballot of union members was needed to get the right to strike.
Enterprise bargaining has also shifted influence from the shop floor to the union officials, undermining union democracy and rank and file participation. Currently, Casino delegates are appointed by the union officials. Although delegates made up the negotiating team, in practice, it was the lead Casinos’ union organiser, Don Brown, who had the authority.
At the Casino, however, the legal hurdles were not the biggest problem. Union membership had almost trebled. Key departments had over 80 per cent union membership—more than enough support for a strike to shut down the Casino. Confidence was running high. Votes for industrial action were close to 100 per cent. The bosses were worried, as The Real Deal bulletin argued for strike action. One day, as the manager, Geoff Hogg, ran around collecting copies, he stood over one worker expecting her to hand over her copy. “You don’t need to read those,” he said, “all you need to know about is the offer.”

The union officials
What really got in the way of a successful strike was the LHMU union officials. When it came to the crunch, they stood alongside Hogg, at the company’s information meetings. At every key point in the dispute, when the choice was to go forward or go back, the union officials retreated.
When the company rejected the union wage demands, the union officials insisted that the wage claims be lowered further. Sometimes they managed to take the delegates’ negotiating team with them. At others times, both the negotiating team and the members were simply ignored.
When it seemed finally that a strike was going to happen, the union called it off—saying that strike action wasn’t legal if the company had made an offer.
This wasn’t true, but it was a blow to the momentum of the campaign. It also showed the company that the union officials were unwilling to mobilise the only real strength workers have—the collective power of industrial action to hit the bosses’ profits.
How do we explain the role of the officials? Some workers concluded that the officials were being “bought off” by the company. But it is not personal corruption that is the problem.
The LHMU officials are part of the union bureaucracy, a layer of full time officials, between the bosses and the workers. Their social position makes them conservative. They get used to talking to the bosses, bargaining and compromising, on behalf of workers rather then organising struggle. Consequently, they start to see unionism as being about lawyers and their own negotiating skills rather than the militancy of the union membership. When there is no pressure for action from an organised rank and file, they get even more conservative.
Secondly, their material circumstances separate them from the rank and file. They do not share the same conditions of the people they represent. Don Brown might be the LHMU’s lead Casinos’ organiser but his wages are not determined by whether or not there is a successful strike at the Casino. The deal at the Treasury Casino has cut the loading on sick pay, but the LHMU officials’ sick pay is unaffected.
Nor does the full time official have to put up with the daily harassment of the managers or be told when they can or can’t come into work. The officials accept the politics of enterprise bargaining, and that pay increases are tied to productivity and profitability, not to the real cost of living. At different points in the Casino campaign, officials even raised the idea that because of the recession, workers might have to accept wage restraint. Accepting the limits of the system leads to them to limit the struggle against it.
Thirdly, they are worried about the bosses threatening legal action, because for them the union becomes equated with the apparatus—the offices, the building, the car, the mobile phone, the money to pay for lawyers—and fines threaten all these.  For this reason, union officials get worried about disputes going too far or getting out of their control—even when there is strong members’ support for taking action.
All these things were at work in the Casino dispute. Understanding the role of the officials is key to understanding how we can build even stronger workplace organisation.

Disgust
Some workers are disgusted. “I feel as though I was ripped off by the union, paying for more than six months membership which in the end resulted in nothing,” said one of the stewards. But leaving the union is no solution. The answer to the conservatism of the officials is more rank and file organisation, with more union members, not less—organisation that can fight on, even when the officials won’t.
Stronger organisation can mean that delegates are elected and accountable rather than being appointed by the officials who expect the delegates to defer to them.
Key to building union strength at the Casino has been The Real Deal bulletin that consistently answered the bosses’ lies and argued for strike action.
With more Casino workers involved with The Real Deal, we can build on the job for the fights ahead. The bullying and the harassment isn’t going to stop now that the enterprise agreement has been settled. Indeed, there is a risk that the bosses will think they can get away with more now.

We need to be active about other issues too—supporting the campaign to change Labor’s laws that still shackle our right to strike (see construction workers story, p4), and against the Queensland government’s privatisation plans.

By Ian Rintoul

Contact The Real Deal: email [email protected] phone 0421 464 597

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