Right-wing Labor’s in freefall: so why are union leaders backing Gillard?

Union leaders are leading the campaign to support Julia Gillard as the leader of the Labor Party and in the federal election. James Supple asks why

At much cost, Labor now looks to have settled the question of who will lead it to the federal election. Lacking the numbers for a comeback, Kevin Rudd refused to even stand in the leadership ballot. In the aftermath he declared that he would never again lead the Labor Party. That should at least rule out another challenge within the few months before the election.

The end result is that Labor has chosen to stick with a terminally unpopular leader with practically no hope of winning in September. This seems a truly remarkable decision.

It is all the more astounding when holding onto a parliamentary seat has always seemed to be the most important thing for the majority of MPs in the Labor Party.

Politically there is nothing to choose between Rudd and Gillard. Both share a commitment to policies that put big business first. And for them, principles are dispensable. Rudd went from claiming climate change was the greatest moral issue of our times to dropping it.

So why is the parliamentary Labor Party sticking with Gillard? The first part of the answer is that no-one believes that Labor will win the September election, so the issue of the party leadership has more to do with who will retain influence in the party after Labor loses the election.

The second part has to do with Kevin Rudd. While Rudd consistently polls higher Gillard, no one is convinced it would stay that way if he became Prime Minister again. When Rudd was Prime Minister, Labor’s support was dropping rapidly.

Union links

What most bothers the union leadership is Rudd’s hostility to the union movement. Labor remains the political arm of the trade union bureaucracy, with the unions controlling 50 per cent of the votes at party conferences and also have a major role in the pre-selection of MPs.

But Rudd’s vision for Labor was modelled on British Labour leader Tony Blair and his Third Way project, whose goal was to remove union influence entirely. The plan was to turn the party into a version of the US Democratic Party, with no organic connection to the working class while looking to big business for funding and support.

One union national secretary told Fairfax’s Peter Hartcher, “We used to joke with each other, after Rudd had had us to a meeting at Kirribilli House or whatever, that he’d be shampooing the carpet the moment we left. We couldn’t get anything through; he just refused to engage with us.”

In contrast, the union leaders feel that with Gillard they at least have a “seat at the table” to lobby for parliamentary concessions.

Gillard has retained the support of a number of significant trade unions, particularly those that are part of the Right factions in the party. The Australian Workers Union (AWU) leader Paul Howes declared in February at the union’s conference, “I’m proud to lead a union that backs her 110 per cent”.

Joe de Bruyn, head of the powerful right-wing Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), said he and “the entire union leadership” supported Gillard “unreservedly”. Gillard also has the strong support of Transport Workers Union (TWU) leader Tony Sheldon, who threatened last July to withdraw $200,000 in donations to Labor if Gillard was removed from the leadership.

But even the left-aligned Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) National Secretary Paddy Crumlin gave a similar pledge that his union “would go the distance” for Labor at their national conference, also in February.

Rather than build an industrial campaign, union officials are using the threat of Tony Abbott to mobilise union activists to campaign for Labor. The MUA in Western Australia has even signed up 850 of its 2000-strong membership to the party, as it seeks to boost its influence inside Labor.

The Australian reported in late March that 30 paid union officials have already been appointed to work on Labor campaigns in marginal seats, many in Queensland, where the party has had to take desperate measures after falling to 5000 members.

Anti-union government

But why are the union leaders throwing themselves behind a Labor government that has been so useless in reversing John Howard’s attacks on unions and improving workers’ living standards?

The willingness to settle for small concessions from Gillard is a product of their refusal to organise a serious industrial fightback. The most powerful weapon the unions have is their ability to use strikes and industrial action to shut down business’ flow of profits. This is a power that workers can also use in defence of political interests. Unions staged a 24-hour general strike in 1976 to defend the precursor of Medicare, and have also taken strike action against the Vietnam War, uranium mining and budget cuts.

The Your Rights At Work campaign that played a big role in toppling Howard mobilised tens of thousands of unionists. But ultimately, the official slogan was transformed from “Your rights at work – worth fighting for” to “Your rights at work – worth voting for.”

To understand why the union officials would rather tie their fortunes to a conservative Labor Party leader than use their industrial muscle, we need to understand the role of union officials.

The union leaderships’ instincts are timid and conservative due to their distinct class position. They constitute a layer separate from the working class whose job is to balance between workers and employers and function as “professional negotiators”, able to cut deals with the bosses and government and to wheel and deal inside the Labor Party.

For the officials, conservatised by the desire to hold onto their jobs in the union bureaucracy and protect the unions’ assets, lobbying the government can seem a much safer and more comfortable strategy than organising strike campaigns and mass demonstrations, let alone defying the law.

In both NSW and Queensland where Liberal state governments have gone on the rampage, a union fightback is sorely needed. In Queensland Premier Campbell Newman has announced 14,000 job cuts in the public sector and cut health and welfare programs. But the unions refused to consider serious strike action against the government—and have adopted a forlorn electoral strategy of waiting to vote Newman out.

Anti-strike laws

The most pressing issue for the unions to confront today are the anti-union laws that are used to stop strikes. By refusing to confront the anti-strike laws and the threat of fines, they have been forced to accept defeats or not fight at all. The TWU’s defeat at Qantas was a direct result of refusing to confront a ban on further strikes. At Grocon in Melbourne last year, the CFMEU called off its blockade of the site and a threatened state-wide strike in the face of fines after a court ruled the action “illegal”.

Over workplace legislation Labor has been no friend of the unions. Labor’s Fair Work Act continues to impose severe restrictions on strike action that makes most action “unlawful”, and imposes huge fines on unions that defy that law. Although the Australian Building and Construction Commission has been merged into Fair Work Australia, it continues to harass and fine the construction unions. The head of the new body, Leigh Johns, boasts that it, “is investigating more unlawful industrial action and coercion matters than in the past—not less”.

The TWU, one of Gillard’s strong supporters, was forced to pay $750,000 in fines over a series of strikes in 2009. In 2011 it was humiliated when Labor sided with Qantas boss Alan Joyce after he grounded the fleet, forcing the union to end all further strikes at the airline. The result was a deal where Qantas got exactly what it wanted.

Buying off support

However, Gillard has been willing to give the unions a series of concessions over individual pieces of legislation, that the union leadership can claim as “victories”.  The TWU, for example, won “Safe Rates” legislation for truck drivers in March last year. The MUA got a plan to rebuild the shipping industry.

The AWU and other manufacturing unions got a series of handouts that were meant to stop job losses in steel and car plants and measures to encourage large construction projects to use Australian content. The government is also legislating to provide for compulsory Fair Work arbitration of disputes like Cochlear, where employers refuse to negotiate agreements.

In the end the union leaders prefer to retain some influence with (and get some crumbs from) the Gillard government than mobilise the unions’ membership to fight for industrial and political demands.

But it is only a strategy based on mobilising union power and confronting the law that can shift the balance of class forces and deliver serious gains in union rights.

Nurses in Victoria last year defied the law, refusing to obey orders to end rolling stoppages made by Fair Work Australia. The nurses maintained their staff to patient ratios, secured a pay rise—and beat then Liberal Premier Ted Baillieu.

University staff at Sydney Uni have taken three days of strike action so far this semester in the face of an aggressive anti-union administration. Action like this is going to be needed to defeat Gillard’s cuts to tertiary education funding.

Going quiet for Labor demobilises the union membership and makes it more likely that an Abbott Coalition will win the election.

Hitching the unions’ fortunes to this or that Labor Party leader is as much use as looking for the best seat on the deck of the Titanic.


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