Robbo goes to parliament

What does it do for the union movement’s credibility when its elected leader joins the government?

I’d just checked my email and read that the NSW government wants TAFE teachers like me to work longer hours and for less overtime just to get a 5% pay rise to keep up with inflation. Then I heard on ABC radio that John Robertson, secretary of Unions NSW, has agreed to go into the parliament for the Labor Party.

“Robbo” is the man who has been the public face of the campaign against power privatisation, and before that against WorkChoices.

Rumours have been circulating all year that he would enter the Legislative Council, the upper house of the NSW parliament. He kept denying it. In August Michael Costa was dumped as Treasurer after failing to flog off the power stations, and then resigned from the parliament. Now Robbo has decided to take the vacancy after “changing his mind a million times”.

As my friend – who works for the unions – asked, “Why would the head chef at a top restaurant resign to become the dish pig at a restaurant everyone knows is in serious danger of going bust?”

It would be less ridiculous if the Rees government were making the state a happier place for workers and Labor supporters, but there are no reforms, only promises of cuts and overblown fear about losing the ever-so-sacred AAA credit rating.

It would be less traitorous if there were peace between the government and the unions, but public sector workers have been forced to take below inflation wage rises, and teachers are starting out on a long fight. And Nathan Rees – directed by Treasury and their merchant banking mates – says privatisation of the retail power companies will go ahead.

What a time for the leader of the union movement to enter the caucus of the Labor government. No wonder only silence has come from Unions NSW about the struggle to knock off retail power privatisation.

There is a long history of union leaders going into parliament for Labor. The union movement set up the ALP more than a hundred years ago. Unions affiliated to Labor still exert influence over its conference and administrative committees, though very little control over the politicians. Yet there were hopes that Robbo would not follow that path.

“I have no power”

Robertson has modernised Unions NSW. He rebadged the Labor Council to put distance between the union movement and the Labor government. He argued that the old Right-Left factional divisions were less important than active versus passive union organising. He was vital in supporting the refugee rights campaign in Labor and the unions.

Yet only a couple of months ago at a meeting in Parramatta Robbo claimed “I have no power.” He has accepted the idea that there has been a fundamental change in the economy and that workers struggle cannot alter politics. Instead, so the story goes, it is community pressure that stops governments doing bad things like privatisation. But community pressure is just another name for lobbying politicians.

It is the opposite of class politics. It says, “When we tell them the right information they will make the right decisions.”

This way of thinking came out in the campaign against privatisation. Rather than mobilising unionists, and power workers in particular, Unions NSW preferred behind the scenes pressure through the ALP Administration Committee (“Sussex St”) on former premier Morris Iemma to frustrate the power sell-off.

Activists were left waiting for Unions NSW to call union action which never came. The Super Saturday of state wide leafleting to pressure MPs was a modest success, but ultimately most of the time unionists were treated as pawns or passive observers of the union leaders’ ALP power game.

Yet workers create all the wealth in society. When we stop work, profit (or tax revenue or public services) stops. Union membership is in decline, but unions with approximately 1.4 million members are still by far the largest social force in the country. The unions defeated WorkChoices and gave Labor a chance in Canberra. Not that they’ve been thanked by Rudd and Gillard, with “WorkChoices Lite”.

Union membership is in relative decline not because society has stopped being about workers and bosses and wages and profit, but because of laws making it hard for unions to operate and organise and because there are whole sectors of the new economy where workers have not been organised to collectively bargain in unions. But it can be done.

The IT sector is very poorly organised, but IBM workers, members of the Australian Services Union recently threatened strike action against “Big Blue” and quickly won. They could have caused havoc for IBM’s clients, the likes of Qantas and Westpac.

Power workers too took action a couple of times: generation workers in February, though dampened down by Robertson’s strategy, and call centre retail power workers in the United Services Union for three days in August. They showed the potential for industrial action, not education and lobbying, to force governments to deliver for the community.

Hello minister

The NSW upper house is usually a pretty sleepy place. Lately it’s been more important because Labor members split on privatisation and Costa spat the dummy. The Greens MPs work hard to frustrate the worst policies of the government (which are often backed by the Liberals). But truly, Robertson will have much less power in the Legislative Council than heading Unions NSW.

Given John Robertson’s talent, connections and powers of persuasion he will likely be rapidly promoted to head a ministry. Maybe he’ll be minister for TAFE and he can play hardball with my union to make me work longer hours.

There is a contradiction at the heart of the unions – Labor relationship: the unions represent workers rights and sometimes support campaigns for social justice; but Labor in power maintains the system to keep profit flowing to the corporations. Even keeping wages up with inflation leads to conflict between “the two wings of Labor” as the government claims it can’t pay more and tries to make workers pay for economic problems.

Whatever Robertson thinks he’s going to achieve by going into parliament, his decision undermines the workers movement at a critical time.

But it points to the need for a different vision for unions: workers organisations run from the grass roots, with leaders held accountable for their decisions, who return to the job when they cease being paid representatives, rather than allowing union leadership to be a career with an end point the supreme reward of working for the other side.

Goodbye Robbo. Hello minister!

Bruce Knobloch


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