The fight against Work Choices: Where the DSP majority went wrong

The Activist – Volume 17, Number 15, November 2007
By Doug Lorimer (Sydney Central branch)

The following is a slightly expanded version of the 7.5 minute LPF opening presentation to the November 20 Sydney Central branch oral PCD on trade union work. A motion to grant the LPF equal time for its opening presentation was rejected by the branch meeting.

In her report on Australian politics to the September NC plenum, Comrade Sue Bolton stated in regard to the fight against the Work Choices laws:

We need to point to examples like the Clarrie O’Shea campaign, not just because of the massive strikes and demonstrations in 1968 [sic] that led to the release of O’Shea and made the penal powers a dead letter, but because of the campaign against the penal powers that began in the early 1960s. It took around 10 years of patient education work of public meetings, motions and petitions in workplace meetings to build consciousness to the extent that workers knew what they needed to do when the laws were defied and a unionist was jailed.

The strikes and demonstrations appeared to be spontaneous but they were not really because the campaign to resist the laws had been meticulously built for ten years. The campaign was initiated by the 26 rebel unions, a minority of the trade union movement, outside the Victorian Trades Hall Council which didn’t support the campaign.

The campaign was victorious because the laws were never used again, even for the nationwide strike to save Medibank in 1976.

We’re a long way from the more militant and progressive unions deciding on and building a consistent campaign like the O’Shea campaign (that campaign was led by Communist parties). But given that the Labor Party strategy has failed so spectacularly, we need to popularise the idea that such a campaign to win back our rights is needed today and should be initiated.

There will be resistance against different elements of the IR laws within particular industries and workplaces, and we want to support and initiate resistance wherever possible, but that isn’t enough by itself. The union movement needs to address what it has lost since the 1970s, and how to win back those rights.

I agree with what Comrade Bolton has proposed here. But it needs to be noted that (a) “patient education work” to “popularise the idea” that a campaign like that against the Arbitration Commission’s penal powers (which culminated in May 1969 with 24-hour general strikes in Victoria against the jailing of Tramways Union secretary Clarrie O’Shea), is propaganda work, not agitation for immediate action, and (b) this is not what the DSP has focused on since our last congress in January 2006. Rather, we have mistakenly focused our national trade-union work on agitation calling for a 24-hour national strike to accompany the Laborite Your Rights at Work (YR@W) union mass rallies (so as to maximise attendance at these rallies). That reflected a failure to recognise that “we’re a long way from the more militant and progressive unions deciding on and building a consistent campaign like the O’Shea campaign”; that to get there we’d need years of “patient education work” to “popularise the idea that such a campaign to win back our rights is needed”.

The DSP majority’s orientation toward the fight against Work Choices has been based on the false expectation that the bigger these mass rallies were, the bigger would be the opportunities at them for us to recruit to the Socialist Alliance the “significant leftward moving forces” that were supposed to exist in the unions, and thus rejuvenate the failed SA broad left party project. Well, we certainly put a lot of effort into doing this at the rallies themselves, handing out tens of thousands of leaflets appealing for unionists to join the SA. But what was the result? SA’s membership actually declined by 30% between March 2005 and March 2007.

Another argument has been made by supporters of the majority line to justify the orientation of prioritising agitation to build the union bureaucracy’s anti-Work Choices mass rallies rather than prioritising propaganda work countering the bourgeois electoralist message that dominated the politics of the YR@W campaign. Despite the fact that the central message presented at these rallies was that Work Choices could only be defeated by re-electing a Labor government, comrades have argued that the rallies have boosted workers’ confidence to resist the Work Choices laws in their industries and workplaces. But no evidence for this claim has been presented. And the fact that days lost as a result of industrial action has fallen during the course of the YR@W campaign to their lowest on record (i.e., since 1913) is clear evidence contradicting this claim.

During the course of discussion around this issue a number of furphies have been made by supporters of the majority line against the LPF. One of them is that the LPF was against building the ACTU’s mass protests against Work Choices. No, what we were against was an orientation by the DSP that gave priority to agitation to build these protests rather than prioritising propaganda (and action) that could counter the bourgeois electoralist message that dominated the politics of these ACTU mass rallies.

The latter orientation would have meant fighting to have speakers on the platforms of these rallies who would put a different political line, a class-struggle line. Or, where this was not possible, fighting to have a separate mass rally with such speakers, but joining in a common march with those attending the Laborite rally. Quite obviously, if we could get significant union forces to build such a separate mass rally, then we’d seek to maximise attendance at such a rally, not the Laborite one. Now, as far as I am aware, the only place where we even tried to carry out such a course of action was in Perth. In his PCD article “The DSP fight against IR laws (as SA shadow-boxing) in Perth”, in The Activist, Vol. 17, #14, Comrade Ian Jamieson explains how this was done.

Another furphy is that the LPF’s perspectives for the fight against Work Choices was “pessimistic” and “defeatist”. Well, it’s not pessimistic or defeatist to recognise that the Laborite campaign against Work Choices (the YR@W campaign) was never going to defeat the laws. It’s not pessimistic or defeatist to recognise what the union movement has lost since the 1970s and that as a result, “we’re a long way from the more militant and progressive unions deciding on and building a consistent campaign like the O’Shea campaign” (a campaign that, as Comrade Bolton has pointed out, “took around 10 years of patient education work” before it was in a position to launch mass strikes against the laws). It’s not pessimistic or defeatist to recognise these facts; that’s just having a realistic assessment of what confronts us after the retreats by the unions in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Addendum: On the dissolution of the Workers First caucus

In the November 20 Sydney central branch oral PCD, a number of MRF comrades asked what was the LPF’s position on the AMWU Victorian branch’s Workers First caucus election deal with union’s class-collaborationist National Left faction. The LPF position on this issue is set out in point 7 of its draft resolution on party building (printed in The Activist, Vol 17, # 8): “The dissolution of Workers First as a militant caucus in the Victorian AMWU to secure an electoral pact with Doug Cameron’s National ‘Left’ faction … leave the militant (i.e., class-struggle reformist) current in the trade unions much weaker nationally.”

In their PCD article “Clarifying our work in the AMWU” (The Activist, Vol. 17, #14), Comrades Chris Spindler, Michael Bull, Stuart Martin, Graham Williams, Justine Kamprad and Rowan Stewart argue that “if we didn’t have an alliance in the elections and compete as we did, the Victoria branch would now probably be headed by the vehicles division of the union, with clear right-wing industrial and political views, and the ability to influence and exert control over the metals division of the union in Victoria. A right-wing victory in the AMWU would have also shifted Trades Hall towards the right by strengthening those forces.”

This, however, is not an argument against the proposition that the dissolution of Workers First leaves the militant current in the trade unions much weaker nationally. It’s an argument for the proposition that the electoral alliance with the NL was necessary to fight off an electoral victory by the right-wing New Directions Team in the Victorian AMWU (which certainly would have weakened the militant current in the unions even more than the dissolution of WF).

What the comrades do not address is the question: Was the dissolution of WF unavoidably necessary to secure the electoral alliance with the NL faction? Instead, they argue that building an organised militant current in the union, a clearly delineated militant caucus of officials and rank-and-filers, in opposition to the class-collaborationist caucus (the NL) has been made redundant by having the Victorian AMWU led by a leadership that “originally came from WF”. Thus, they argue that, “Now, rather than organising the caucus, we need to organise a union branch”. But are the two projects – organising the union branch and building a militant (class-struggle) caucus within it – mutually exclusive options? And, if (as the comrades seem to imply) they are, why weren’t they mutually exclusive options between 1998, when WF first won leadership of the union branch, and Cameron’s installation of Dave Oliver as the branch’s secretary in 2004?

The Activist was as the internal discussion bulletin of the Democratic Socialist Party