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John Passant

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September 2011



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My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
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Reclaim our unions

First there was the Craig Thomson affair, with allegations Thomson used his Health Services Australia union credit card to pay for prostitutes and perhaps fund his election campaign.

Now it is the very very powerful Bill Ludwig from the very very powerful Australian Workers’ Union and allegations he used union money to pay for the legal costs of an action he took over his role as a director of Racing Queensland.

This has to be seen against the backdrop of a united ruling class wanting more workplace ‘flexibility’. Tony Abbott has promised workplace ‘reform’. The threat of a return to the Liberals’ Workchoices is real.

Labor’s Workchoices Lite makes that a possibility, having not only not entrenched union organisation and strength in the workplace but weakened it further.

The bosses will seize on any whiff of scandal to weaken unions. Thomson and Ludwig are part of that campaign. But the bosses too want to win the ultimate gaol – destroying the Gillard Government and having a compliant and vicious Abbott Government attacking unions and living standards in the name of profit.

However, these scandals exist not just as some figment of the bourgeoisie’s imagination. The possible abuse of union funds can more easily occur because power is concentrated in a few hands.

The neoliberal and class collaborationist agenda of the union leadership over the last 3 decades has destroyed rank and file organisation in, and in some cases control of,  unions.

The best recent model of democratic control was the New South Wales Builders’ Labourers’ Federation in the late 70s and early 80s. The Maoists destroyed it, and then the State (under Labor Party control and with the active support of the class collaborationists in the union movement) destroyed them.

Trade union leaders are not members of the working class. They are the managers of our labour power. They sell it to capital.

Rank and file democracy and control can bring those leaders back to the class although the pressure to capitulate to capital will always be on them. It is easier to resist that pressure if thousands of your members control you and tell you what to do. 

Of course, this is easier said than done. I don’t have any magic formula or golden bullets, other than to make propaganda about the issue and try to organise in my own union. The response at the moment is less than stellar. It will not always be like that and the steady work today is building for the future.

The message is simple. Reclaim our unions from the class collaborationists. Run them democratically ourselves. And fight, fight, fight the bosses.



Comment from Shane Hopkinson
Time September 7, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Well I haven’t heard it stated as broadly as that before. Trade Union leaders – who are elected and paid out of members dues – are not members of the working class. They “sell” labour power to capital – do they are in effect – capitalists.

This would make unions thoroughly bourgeois institutions. If it were the case then the logic would not be for workers to “reclaim” them (any more than they could reclaim the state or the company) but to break with them entirely.

We could elect a new leadership that was less collaborationist – but then they would just be selling our labour on better terms than at present – and no longer be members of the working class.

Unless you mean that they have bourgeois (class -collaborationist) consciousness but of course that would be a much broader layer than just heads of unions.

Comment from John
Time September 8, 2011 at 7:45 am

They balance between the two major classes. They are not members of the bourgeoisie either.

Comment from Phil
Time September 8, 2011 at 11:35 am

This is a very astute piece that gets to the heart of why we working stiffs are up the proverbial creek without any recourse. Even the institutions that are supposed to ‘protect’ us (as in protection racket) have been taken over, largely, by spotty faced Young Labor hacks using them as a career vehicle. This is true for both ‘right wing’ or ‘left wing’ unions.

One of the keys, as Jack Mundey understood, to stop union officials from becoming a balance of power act and/or a vehicle for electionist careerists is limited tenure of office. But then again, when he stepped down the Maoists came up from Victoria and stomped on that little glimpse of light. Selah.

Two achievable goals that would draw unions away from being cash cows and breeding factories for Neoliberal Labor would be a) disaffilliation from the ALP and social media camopaigning against entrenched union leaderships, especially against the SDA in retail and the various PSA leaderships in the public sector.

Of course not all unions are affiliated to the ALP, but you only have to look at how close the organisers and leadership of the NSW PSA are to the ALP (The immediate past secretary of the PSA is the grandson of an ALP Premier for chissakes, while the incumbent is married to an ALP inner city councillor who is part of Albo’s useless war spoils machine. Yetr the PSA is not afilliated to the ALP. Nooo. But if you’re not in the ALP being effective in that organisation may be a tad difficult.

I have been involved in four rank and file groups in my time. One succesful and three unsuccsessful. It is important to remember that you have to organise in your own time, using your own cash in many cases (which is often scarce), while the incimbents have all the trapopings of a fully staffed union organisation. Not that they ever spend union resources on re-election. Oh no! Heaven forfear that such indigence could occur!

I think that the solution would lie in a cross-union organisation of rank and file union members badged under a Reclaim Our Unions campaign. By necessity it cannot be aligned with any electoral political organisation (as that is what has caused the rot in the first place and, as Shane hints at, it would be swapping one lump for another lump- also, aligning with any party political movement immediately alienates much potential support). Like all good campaigns it needs to be clearly focussed to the exclusion of all extraneous agendas. Having a non-party political focus also helps convince rank and file union members that a Reclaikm Our Unions camopaign is an honest broker, and not some bunch of nutters trying to build the people’s republic of Australia and gibbering in ideologyspeak. The cross union organisation could assist members in individual unions to reclaim their union with outside support for canvassing, fundraising and spreading the word.

Such a cross union campaign could be built around three key objectives:

1. Reclaiming the share of national income going to workers to a specified target of, say, sixty six percent and building a real work-life balance so that we aren’t being sweated into an early grave trying to keep our incomes above subsistence level.

2. Supporting publicly owned enterprises to secure housing, health, education and infrastructure (especially energy) for the future.

3. Divorcing unions from ANY political party, so that the union doesn’t become captive to setional politicasl interests, remains an activist organisation for employees and has structures that stop egomaniacs, sociopaths and careerists (you know, teh usual people you meet around politics) from taking over the organisation

Such a campaign can be summed up as Our Share, Our Future, Our Union

Anyway, this is a thought bubble, but we have the great campaign tool of Facebook to reach out to people in individual unions to get an idea like this building up a head of steam. I’d be interested in workshopping it further if there is interest in kicking the can with this down the road?

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