The Australian labour movement today

Submitted by AWL on 16 April, 2005 - 7:55

The Australian labour movement is in deep trouble. Not just the left wing, or the radicals, but the whole movement.

According to the ACTU: "Latest union membership figures show around 25% of them are in unions. Over the last two years union membership numbers increased by 24,500 members a year. Union membership currently stands at 1,902,700 members".

The recent increase in union density is very welcome, and it reflects tremendous organising efforts in some sectors. The ACTU reports:

"Over the last twelve months union membership increased in several industries:

* In accommodation, cafes and restaurants by 46%

* In cultural and recreational services by 17.9%

* In health and community services by 6.7%

* In retail by 5.5%

* In personal and other services by 3.4%".

But to look at the longer term problems is in no way to disdain the efforts of the organisers who achieved those increases. It is to get a clear picture of the task we others face in building on their work.

The long-term trend is that union density in Australia has fallen from 46% in 1986, to 31% in 1996, to 23% at its lowest, before recovering slightly in the last couple of years. Strong union organisation is heavily concentrated in a declining public sector, union density being 47% in the public sector and only 18% in the private sector.

Positive trade union activism has declined even more. Between 1973 and 1983, there were usually more than four million striker-days per year. The latest figures are 439,000 for 2003; 259,000 for 2002; and 393,000 for 2001 - a 90% decline on thirty years ago.

The recent union membership increases have been achieved in a period of relative boom, rising employment, and falling unemployment. Capitalism being what it is, that relative boom will not continue. We now have a re-elected, pumped-up conservative federal government, keen on further legislation to hinder trade-union organisation and mobilisation.

The problem is worldwide. There are about 160 million trade unionists worldwide today. That may be more than at almost any previous time in history, since higher figures for previous periods included large numbers in the government-run "unions" of Stalinist and similar states, which were not genuine trade unions. In their place today, in Eastern Europe and Russia for example, are much smaller numbers, but from genuine though weak trade union organisations.

But in almost all the countries with strong trade union movements, union density has declined and is declining or stagnant. Even in the four countries where, between the 1970s and the 1990s, immensely lively and promising new mass trade union movements emerged - Brazil, Poland, South Korea, and South Africa - union numbers and activity are stagnant (or, in Poland, sharply reduced).

There have been important and inspiring workers' struggles - as in France in 1995 and again in 2003; in South Korea and Canada in 1996; and in Australia, on a smaller scale, with the action in support of the Weipa workers in 1995 and of the wharfies in 1998. Some of those struggles won some concessions, and none was a crushing defeat of the type of the British miners' strike of 1984-5, or even the big strikes in Australia in 1890-1.

But none of those struggles has led to a solid and strong, let alone exuberant, growth of the trade union movement in its country. In France, where in 1995 more workers were actively involved in the industrial action, and more people took to the streets, than in May-June 1968, and where ten per cent of the electorate voted for Trotskyist candidates in the presidential election of 2002, union membership has continued to plummet uninterruptedly.

That trade-unionism, at least, will in time revive, is certain. The impulse for workers to combine together to improve wages and conditions is built into the basic class contradiction of capitalism. That class contradiction is sharpening, not softening. The size of the working class, worldwide, is increasing. Today the wage-working class, as a class, is probably the most numerous social class in the world, about one-third of the world's population, more numerous than the peasantry for the first time ever.

The impulse to combine and organise has manifested itself in the most diverse conditions - from almost-wild jungles to skyscraper-filled cities; from starving drudges to highly educated workers who own computers, cars, and mortgages - and nothing has changed in its basic determinants. We see it today in China, in a big growth of illegal strikes and union organisations, which proliferates underground at present but will almost certainly break out into visible mass revolt before too many years pass.

The basic idea of the Communist Manifesto still remains valid. "Not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons - the modern working class - the proletarians.

"In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e. capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class developed...

"With the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in greater masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more... The workers begin to form combinations (trade unions) against the bourgeois...

"Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers... The organisation of the proletarians into a class... is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier..."

Marx wrote that at a time where no stable mass trade union movement existed anywhere in the world. In Britain, the first country of trade unionism, successive attempts since unions were made legal in 1825 had produced only small craft societies as stable organisations, and all mass union organisations - like the Grand National Consolidated of 1834 - had collapsed quickly. It was not until after 1889, six years after Marx's death, and almost a century after the start of modern trade unionism in Britain, that the British workers finally consolidated a stable mass trade union movement.

If Marx could write as he did in 1848, where there were only tens or at best hundreds of thousands of unionised workers worldwide, we can certainly uphold the same basic thought when there are over 160 million worldwide.

We can identify the specific conditions which led to a weakening of trade unionism from around 1980, even though we never thought, at the time, that their effects would be so drastic and long-lasting.

One specific condition was the ending of the special, exceptional conditions that had existed from the 1940s to the 1970s. Before 1945 Marxists generally had thought that the conditions of capitalist society made it impossible to organise more than about 25% of the working class into trade unions on a stable basis. Leon Trotsky, for example, wrote in the Transitional Programme (1938): "Trade unions, even the most powerful, embrace no more than 20 to 25 per cent of the working class, and at that, predominantly the more skilled and better paid layers. The more oppressed majority of the working class is drawn only episodically into the struggle..."

After, and in some countries during, World War Two, a peculiar historical compromise was struck whereby unions gained much larger percentages of the working class, in return for various types and degrees of collaboration with a capitalist state now taking on much larger social roles. It "stuck" until the 1970s, and was then rescinded by the capitalist classes - brutally in some countries, like Britain or New Zealand; more gradually in others, like Australia - after the world economic crises of 1974-5 and 1979-81. With the pressures of capitalist competition much sharper in the more open, faster-moving world market which has developed since 1980, that historical compromise is no longer on offer.

Another is the drastic restructuring, relocation, and removal from economic centrality of many industries which had been the bastions of trade union organisation for a whole epoch, such as the ports, or the car industry. In their time the highly-casualised ports, or the "Fordist" car industry, had been considered difficult or impossible to organise. Eventually, after great struggles, they were organised and became bastions. Now the labour movement has to deal with new industries, likewise "difficult to organise". Success does not come automatically.

Yet another is privatisation, linked in with the sharpening of international capitalist competition. And there is the "subjective factor" - the disarray and demoralisation of a whole generation of working-class militants, formed politically by the old Communist Parties and by Maoism, especially after 1991.

The trade unions will revive, though maybe not, this side of the socialist revolution, to the densities nearing or exceeding 50% that they enjoyed in easier days. But how quickly, how solidly, and on what political basis - all those questions depend on the activists, the pioneers.

The Lula government in Brazil teaches us a lesson. In Brazil, a new independent, combative trade union movement grew up in the late 1970s, under conditions of military dictatorship. It established itself. It was central in forcing the military dictatorship to cede to a form of parliamentary democracy. It gave birth to a new Workers' Party. The Workers' Party has won the presidency of Brazil - and, because of politics, because of the defeats for the Marxist left and the victories for the social-democratic right in the political battles in the Brazilian workers' movement, the Workers' Party presidency is pushing through impeccable IMF policies.

To wait and hope for the general revival of the trade unions, and meanwhile to do our own work as best we can in our own local workplaces and union branches, is not a responsible choice for Marxist activists. We have to work now to do what we can to shape the future trade-union revival.

Large-scale revival depends on forces beyond our control. No political party, not even one a hundred or a thousand times stronger in numbers than Workers' Liberty is at present, can engineer a general revival of the trade union movement at will. But there are things we can do now.

By research, study, and discussion, we can clarify understanding of the reasons for the movement's difficulties, and the best routes to its revival. We can give ourselves rough roadmaps for the future by study of which are likely to be the leading industries and sectors for trade-union activism in the next decades.

We can help young activists from the new anti-capitalist ferment to turn to working-class organisation, and to do it without being sucked into the political agendas of the incumbent top officials.

Trade unions are not, and never have been, built "by themselves", or "spontaneously". They are built by activists, and often by activists who become socialists before they get interested in trade unions. A big factor in the rise of the CIO, in the USA in the 1930s, was the activity of thousands of young people, radicalised in the colleges, who then turned to industrial organising. Ex-student radicals also played a big role in the new South African union movement, from the 1970s; and in perhaps the most vocally "workerist" mass labour movement of history, the syndicalist French CGT before World War One, the key leaders were former activists in the various socialist or anarchist parties who won prominence in the movement chiefly as journalists.

The old generation of core trade union activists is fading. A new generation must be shaped.

In the unions now, we can study how to "re-collectivise" union organisation, helping union activists to move from being "workers' lawyers" who take members' individual grievances one by one to haggle with management into being organisers who link up and convert those individual cases into collective causes.

We can study how to move the unions away from stale "partnership" unionism into "social unionism" or "movement unionism", connecting with working-class and popular causes and campaigns outside the unions.

We can engage in the struggles to restore independent working-class representation in politics. The impulse is there, shown in such efforts as the attempt of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions to get a working-class political party going, the revolt of German trade unionists against the Social Democratic government there in the form of the Wahlalternative, and the relatively large votes for Trotskyist candidates in France. It has yet to be successively consolidated.

Mainstream Left

Where do the existing radical left groups stand in relation to these tasks? Many of their individual activists do excellent work in their workplaces and unions. But the groups, as groups, are not at all focused on these tasks of rebuilding the labour movement.

Their attention is elsewhere. They support the labour movement, of course. But the forces they mainly look to for progress are alien to the workers' movement (like the Cuban government) or even murderously hostile to it (like the Islamist and neo-Ba'thist resistance militias in Iraq). In activity in Australia their main preoccupation is to find radical mobilisations of any sort which they can latch on to. The labour movement figures chiefly as a resource to be used to get support for those mobilisations.

Since we started out in 1980, a main theme of Workers' Liberty (and previously Socialist Fight) has been "building a class struggle left wing in the labour movement". It was about regrouping and reorganising a left which already existed in the labour movement, giving it new (consistent class-struggle) political direction, and thereby making it a tool to revolutionise the labour movement, which could in turn mobilise the working class for socialist revolution.

Many of the underlying ideas of that theme are still valid. Although it is vital for revolutionaries not to get slowed down to the often torpid tempo of the established (and bureaucratised) labour movement, there is no way round an intervention in that existing labour movement, no shortcut, no bypass, if we are to develop working-class politics in practice. Equally, it would be a foolish and swollen-headed illusion of self-sufficiency to pretend we can "go to the masses" by disdaining or ignoring the existing left activists, especially the younger, fresher ones. Marxists who disagree with the "conventional wisdom" of the left on many issues, as Workers' Liberty does, must debate and strive to convince (with the possibility, always, that in the end we find that we were wrong, and are convinced by others) rather than just constructing our own rostrum.

Rebuilding the labour movement

But key assumptions that we had in 1980 are no longer valid. The old Australian labour-movement left no longer exists as it did in the 1980s. Though we always oriented to the more critical and combative elements - quite numerous in the 1980s - that left, historically, was shaped by the CPA and SPA. With the collapse of the CPA and the SPA (even if small groups with those names survive), that whole milieu has dissipated to a large degree. It is no longer a rallying point for young people keen to fight for socialism.

The task today is not so much "building a class struggle left wing in the labour movement" as "rebuilding the labour movement on class-struggle lines". We have to address the concerns of the new generation of young organisers who will rebuild the movement, and not just the concerns of the older generation of activists who today often think in terms of "holding on" and "limiting the damage".

And, as we have said, the activist left groups, those who think in bolder terms, have turned their main attention to mobilisations outside the parameters of the labour movement - some valid and useful, in their on terms, but some politically aberrant, like the current campaign in support of the Iraqi "resistance".

Workers Liberty

So Workers' Liberty has to recalibrate our orientation. In recent discussions we have come to the conclusion that we should set ourselves two main tasks. Firstly, through study groups, discussion groups, and our magazine and website, to educate ourselves politically and help to educate a broader circle of activists, focusing on the perspectives and issues of rebuilding a politically independent labour movement and disentangling it from the afterwash of Stalinism.

And secondly, to conduct our own activity in the trade unions and workplaces, no longer as an individual activity aside from the main political excitement, but in close connection with our studies and discussions.

Workers' Liberty is a small group, and those tasks are a big agenda for us. Doing them properly has to mean cutting back on other activities which would be valuable and fruitful if we had the resources to do them in addition.

Mainly this means cutting back on our activity in the Socialist Alliance. We have no desire to inflate the limitations imposed on us by small resources and the need to prioritise into an attitude of sectarian dismissal. We value the chance to work with and debate with the other activists in the Socialist Alliance.

However, for now the Socialist Alliance has visibly "settled down" into a stable political pattern. The politics of the DSP and its close associates have a big majority within it, and shape its main public, campaigning activities. There is no immediate prospect of a big influx of new young activists into the Socialist Alliance such as might give minorities within it a chance of quickly becoming the majority.

We are not leaving the SA. We will continue to participate in SA activities when that fits in with the main priorities we have set ourselves. But for now those priorities mean that we do not take on heavy responsibilities within the SA such as membership of key committees.

The Communist Manifesto summed up the basic parameters of Marxist activity in terms which are still valid today:

"The Communists are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement...

"The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement".

Our priority today is to make sure that we really do "clearly understand" the "line of march of the proletarian movement", and the coming "future of the movement", and to integrate that understanding into patient activity in the "movement of the present". We urge other revolutionary socialists to join us in our efforts.

By Martin Thomas

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