Looking back to 1975

Submitted by Anon on 5 February, 2004 - 4:55

In 1938 Leon Trotsky wrote about the effect on labour movement activists of Stalinism's turns in the previous decade: the Third Period of denouncing social democratic workers' organisations as worse than fascism, the Popular Fronts of class collaboration, the great purges and show trials in the USSR. "Even among the workers who had at one time risen to the first ranks", he ruefully recognised, "there are not a few tired and disillusioned ones. They will remain, at least for the next period, as bystanders. When a programme or an organisation wears out, the generation which carried it on its shoulders wears out with it. The movement is revitalised by the youth, who are free of responsibility for the past…".
In the last 12 to 20 years, we have lived through a far more drastic process of "wearing out" of older programmes and generations of working-class activists, those formed in or by the force-field of Stalinism. That has gone together with huge economic restructurings, the decline of industries previously central to the labour movement and the rise of new areas and modes of wage-labour which the unions have scarcely touched.

Now also, only the younger generations can revitalise the movement. Also true for us now as for Trotsky then is that the younger militants, to do their job well, will need help from experienced activists who have been able to resist tiredness and disillusion and learn lessons from the old setbacks. Here Bob Carnegie, an active and often leading participant in the trade-union movement of Brisbane, Australia for 25 years, reviews the experience of those years.

I was 14 at the time of the Kerr coup in 1975, when the Governor-General sacked Gough Whitlam's Labor government. My dad was a seafarer and at sea at the time. His crew went on strike, in Melbourne.

Though my household was centre-of-the-road Labor Party, they were appalled by the decision of [trade union leader] Bob Hawke to draw in the horns and scale back the industrial action against the coup. My dad was outraged. Though he did not agree with some of the things the Whitlam [Labor] government was doing for women's rights, on the whole he thought the government was trying to do something positive for working people.

Mum never worked, but her politics are more left-wing than my dad's. A sort of Keir Hardie humanitarian socialism, but she has never been politically active.

I was at school. What happened there? The events were kept from us as much as possible. Remembrance Day was given more prominence than the dismissal of the government.

The groundwork for the whole business of the Accord [deal between the union leaders and the Labor government of 1983-96] was really done at the time of the coup, by people like Laurie Carmichael. Carmichael was the leading industrial light of the Communist Party of Australia, and the leading industrial intellectual of the whole CPA/ SPA spectrum.

I did very well at school. I wanted to continue my studies, and my dad wanted that too, but my mum insisted that I leave school and get a job. She was one of 13 children, raised in poverty, and she was convinced that children should go out and start earning as soon as possible. My two sisters and my brother also went to work as soon as they could leave school.

My first job was in a bank. It was a permanent, secure job, not the sort of thing young people get for their first job these days. I was active in the Bank Workers' Union, and went on strike for a day over Medicare.

But, coming from an industrial working-class background, I felt that I didn't fit in at the bank. It was a very conservative environment.

I lasted 18 months there. Then I worked for a wine and spirits merchant as a storeman, travelled for a while, and found a job in the Castlemaine Brewery in Milton.

It was a great place to work then, with a large production workforce. The elected union delegates were respected by the workers, but also by the management. In that same brewery now, there are very few production workers, a lot of functions are contracted out, and the union is a sideline event. Today, in most places, the management's attitude to union delegates is barely concealed contempt.

While at the brewery I joined the Socialist Party of Australia [a party which had split from the Communist Party of Australia because it disagreed with the CPA's more critical line towards the USSR].

My dad was completely opposed to me joining the SPA. He had a Wobbly streak in him, and if he had to deal with "communist" parties, he had more time for the Maoists. He had become convinced that the old Communist Party of Australia was a horrible outfit in the 1950s, when one in 10 of all the seamen in Australia were CPA members. When they asked my dad to buy Tribune [the CPA paper], he said he'd rather read the Form Guide.

He had seen the CPA in action in a very famous disputed election in the union in 1959-60. The candidate who lost, Billy Bird, was my father's hero if he ever had one-a syndicalist with a Maoist streak. In recent years, when some officials in the MUA [Maritime Union of Australia] have been attacking me and smearing me, my dad has said to me: you should have seen what they did to Billy Bird.

Why was it the SPA I joined? I read the seamen's union journal, and they were very influential there.

Soon I was sent to Moscow by the SPA for political training. After that I lived in Denmark for a while. There, I was struck by the barbarity of Australian cultural life compared to Danish - the levels of social welfare, the relative equality between women and men, the lack of violence, the lower levels of censorship. Trade unions were an integral part of Danish society in a way they weren't in Australia.

The flipside was that the Danish labour movement was not militant. It was far too cosy between the unions and the employers. There was a certain staidness.

I returned to Australia from the early 1980s, worked as a seaman, and became involved in the seamen's union. I was a branch officer from 1988 to 1994, and in all that time I never took one cent of expenses for union activities.

It was a strong union there. We had a wonderful delegate structure. The crews then would be about 30 to 38 men, and each voyage we would elect one delegate from the engine room and two from the deck. We had monthly stopwork meetings, which were very well attended, and a monthly union journal, which was quite political. The officials were much more accessible to the membership than in other unions.

But it was very tight, very closed against "outsiders", elitist in its own way. Until 1989 the crews were all male. The average age was quite high - maybe mid 40s for the deck hands, and early 50s in the engine room. There was a lot of heavy drinking, and that wrecked a lot of men. The union was Stalinist-dominated, not so much by the SPA as by union officials who were SPA members. The SPA's strength was not just among the full-time officials, though. Most crews would include at least one SPA member.

We had a seamen's industrial fraction in the SPA, and relations between the officials and the rank and file members were all right as long as you didn't have too much to say.

At this time, up to 1983, a split was developing in the SPA between the political and industrial wings. The issue, really, was whether the political leaders could tell the union officials what to do in their unions. There were no divisions on international issues-they all followed the USSR blindly-but there was a split over the Accord which Bob Hawke's Labor government introduced from 1983.

Pat Clancy and the leaders of the Building Workers' Industrial Union (BWIU), who were regarded by the SPA as their leading Marxists in the industrial field, sided with Laurie Carmichael and backed the Accord. They pushed the line that the Accord was not class-collaborationist. It was pro-worker, pro-union, and offered concrete benefits. The seamen's leadership were more circumspect, but followed the BWIU line. The SPA political leadership was against the Accord.

In the split I went with the industrial leadership. I had much more respect for the industrial leadership than for the SPA political leadership, who were very aloof, very old, and very narrow.

Although they were completely wrong about the Accord, the BWIU leaders were charming, decent people. The trouble is that despite that they could still go and play a central role in destroying the Builders Labourers Federation, and justify it. The trouble was Stalinism. And I believe that Stalinism is still a huge problem in the movement today.

Why did the union leaders go with the Accord? Because the Labor government offered union officials respectability and access to power, or the appearance of it. The quid pro quo is that they would be controlled.

On another level what it signified was that the SPA industrial people had had their convictions and their self-confidence eroded. One of their central ideas was that they must never let themselves get isolated as the BLF had been. Step out of line, and you'd be destroyed.

Since the Second World War, at least, the left in Australia had been completely dominated by the CPA and the SPA, at least in industry. By the 1980s that cadre of left activists was ageing and decaying politically.

The political level of the SPA industrial activists was generally low. Seamen joined the SPA because they thought it was the right thing to do, or because they believed in socialism, but some also for personal advantage, to get better jobs. There was an element of cronyism in the union's influence over employment.

There was some political education in the SPA, but not too much, nothing of the sort of thing we try to organise in Workers' Liberty. It was kept at a fairly low level to make sure that the officials always knew more than the rest. And there were not a lot of young people involved, teenagers or people in their twenties.

There were some SPAers in the unions who stayed loyal to the political leadership and opposed the Accord, but they were very quickly sidelined. They tended to be older and less dynamic members. By then there were some young activists in the unions who were members of the SWP [now DSP], but they were few enough to be quickly sidelined too. There was not much debate in the Seamen's Union about the Accord.

In that period social-democracy became the dominant ideology of the labour movement, right and left alike. The so-called communists were no more left-wing than the Mitterrand socialists in France.

In 1985 we had the SEQEB dispute in Queensland, in which a thousand power workers were sacked, and the left unions stood by them. I was arrested nine times during that dispute and I spent 21 days in jail. That made me question the Accord process.

The SEQEB dispute and Mudginburra were decisive turning points. In the Mudginburra dispute the meatworkers' union, which had previously been a very strong union, was heavily defeated, and now it is only a shadow of what it was. Those disputes were turning points for the whole movement.

One measure of it is this. In 1983 we used to have meetings of union delegates twice a month at the Trades Hall, with 150 to 200 delegates attending. Today they have delegates' meetings once every three months, with about a dozen attending, in the new building that they were given money by the State government to build so that IBM could build its offices on the site of the old Trades Hall.

The amalgamations of unions during the Accord years were an unmitigated disaster. The unions became great amorphous blobs, lost their identity, got larger and larger bureaucracies. Links between activists in different unions became much harder.

From 1984 to 1992 I was very active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement. We gained wide trade-union backing, and organised a lot of trade-union action, but it was all totally dominated by the ANC line. The Anti-Apartheid Movement was an ANC support group. The development of FOSATU and the other new independent trade unions in South Africa had no impact here.

In 1989, I was at a Sydney stopwork meeting at the time of Tiananmen Square. The union leadership had written a letter to the Chinese government complaining about the methods used to suppress the protesters. Maybe they wanted them to use water cannon instead of tanks - I don't know!

So an older comrade got up to speak. "Is this union criticising a socialist government?" "Yes", said the officials, " we don't agree with the way the government is handling the protests". "I don't think they shot enough of them", replied the speaker. There was something brave and admirable about his defiance of all conventional opinion, but it also showed how Stalinism had been able to confuse the whole message of socialism.

A lot of activists were demoralised by the events of 1989. A lot thought, or said, that it was all a CIA plot. But they did not really have any arguments to deal with it.

The effect on the trade union movement was that activists moved further to the right, became more conservative, more insular, and more obliging to employers. They retreated more into trying to protect their own particular unions.

A lot of the old strong points of trade unionism are now much weaker. Even in coal mining, there are now "gypsy" coal miners, who go from mine to mine working on contracts.

Across the board workers have been casualised, marginalised, dehumanised, made to compete against each other much more. Few are in permanent jobs, and those few are usually on high wages, while the rest are fed the dream that there may be a permanent job for them somewhere if they are lucky.

There is still a working class, and it still has the capacity to change the world. But now there needs to be a huge new political infusion, to generate a consciousness among working people that their lives can be better than the shit they're living in now, that they shouldn't have to compete against each other.

We have to get in on the ground level with workers, not just in construction, maritime and metals, but in universities, schools, hospitals, call centres-the whole working class. Capitalism has universalised the suffering much more. Capitalism is much more flexible today, more difficult to get hold of, but it can still be beaten.

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