The Trade Unions: Communist Theory and Practice of Trade Unionism, Lance Sharkey. 1961
The Communist Party was instrumental in the establishment of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
Previous to the formation of the A.C.T.U. in 1927, with the exception of a few strong Federal unions, the connections between the trade union movement in the various States were loose and weak. This meant that there was no central general trade union policy on a national basis, no proper co-ordination in action between the trade union movement in the different states. To ensure the rectification of these grave weaknesses and deficiencies in policy and organisation, the Party proposed, soon after its own formation, an all-Australian Executive and a National Congress of the trade union movement to formulate policy and guide the industrial struggle, a trade union national centre after the pattern of the English Trade Union Congress and the All-Russian Council of Trade Unions. This proposal received wide support.
The A.C.T.U. has been controlled by the reformists. Reformist control has prevented the A.C.T.U. from functioning as it should, has often indeed used it as a brake on the militancy of the working-class. Reformism has kept the A.C.T.U. weak and prevented it becoming the real, powerful centre of trade unionism it was meant to he and should be. Nevertheless, the militants have often been able to win a majority at the A.C.T.U. Congresses and to have progressive policies adopted by these Congresses, thus influencing the whole of the trade unions in a proper direction.
Impatient comrades sometimes demand the abolition of the A.C.T.U., naming it the “grave-yard of strikes.” This is a wrong attitude. The real fight is obviously to end reformist control of the A.C.T.U., just as this is the real need in a number of important unions and labour councils. With the ending of reformist control and the substitution of militant progressive leadership, the A.C.T.U. will be rapidly strengthened to become the most important directing centre of the trade unions, functioning on a national scale and co-ordinating the activities of the unionists right throughout the whole country.
The Labor Councils, both State and local, are also vitally important leading centres of the trade union movement. These centres also need the utmost attention. Like the A.C.T.U., they too are mostly shackled by reformism.
The Australian Workers’ Union has always played an important part in the affairs of the labour movement.
In its early days, first as the Shearers’ Union, the A.W.U. played a most militant part and was one of the pioneer fighting forces which further developed the foundations of, the mass labour movement as we know it to-day. The struggles of the rural workers, in the ’80s and ’90s of the last century, are a bright page in the history of labour, marking its broadening out and the commencement of the really mass movement against capitalism.
Later, the A.W.U. falling into the hands of a reactionary bureaucracy, was discredited in the eyes of many trade unionists. This bureaucracy crushed the old militant fighting spirit of the rural workers and reduced the union to an appendage of the capitalist State. The bureaucracy, shouting about arbitration, collaborates with the squatters and other bosses to break the strikes of its own members, often recruiting scabs for this purpose. The chieftains of this bureaucracy, over-paid union officials, are usually past-masters in the art of A.L.P. factional intrigue to secure control of that Party and place themselves in Parliament. The A.W.U. bureaucrats ruthlessly suppress all progressive expression in the union, using the weapons of victimisation, expulsion and slander. Members allege that the ballots of the A.W.U., whenever there is a serious challenge, are often faked.
The bureaucracy is able to maintain control because of the scattered membership, the decisive sections being unable to meet because of the hundreds of miles separating the sheds, stations, farms and public works, etc., on which these members are employed. Progressive motions and protests by groups of A.W.U. workers are usually ignored.
In N.S.W. where the A.W.U. was once as numerically strong as in Queensland, it now has a relatively small membership.
This is due to past corruption and reactionary policies especially in the days of the Bailey bureaucracy. The Bailey bureaucracy relied on State controlled compulsory unionism and, when compulsory unionism was revoked by a U.A.P. Government in N.S.W. the A.W.U. literally fell to pieces. The result in N.S.W. is that tens of thousands of former A.W.U. members became unorganised, refusing to join the A.W.U. voluntarily, and only after some twenty years this position has started to improve. Unionists cannot be compulsorily made; the backward workers, as a rule, can only be convinced by results, by gains in conditions and living standards won by progressive trade union activity. That is why there is not compulsory unionism in the U.S.S.R. Coercion tends to turn the politically backward masses against unionism. On the other hand, unions are justified, where a job is almost 100 per cent. organised, in taking measures to force a few recalcitrants to join the unions. Preference to unionists is a better alternative to compulsory unionism.
The A.W.U. also maintains bad relations with other trade unions. It sets itself up as a rival centre to the Australian Council of Trade Unions, refusing generally to collaborate with that body. The A.W.U. splits the workers by poking itself in everywhere: metal, mining, manufacture, etc., and “bodysnatching” membership from other unions. This creates a strong antagonism against the A.W.U. amongst the craft unions, especially in the big industrial centres.
The A.W.U. officialdom has also played a reactionary role in the politics of the Labor Party. Many of the Parliamentary leaders have been former A.W.U. officials. Their influence has been of the most reactionary rightwing character. They have also been in the centre of A.L.P. intrigue, factionalism and corruption.
The A.W.U. is a very important union. It embraces the bulk of the real proletariat. The rural proletarians are the backbone of the labour movement in the countryside and the starting point for the political organisation of the country masses. Beside the rural workers, the A.W.U. embraces large numbers of the lower paid workers in and around the towns.
The defeat of the A.W.U. bureaucracy and elimination of its reactionary influence, the removal of the running sore of its corruption from the body of the labour movement, is ail important trade union task requiring a lot of attention. The A.W.U. can and must be restored to its former proud place as one of the main fighting organisations of the Australian proletariat.
Trade unionism in Australia has developed almost entirely on craft lines. The Communist Party regards these craft divisions as a source of weakness and disunity hindering the growth of revolutionary strength and political consciousness. The crafts also foster reformist ideology and strengthen the grip of the arbitration system on unionism. The craft divisions create differences, in policy and conflicts between unions, thus dividing the workers. “Demarcation” and other inter-union disputes tend to sap the unity of the workers. These craft divisions can and do lead to one union “scabbing” on another during strikes. Some unions call strikes without the slightest effort at consultation or the harmonising of policy, strikes which automatically place large numbers of other workers in the same industry out of employment, creating thereby resentment and disunity. The crafts perpetuate the “snobbish” outlook of the skilled towards the unskilled and semi-skilled workers.
Because of these weaknesses of the craft union system the communists strive towards higher forms of industrial organisation of the working class, i.e., shop committees and industrial unionism.
By industrial unionism is meant that all the workers in a given industry (e.g. coal-mining) are organised in one union irrespective of craft or trade.
One of the bigger tasks in the trade union movement of the country is that of replacing the existing craft form of organisation with organisation “by shop,” i.e., by the establishment of industrial unions.
The best method to achieve this is by means of the amalgamation of the existing craft unions.
The reformists sometimes distort our proposals for industrial unions to mean that the communists wish to “smash the unions.” We must carefully combat this reformist distortion and show the workers, by clear and concise argument, how industrial unionism would greatly strengthen the unions and simplify policy and organisation.
The opponents of industrial unionism are the reformists, who greatly fear the increased militancy of the workers which would grow out of increased unity and strength. The reformist officials also fear the loss of their jobs as a result of the effect industrial unionism would have in undermining the bureaucratic grip and dictatorial control established by these official cliques in a number of the craft unions.
To combat this latter obstacle, the communists are often agreeable to guaranteeing these officials a certain tenure of office in the amalgamated unions, in order to establish the main principle, i.e., organisation by shop, by industry. Other such tactical measures may be resorted to as the conditions in a union, or group of unions, where there are possibilities of amalgamation, may warrant.
Organising for shop committees in the factories is a foremost task of the communists.
The shop committees are basic trade union organs and must not be viewed either as substitutes for, nor opposition to the trade union.
The shop committees strengthen the ties between the union and the workers on the job, and between unions in the same industry, when they are functioning correctly. It should be specially noted that the shop committees will be the basic organisational unit of the future industrial unions. The shop committees in the first place defend and improve the conditions of the workers in the factory.
The shop committees play a most import role in the preparation and mobilisation of the workers for strike action. They play an important role in leading the strike and combating betrayal and reformist misleadership.
In a revolutionary situation the shop committees would be one of the chief instruments for drawing the whole of the working-class into the fight, into the street, and the general revolutionary struggle.
After the taking of political power by the workers, the shop committee’s role is again extraordinarily important. The shop committees, together with the Party branch in the factories, realise workers’ control of industry; they lead the work of economic reconstruction and the raising of the level of socialist production in the work-places. The tasks of the shop committees in the Soviet Union are very comprehensive. Not only do they strive to raise production, but they, of course, look after the economic interests of the workers (wages, hours, conditions). They are also charged with much of the care for the cultural, educational, social, sporting and recreational needs of the workers, and they now control social insurance. Such is the importance of the shop committee movement before, during and after the revolution, in preparing, winning, and consolidating socialism!
Party comrades, therefore, must set about preparations for establishing a factory committee where one does not exist, and strengthening and guiding it where it does exist. The shop committee movement in Australia was weak and has only really commenced to grow under the influence of our Party. The reformists do not like shop committees and often prevent setting them up or, failing in this, hinder their work. The way must be carefully prepared for the setting, up of shop committees. The best and most influential workers should, first of all, be won for the idea through preparatory propaganda, both printed and oral.
Shop committees should be representative of all workers employed in the undertaking. Communists must not lose sight of the United Front when considering support for nominees to these committees.
The structure of shop committees may vary. The best form is that consisting of delegates elected by each department in the plant, or elected by a mass meeting of all workers; but it is wrong to be rigid and reject other forms. In some cases a composition acceptable to the workers and unions may be that of delegates representing each union with members on the job.
In other instances, the starting point may be the coming together of the stewards of the unions with members in the plant. Such a committee ratified by a mass meeting or endorsed by the union groups concerned, is a good form.