Bob Gould, 2003

The Electrical Trades Union election in Western Australia
A comment on a Green Left Weekly report

Source: Ozleft, Green Left Weekly discussion list, August 13, 2003-January 13, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Monday’s Green Left Weekly (August 11, 2003) has, more or less out of the blue, a quite detailed account of an election challenge to Bill Game’s leadership in the Electrical Trades Union section of the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union in Western Australia.

The article is clearly written in support of the group challenging Bill Game. This came as a bit of a surprise to me, as I’ve been aware of Bill Game as a militant and leftist associate of other left-wingers in Western Australia, whom I know personally. I’ve also seen him mentioned over the years, on a number of occasions, in Green Left Weekly and even its predecessor Direct Action, as a supporter of leftist causes.

I’ve since rung a few acquaintances in Western Australia to get a bit of background, to try to join the dots, so to speak.

It seems to me that, as a general principle, Marxists have to be careful in deciding when to run in union elections, and which side they support in union internal conflicts. This is obviously not a precise science, but surely certain broad principles apply, although complex tactical grey areas often arise.

The facts seem to be these: there are a couple of political currents and sub-factions in the labour movement in WA. A rising star in the movement, both industrial and political, is Kevin Reynolds, the powerful and dominating figure who is the secretary of the CFMEU. An old associate of Norm Gallagher, he consolidated his power base in the CFMEU a few years ago, after his Builders Laborers Federation amalgamated with the Carpenters Union. Part of this consolidation involved defeating Bill Ethel, a courageous leftist who made the industrial mistake of overdoing the use of green bans in his capacity as secretary of the Carpenters Union.

At the industrial level, Reynolds runs a reasonably militant union setup of a more or less traditional economist sort, with which one can have no quarrel in the difficult current Australian conditions. Reynolds is a bit of a bete noir to the Tories, particularly the Tory federal government and is the subject of constant attacks in which he is accused by the Tories of some kind of corruption, but none of these attacks have ever been made to stick.

At the political level, Reynolds is a significant and energetic political power broker in the centre right of the ALP. One of his closest ALP associates is the right-winger Brian Burke, a former Labor premier, and Reynolds’ influence in the ALP has been rapidly increasing, as has his influence in the WA Trades and Labor Council.

Obviously Reynolds is a figure of whom it would be pretty stupid to deliberately make an enemy. I have no difficulty with the fact that the militants in the Waterfront Union in WA sought Reynolds’ support in their successful campaign to overthrow a bankrupt conservative leadership in the Maritime Union of Australia, which is demonstrated by the very public toast to their success made by Kevin Reynolds at the MUA victory party.

I have previously noted that the main personality in the new militant leadership of the MUA voted at a recent Socialist Conference in favour of a more cautious approach than that of the DSP on the question of ALP affiliation, and it seems that part of the explanation for this may lie in the alliance with Reynolds. One of the dots that I have just joined up is new information that I did not then know, that the brother of the main personality in the WA MUA was, for a number of years, an organiser with Reynolds in the BLF, and is now an active figure in another WA union, where he is regarded as a Kevin Reynolds ally.

Being in an alliance with Reynolds, particularly in opposition to the attacks on him by the ruling class, isn’t any sort of original sin. At this point, I would stress that all these circumstances make the DSP’s abstract left talk about exposing Laborism in the unions appear as the demagoguery that it actually is, and underlines the general point about the continuing grip of Laborism on unionised workers.

I’m conscious of the fact that Perth-Fremantle is a small city of about a million people, dominating the far-flung state of Western Australia, which is about half the Australian continent, in which the country areas of WA have another 300,000 people, and which is so isolated that Perth is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney. It may seem a little eccentric for me to even comment on these developments from the distance of Sydney. But, nevertheless, the fact that Perth-WA is such a small world in itself, a small town, so to speak, underlines the importance of Marxists being careful in how they proceed in labour movement matters there.

The Green Left Weekly article acknowledges that Bill Game makes the accusation that the group challenging him are industrial and political allies of Kevin Reynolds, who intend to reaffiliate the ETU to the Labor Party, thereby, Game implies, advancing the Reynolds faction’s political interests.

Is there any substantial truth in Game’s accusation about his internal opposition? Internal union challenges which, these days, are very costly, rarely fall out of the sky. I have no particular brief for Bill Game, except for the fact that, generally speaking, for a long period of time, he has done his time as part of the industrial and political left. I’ve always disagreed, for instance, with his ultraleftism towards the ALP. Nevertheless, it seems to me that one would have to have a powerful justification or necessity, in the current climate, to deliberately join and support a challenge to his leadership if that challenge was from a group of union organisers who are part of a centre-right machine in the ALP.

Surely the industrial political location of the challengers is a more or less factual question that can be ascertained. Limited differences about organising methods, etc, and different proposals for organising by the challengers, don’t overly impress me. Anyone challenging in an internal union struggle usually comes up with a more detailed set of proposals for organising than the incumbents. The very limited statement of the differences in the Green Left article underlines my instinct that one has to work out where the challengers fit in the industrial-political scheme of things.

I don’t intend to be too categorical and flatfooted about any of this, because I don’t yet know quite enough about all the ins and outs of the situation, although I’m endeavouring to find out, and I’m certainly not suggesting that any group of Marxists in Western Australia would be advised to start a general industrial political war against Kevin Reynolds. Nevertheless, all other things being equal, it seems to me to be a bit unwise, and rather unprincipled, to automatically join in throwing out Bill Game, and dancing on his industrial coffin, so to speak.

Game may well not survive the challenge, in which case the Marxists who supported the challengers will be locked for a period into their alliance with whatever industrial and political practices the successful challengers carry out, and it may not be the case that what they do in practice flows from their limited written manifesto.

If Game’s leadership survives in the ETU, the Marxists who supported the challengers are in an even worse situation, facing an angry relationship with Game, who is likely to remain a political enemy for quite a period, and who will probably continue to assert that he was challenged from the right. It all sounds to me like a bit of a mess.

Another dimension to this is the pronounced tendency in the past year or so for the DSP to take a rather public factional stand in support of the Victorian-WA group in the CFMEU in its conflict with the NSW leadership, led by Andrew Ferguson, and with John Sutton the federal secretary of the CFMEU.

At several Socialist Alliance meetings that I have attended, the DSP activists have been dishing out factional material against the NSW CFMEU and national leadership, produced by the Victorians. The strangest instance of this was a year or so ago at a Socialist Alliance trade union meeting at Parramatta, which was addressed by the NSW president of the CFMEU, and the DSP members present were handing out material from the Victorian CFMEU attacking the NSW CFMEU.

The internal chop-chop in the CFMEU has been going on for a long time and does not look like being resolved decisively in favour of either group. Despite the DSP’s rhetoric, the industrial differences between the contending factions are not that great. The critical difference from the DSP’s point of view seems to be that the Victorian leaders are a bit kinder to the DSP and the Socialist Alliance. Once again, I’m not opposed to civilised and sensible relations with Martin Kingham and John Cummins. They are pretty good trade unionists by any standards.

Nevertheless, it’s a bit short-sighted to get too deeply involved in their factional chop-chop with Ferguson and Sutton.

It seemed a bit short-sighted, to me, for Martin Kingham to publicly criticise Sutton recently, at the time of the witch-hunt against him in the bourgeois press over his vigorous activities on the Morris McMahon picket line. It also seemed to me a bit short-sighted of Green Left not to register critical support for Sutton in his war with the bourgeois press.

The problem with getting too deeply involved in inter-union factional struggles between conflicting parties who are all ostensible leftists is that the consequences are dialectical. Australia is a federation of states with big cities at a great distance from each other, and labour movement politics often involves interstate as well as political rivalries. These days it’s almost as if the DSP operates a Melbourne policy and strategy industrially, which is a bit dopey when it also has to operate in Sydney and NSW.

It’s hardly surprising in this context that the conservatives and Stalinist relics have managed to rope the CFMEU into the attempt to drive the far left out of the antiwar movement in NSW. They only have to point to the DSP’s excessive Victorian factionalism to get an attentive hearing from most NSW unions.

I would refer readers of this to a very useful article by Kim Moody, which is on the US Solidarity group’s website.

In this article, in a discussion of the classic, defining experience of revolutionary unionism, that of the Trotskyists in Minneapolis, Moody quotes Farrell Dobbs thus:

“From the outset the building of a broad left wing in the local was rooted in the programmatic concepts essential to a policy of militant struggle against the employers. Although this perspective entailed an ultimate clash with conservative union officials, their removal from office was not projected at the start as an immediate aim. That could have given the mistaken impression that the Trotskyist militants were interested primarily in winning union posts. To avoid such a misconception a flanking tactic was developed. Instead of calling for a quick formal change in the local’s leadership, the incumbent officials were pressed to alter their policies to meet the workers needs.”

At a DSP conference session that I attended several years ago, Sue Bull gave a very long presentation (more than an hour) about half of which was devoted to a euphoric recounting of the Minneapolis events and the other half to an equally euphoric defence of the DSP’s disastrous adventure in the Wollongong Ironworkers in the early 1980s. This adventure is discussed in some detail in George Petersen’s autobiography and in my Open Letter to Members of the DSP.

It seems to me, however, that the DSP leadership has great difficulty assimilating the dialectical complexity of the extraordinarily rich and complex Minneapolis experience, because the section that Kim Moody quotes above, often so sharply contradicts the DSP’s actual practice, like the 1982 Wollongong adventure, and several other of their industrial interventions.

Another methodological question arises. The DSP is a very tightly centralised organisation in the Zinovievist tradition. How are the decisions made on such things as the decision to support a challenge to Game in the ETU in Western Australia? Was that decision made primarily at a national leadership level on the basis of overriding political considerations like the presence in the Socialist Alliance of some members of the new leadership of the MUA? It would be nice to know the answer to that question.

A methodological postscript

In the past year a rather protracted discussion has proceeded between me and Peter Boyle and other DSPers on whether the concept of the predominance of an aristocracy of labour in advanced capitalist countries is a useful and valid current political concept. I argued that it isn’t and Peter Boyle argued that it is.

The methodological question arises: are the membership of the ETU and EEPTU in Western Australia, electricians and plumbers, in any meaningful way, significant parts of a labor aristocracy, and if they are, how does this affect industrial and union strategy in the ETU?


DSP dumps Bill Game. A response to Peter Boyle

Peter Boyle’s reply (of 14/8/03) on Marxmail, makes the issues a lot clearer, as does the article from the Militant Group’s paper, The Socialist, posted by David Murray on the Green Left list, and the quick response by Ben Courtice on GLW.

The first thing that strikes me about this is the DSP’s attempt to divert the discussion on to relatively inessential questions. I hereby apologise for my error in not noticing that there had been a gritted teeth article in support of Sutton in GLW. These days, I access GLW on the web, which is probably a mistake, because one sometimes overlooks things that one wouldn’t overlook in the systematic way one tends to read hard-copy socialist newspapers.

What fascinates me is that the only person to respond to me has been Peter Boyle, no one, so far, from Western Australia, and the response from anyone else in the DSP has consisted only of several postings of the Sutton article on the GLW site and on Leftist Trainspotters.

Similarly, the important article and interview with Bill Game in The Socialist evokes an immediate response from Ben Courtice about its excited, fawning tone. I share Courtice’s view and am often irritated by the sycophantic style of interviews in The Socialist, but surely the point in this instance is not the tone of The Socialist, but what the article reveals about Bill Game’s general political and industrial outlook and activities.

I’m told by people who know him that the interview is a fair, and almost vintage, representation of Game’s general industrial and political outlook: ultraleft towards the ALP at the political level, but consistently socialist and industrially militant.

Despite the tone of the interview, at least The Socialist did interview Game to get his point of view. This sure beats the hell out of the Green Left Weekly standard of journalism.

The article in Green Left Weekly that initially set off alarm bells for me is presented as if it included interviewing Game. I’m now reliably informed that Chris Latham, the author, did not interview Game at all. The information in his article must have been third-hand, maybe from Les McLaughlan or Anthony Benbow. It’s even bad bourgeois journalism to present an account of a conflict situation like this as if you are getting the point of view of both parties, when in fact you’ve only interviewed one side.

It’s much worse for a socialist newspaper to report events in mildly deceptive way about what it says is a conflict between two left-wingers for general secretary of a union.

I ask this question of Peter Boyle and Chris Latham. Did Latham interview Game to get his point of view? If not, why not? Why give the reader the impression that you did interview Game?

Over the past four days, I’ve joined a lot of the dots in this situation by talking to left-wingers of my acquaintance in the West, and others.

Bill Game is a well known leftist maverick in WA. He has been a full-time official of the union for a considerable number of years and is completing his third four-year term as secretary.

The views quoted in The Socialist interview certainly are vintage Bill Game. He has been talking and behaving that way for many years. He took the initiative in disaffiliating the ETU from the ALP in 1991, and he has been using, by my standards, rather ultraleft rhetoric about immediately forming a new workers’ party for quite a number of years. For instance, he’s the only full-time union official who has been willing to address the Socialist Alliance on that kind of question. He has also been well-known as the most prominent full-time union official in WA to make repeated public statements attacking the late, unlamented prices and incomes accord between unions and the Hawke Labor government, and to criticise a too-close association between union leaderships and government.

All this has been very public and Game has made a number of powerful enemies in the labour movement because of his attitude on these matters.

Eight years ago he faced a fairly vigorous electoral challenge to his leadership and he claims that Anthony Benbow, the DSP bloke, supported that challenge as well. Is that true? It does not clearly emerge from Latham’s article, where it is obscured by Latham’s assertion that Benbow was a supporter of Game in the last election, four years ago.

Game claims that he has devoted a substantial amount of union resources to the campaign by his union to maintain Electrical Trade Union coverage, representation and membership at the Hamersley mine site in the north, in the face of the brutally anti-union attacks of that employer and the federal Liberal government. He asserts that this has been very costly and that the cost of it is being highlighted by his electoral opponents as part of their campaign against him. Is there any truth in the assertion that his opponents are trying to exploit that situation?

Other observers in Western Australia who I’ve consulted say that it’s pretty clear, in their view, that Kevin Reynolds is supporting the opposition to Game. I’m told that Game’s electoral propaganda contains endorsements from a large number of delegates in the industry, and that his opponents’ propaganda doesn’t contain many such endorsements.

For instance, is Anthony Benbow, who represents the DSP interest in this situation, and who we are told is an activist in the union over many years, a union delegate?

I’m also reliably informed that the Game camp consists of Game himself, two full-time organisers, and two industrial officers, as well as widespread support among the delegates; and that the McLaughlan camp consists of three full-time organisers, including McLaughlan himself, who is challenging Game for the secretary’s job.

I’m reliably informed also, that the Game camp, for circumstantial reasons, mainly financial, is of necessity conducting its campaign on the cheap, so to speak, in the traditional way, mailing their how-to-vote ticket, etc, and phoning delegates. My WA informants tell me that the other side seems to be able to afford the new, extremely expensive type of campaigning, embodied in phoning every individual member. In many union elections this method of phoning every member verges on push polling.

Responding to my probing, Peter Boyle says that both leading candidates are left-wingers and Green Left was remiss in not clearly spelling that out. I’m informed that there’s an element of truth in this, in that Les McLaughlan is not regarded by anybody as an extreme right-winger, that he is an energetic career union official who has chosen to make his run against Game on the basis that he thinks Game is vulnerable to challenge. Part of Game’s vulnerability obviously consists in his belligerent avowal of unpopular causes on the left.

The problem with supporting McLaughlan is that he’s a much less sharply defined political figure than Game.

In the course of his challenge, McLaughlan is getting support wherever he can, and in this context, the McLaughlan camp’s apparent support for reaffiliation to the ALP suggests the likelihood that if he is victorious, as a significantly less political animal than Game, he is likely to be drawn into the orbit of Kevin Reynolds’ centre-right political machine in the Labor Party. The scientific saying is, nature abhors a vacuum, and the general tendency in trade unions, labour movement politics and the ALP is for active trade unionists to be drawn into one faction or another.

No one has asserted that McLaughlan has any allegiance to the Socialist Alliance, and if he has received significant support from the Reynolds machine, what force is likely to draw him away from Reynolds’ grouping in the labour movement? Certainly not the DSP, which despite its pretensions is relatively marginal to labour movement industrial activities and politics.

Considerations of that sort obviously don’t rate very highly with the DSP, because their artificially constructed cosmology about the Labor Party just being the second party of capitalism makes such considerations unimportant to them. But in the real world of the industrial and political life of Western Australia, such considerations are, in fact, extremely important.

I can envision a situation where the DSP may well be saying, privately, something like this: look, Bill Game isn’t a bad bloke. He has been an honest socialist militant, but he has lost the plot because of his ultraleftism. He’s going to be beaten by the other bloke. We’ve got to cut our losses and go with the other bloke because we may be able to influence events to the left under the new regime if we are seen to be supporters of Les McLaughlan’s push for power, and that will also be good for relations with Kevin Reynolds and his industrial-political machine.

The DSP, however, doesn’t say anything like that publicly. It prefers to maintain the argument on the plane of rather high-blown abstraction, such as Peter Boyle taking responsibility for the judgment that McLaughlan’s leadership will be better for the ETU.

Having acquired as much information as I can about the situation in the West, I have reached the provisional view that the behaviour of the DSP in this situation is pretty unprincipled.

The electoral defeat of such a noisy public figure, identified with leftist and socialist trade unionism, will actually set the political atmosphere back in Perth and Western Australia. It would be more honourable and sensible to give critical support to Game, despite his ultraleftism towards the ALP.

Several of my contacts in Western Australia say that it’s still by no means a foregone conclusion that Game will be beaten. They tell me that he has a reservoir of support on the basis of his energetic industrial activities over a very long period, and that he could still survive, even despite the impact of the considerable financial resources being thrown behind his opponents.

It seems to me that the DSP leadership has a chronic lack of any sense of proportion in trade union matters. They veer between viewing concrete, long-term, patient trade union interventions as relatively unimportant and overstating possibilities and developments in the unions on the basis of some limited conjunctural event. My alarm bells also started ringing when John Percy made a fiery speech at a recent Socialist Alliance meeting on trade union matters in Sydney, in which, taking as his point of departure a good vote for a DSP candidate in the Sydney MUA and a good vote for the Chris Cain group in WA, he canvassed the imminent probability of enormous new openings in the unions.

Not having a lot of confidence in John’s judgment in these matters, I wondered at the time what might be in the works, and it seems to me that the DSP’s intervention in the WA electrical union is one by-product of John Percy’s excited impressionism.

The DSP leadership should step back a bit and try to get a sense of proportion. The victory of Chris Cain’s militant group in the MUA in WA is a very significant step forward. Nevertheless, the much-reduced WA waterfront union has only about 1000 members. The also much-reduced ETU still has more than 4000 members in WA. These days it’s a rather more significant union than the MUA.

It would be a considerable tragedy from the socialist point of view if the victory of the militant left in the wharfies’ union was immediately followed by the overthrow of the one other noisy militant socialist in the WA trade unions, and his replacement by a new leadership that is quite likely in the current industrial climate to be significantly to the right of Bill Game in practice.

The Socialist Party’s last-minute intervention

I’m anything but impressed by the Militant Group’s new adventure. The Socialist Party is tiny, with about five members at most in WA. They bounce up to Bill Game right in the middle of his hotly contested electoral battle for industrial survival and solicit his support for proclaiming some sort of committee for a new workers’ or socialist party. It seems to me that in the middle of a hotly contested union election battle like this Bill Game needs that kind of initiative plonked on his plate like a hole in the head.

Surely what Game needs is concrete support in his electoral battle, not new political initiatives, which, if they are valid or desirable from his point of view could well be postponed for a week or two until his union electoral battle is concluded.

Peter Boyle’s speedy response on the web on Saturday evening, taking up the minutiae of the rivalry between his group’s project and the Militant’s project does, however, give the flavour of some of the issues involved from the point of view of both the DSP leadership and the Socialist Party.

Which side is supported in the ETU battle begins to have the dimensions of the well-known Monty Python sketch in the Life of Brian about the conflict between the People’s Liberation Front of Judea and the Liberation People’s Front of Judea, or whatever. Unfortunately for Bill Game and his members, Game’s courageous leadership of the ETU seems to be caught in this crossfire.

From where I sit, it’s becoming a little clearer what some of the crosscurrents are. The DSP has a sectarian attitude towards Bill Game because he is a publicly identified militant socialist who doesn’t automatically support every detail of their particular Socialist Alliance project. The Socialist Party is equally sectarian. Its primary interest seems to be getting Bill Game to endorse its political project without overmuch concern as to whether he wins or loses.

The DSP’s attitude seems to be to be both sectarian and opportunist in the sense that it is prepared to underwrite the election of a new leadership in the ETU, which may quite probably be drawn to the right by the logic of the situation, and the still-continuing rather conservative social and political atmosphere.

The overwhelming consideration ought to be support for Bill Game’s survival in the ETU elections.

I would ask the following questions of Peter Boyle and Anthony Benbow.

I will leave a discussion of the DSP’s assessment of the conflict between the Victorian and Western Australian leaderships of the CFMEU and the NSW leadership for another post because that question, also, requires careful consideration. I will also leave for another post a further discussion of the methodological issues involved in the “labour aristocracy” question that Peter Boyle so resents being included in this discussion.

August 14, 2003


A serious response to issues raised by the WA ETU elections might be nice

It seems to me that comprehensive discussion of serious strategic questions is deliberately nudged aside on the Green Left list into either very high-falutin’, rather abstract discussion of very general questions or heated factional chop-chop, which is often precipitated by the contributions of Dave Riley, or a while ago, Commie Bastard. Some of the more abstract contributions are intrinsically quite important, but they contribute to pushing aside more concrete tactical discussions.

The really concrete discussion that follows a coherent thread is the discussion on Irish Indymedia, which has included contributions on the practice of both the Militant Tendency and the Australian DSP by a wide variety of contributors, including Rose McCann and Ed Lewis, of Ozleft.

The current discussion on the ETU is a case in point about the way these discussions seem to go. Two or three DSP loyalists respond on issues peripheral to the discussion and Paul Benedek and Dave Murray go at it hammer and tongs about the relative virtues of their rival political projects.

Despite its excited tone, Paul Benedek’s attempt at diversion has pretty interesting content. He baldly presents the proposition that the Socialist Alternative is a serious alternative to the Labor Party, which outside Benedek’s alternative universe, in the material world in which we actually live, is a fantastic proposition. His proposition is demonstrably and obviously untrue.

If Benedek believes that the Socialist Alliance is currently an alternative to the Labor Party, he could believe anything. He might as well believe in flying saucers. It doesn’t matter much what he believes, it’s obviously not the case that the Socialist Alliance is an alternative to the Labor Party.

Proceeding from his obviously false assertion, Benedek lambasts the hapless Murray because Murray’s rival sectarian venture is a diversion from his own sectarian venture, which is supposedly a real alternative to the Labor Party, and he thereby implies that Murray’s venture is aiding the Laborites. Wow!

Benedek then associates me with this kind of diversion from the DSP’s important alternative to the Laborites, the Socialist Alliance. He’s knocking at a bit of an open door there, as most people know that I argue for a strategic united front towards the Laborites from a Marxist point of view.

But DSP supporters and members might carefully consider that in the current argument my central point actually does have some bearing on divisions in the broader labour movement, because in my view any shift to the right in the union movement strengthens the right both in the unions and the Labor Party, and is a bad thing. That is one of the main considerations, from my point of view, in the WA electricians’ union elections.

I am arguing strongly that the action of the DSP in supporting a challenge to the leadership of Bill Game in the ETU is opportunist and a mistake. Despite his ultraleftism on the Labor Party question, the defeat of Game would strengthen the shift to the right in the whole labour movement and the actions of the DSP in supporting the challenge to Game will, if successful, contribute to this shift to the right.

In the weird, convoluted DSP-centred universe of Paul Benedek, my point of view is transmuted into some kind of defence of Laborism in general because I dare challenge something perceived by Benedek to be in the organisational interests of the DSP.

Benedek’s excited contribution, and the other, deliberately incidental diversions by current DSP loyalists such as Ben Courtice and Nick Fredman, are really just smoke and mirrors, although Benedek’s piece is unintentionally revealing about a lot of questions, which I’ll come back to in a later contribution.

There’s still no comment on these matters by any of the DSP or Socialist Alliance participants in WA, which is unusual, to say the least.

Peter Boyle’s latest small piece requires a bit of analysis. He goes further in dumping responsibility on the editorial staff of Green Left Weekly, and by distant implication on the DSP members in WA, but we don’t hear from them directly on these questions. He broadens the proposition that the Chris Latham article was a big error and grandly says GLW will print a letter from Bill Game and they’ve offered him an article.

What a gratuitous insult to Comrade Game that is! The ballot is nearly over. Most ETU members have already voted, and GLW is graciously offering Bill Game an article in the week when the ballot is counted, after the DSP has loyally contributed its little “widow’s mite” to the powerful forces trying to defeat Bill Game’s leadership. Boyle is adding insult to injury in this situation.

He then says, portentously, that time will tell whether the DSP decision to support the challenge to Game was correct, but he again shifts the responsibility a bit, implying that it’s Anthony Benbow’s personal responsibility, to a degree.

The problem with this lies, in part, in the area of, in Keynes’s well- known aphorism: “in the long run, we’re all dead”. Boyle clearly hopes Game will be resoundingly defeated in the ballot, and that will enable the DSP leadership to pass off its rather disreputable manoeuvring as some kind of scientific judgment.

Well, the DSP is just wrong about that. The defeat of Game in this ballot will almost certainly be clearly seen, in the fairly short term, as involving a fairly significant shift to the right. That’s the central issue I’m raising.

Peter Boyle makes no serious attempt to address any of the major issues I’ve raised in my overview of this ETU ballot issue, and no- one else in the DSP has attempted a response at all. I’m still awaiting a serious response.

August 18, 2003

Discussion, more discussion

Nick Fredman does it again. More on the WA ETU elections

Nick Fredman’s post this morning is an example of example of exactly what I was talking about when I referred to smoke and mirrors. He evinces great concern about what he says is a factual inaccuracy in one of my posts and then uses that to make a sweeping generalisation questioning my judgment in everything.

Well, I don’t concede his point that I was factually inaccurate. The exchanges at the Socialist Alliance conference, which he repeatedly posts, demonstrate that what’s at issue is an interpretation of what that exchange involved. In my view it involved, implicitly, views on both sides about matters such as union affiliation to the Labor Party and the general approach to Laborism and the Laborites.

But even if his interpretation is more correct than mine, how does that invalidate the rest of my many arguments about the ETU elections?

He implies that because, in his view, I make one factual error my proposition should be rejected, and he’s quite happy to, by implication, accept the wisdom of Peter Boyle and presumably the rest of the DSP leadership, as he admits he has no direct knowledge of the events under discussion.

He does say, however, that he’s very interested in the argument about the ETU elections, and I believe that he probably is, as are no doubt many other DSP and Socialist Alliance members and supporters, who follow this discussion list but don’t express themselves.

Peter Boyle, in his post, displays ultra-sensitivity to the proposition that the DSP has a Zinovievist structure, internal life and atmosphere. Well might he have such sensitivity, because the way this discussion has proceeded seems to me a striking demonstration of Zinovievism in the DSP, and how, presumably, that’s carried into the Socialist Alliance.

We can agree that a decision was made somewhere in the DSP to support a change of leadership in the WA ETU, from a leftist maverick to a less-defined political figure who appears to have the support of the centre-right Kevin Reynolds machine.

The DSP leadership no doubt has extensive knowledge of the issues involved in this decision and obviously some of the members in Perth would have some idea, but it seems highly likely that the ultimate decision was made in the national office of the DSP because that’s how the DSP works, although there may have been some input from members in Perth.

Zinovievism at work

Members of the DSP other than the leadership, in places other than Perth, as Fredman says, have no information on which to make a judgment other than their general loyalty to the wisdom of the DSP, and members in Perth, who may know something about the decision and its ramifications, and who knows, may even disagree, are not in a position to say anything because of party discipline interpreted in the Zinovievist way.

The only way such a DSP decision of an important strategic sort can possibly be questioned once it’s made is if some knowledgeable, noisy outsider like me has a go at the DSP over it. But if that happens party discipline and partinost are invoked to repel the impudent outsider who questions the party line or practice. (“If you disagree, comrade, you can take it up at some undefined time in the future in discussion for the next congress.”) That approach is hardly much help concerning disastrous or unprincipled day-to-day decisions in the labour movement.

The DSP is not alone in this structure and atmosphere. A much worse version of it prevailed in the old Stalinist movement, which I spent 20 or so years of my political life trying to combat.

But many organisations in the Trotskyist movement have the same disastrous way of arriving at and defending decisions, which is one of the factors that contributes to the fierce and often uninformed clashes between adherents of the different groups bound by the disciplines of their organisations on conflicting tactical matters.

How much better would be a regime if tactical decisions in Marxist organisations could be disputed publicly, as they were in the Bolshevik Party in Lenin’s time, before the ban on factions and the Zinovievisation of the Comintern.

Concerning the WA ETU a decision was made essentially by the DSP leadership nationally, and as the saying goes, most of the membership is kept in the dark and fed bullshit, and the only serious debates take place in the leadership, and you usually only get to know about them after some kind of split.

A further point has to be made about the implications for the Socialist Alliance and the DSP’s allies in the Alliance. By reason of the weight of the DSP’s weight in the Alliance, actions such as this by the DSP are interpreted in the wider world as actions of the Alliance.

Yet the dominating presence of the DSP in the Alliance, with its Zinovievist internal structure, precludes any of its Alliance allies from having any internal input into the decisions. The DSP members don’t have much input, and other Alliance affiliates and members have none, but they’re saddled with the results.

In his earlier major post, Boyle appears to back away a little, admits that the Chris Latham article last week was a bit misleading, and indicates that the editor of Green Left Weekly had indicated that may be corrected. They’ll print an article from Game, big deal, and he can write an article if he wants to. As I said in my previous post, that’s totally cynical.

The Green Left Weekly in which Game’s article might appear is printed next Monday or Tuesday, when the ballot starts being counted. GLW has ambushed Game and insulted him by offering him an article well and truly after the event.

When you examine this week’s GLW there’s no article about the ETU elections, in which the effective misinformation in Latham’s article could be corrected, and ever so graciously GLW has published a letter by Game, in which he defends himself within the very limited constraints of the GLW letters column. I regard all that as pretty insulting to Game, the members of the DSP and Socialist Alliance, and the broader left public.

Meanwhile the GLW discussion list drags on, we have elaborate and arcane discussions about matters such as the vital question of antiwar slogans in the US, and there’s absolutely no serious continuance of the discussion on the WA ETU elections as the clock ticks towards the counting of the ballot next Monday.

Boyle’s crude assertion that the DSP leadership will be proved wrong if the other bunch ousts Game and then shifts to the right is pretty revealing. He’s obviously staking a lot on the DSP leadership’s belief that Game will be defeated in this election. The DSP’s whole disreputable manoeuvre in this election seems to be predicated on that hope, and they now hope they can pass off this manoeuvre as some kind of wisdom because they’ve attached themselves to a successful team.

Unfortunately for Boyle and the DSP leaders, there are several other possibilities: Game may still win, he may win in a very close result or he may lose in a very close result. If the result is close, either way, that very fact will subject the DSP’s electoral manoeuvre to very careful scrutiny indeed.

The difference between the DSP leadership and myself on this question doesn’t just hinge on who wins or loses. It hinges on the social and political forces brought into play by Game’s victory or defeat in this election.

Boyle reduces it to an abstract decision, almost as if it was based on the toss of a coin, and says we might have been right or wrong, we’ll find out later. That’s a poisonous practice and outlook for an ostensible Marxist leadership in the workers’ movement.

I’ve gone to considerable lengths to describe the general social forces at work, which should have bearing on the decision one makes on who to support in that election, and I’ve made a case which, the further one proceeds, only seems to appear more convincing. (I’m aware, of course, that one tends to convince oneself by one’s own eloquence, and I expect readers will allow for that.)

Boyle and the DSP leadership haven’t done anything like that. They haven’t seriously put their decision in any context, and haven’t explained it to anyone in a comprehensive way, and they still refuse to respond and discuss the question in any depth.

They seem to be precluded from engaging in that kind of discussion by their own internal arrangements, which is a practical indictment of those arrangements.

In the course of this discussion, one of the DSP’s leaders, Paul Benedek, in an aside, casually declares political war, so to speak, on what he describes as “the rotten leadership of Andrew Ferguson” in the CFMEU. That also sets off major alarm bells for me, but I’ll address that in due course in another post.

I return to my five critical, unanswered questions from my second post and I’d like some attempt at an answer by Boyle, the DSP leadership or anyone else in the DSP, for that matter, if possible before the ballot is counted next Monday.

August 19, 2003


Once again, some answers would be nice

Is it too much to expect a serious, detailed, comprehensive answer to the questions I have posed about the DSP leadership’s support of the more moderate group in the WA ETU elections?

I have received a fairly large collection of the written material in support of both factions in the WA ETU elections, and I’ve got more on the way from Western Australia.

The glossy full-colour propaganda produced by the more conservative Recharge group that the DSP is supporting, is difficult to reproduce on the web. I’ve chosen two A4 black & white photocopy-type leaflets that catch something of the flavour of the conflict, one from Bill Game, and one from the forces attacking Bill Game.

My challenge to the DSP leadership is: examine the two leaflets carefully and tell me who the left-wingers are in this situation.

Obviously, electoral material on either side is unlikely to express a full or perfect program, but surely these two leaflets give some basis for forming a judgment as to which group is more left-wing.

In other union elections in which the DSP has been interested, like the recent CPSU elections, the DSP has put up on the Green Left site reams of the election material of the group they support. Why not put up, on the Green Left site, some of the material from the Recharge group you support in the West Australian ETU to give readers something of the flavour of the appeal to members being made by the group you support.

For the time being, the two leaflets I’m posting here, give some idea of the flavour of this conflict.

It’s time to get rid of … Bill who?

Under Bill Game’s failed leadership the ETU Division of the CEPU has plummeted from 9000 members to 3900. And it’s little wonder when you consider the following …

Bill Game has done far too much damage to our union. And if it weren’t for the dedication and hard work of blokes like Les McLaughlan, Peter Carter, Jim Murie and Ian Gill, the ETU/CEPU would be in even worse shape than it is. We can no longer afford a State Secretary who’s favourite song is


Tell Bill Who? His Game’s Up! Elect: Les McLAUGHLAN, Peter CARTER, Jim MURIE, Ian GILL and the ETU RECHARGE TEAM

This leaflet has been circulated by concerned ETU Members

Workers First! Reject the “Recharge” group’s grab for control of the Union

The word recharge implies something has run down or needs revitalising.

Bill Game: fought the Hamersley litigation defence against constant cynicism and negativity from other union leaders and members of McLaughlin’s faction, and was finally thanked by the ACTU for saving the situation including the backsides of three other unions. The recharge team offered no viable alternatives other than joining in with the other unions. What a disaster that would have been? The success in this matter was achieved by Avon Lovell’s investigative work coming from his experience as a journalist.

Bill Game: is prepared to expose ALP treachery against workers whilst others do not want to upset the ALP. The McLaughlin faction want to take the union back into the ALP and have indicated this at State Council and Officer’s meetings.

Bill Game: has continually tested and probed labour hire. He fought for and included Skilled Engineering and Drake as respondents to the Award.

Bill Game: initiated rank and file committees in Perth, Kwinana and the lift industry which built up and slowed down depending on the work situation in the industry. These committees regularly put issues to the State Council for consideration. Les McLaughlin and his faction have reduced this to occasional ad hoc meetings in Kwinana only and no business comes to State Council. They run the contracting section of the union as their own fiefdom. Check the State Council minutes. In fact contracting, the biggest section now brings little to State Council.

Bill Game: initiated training and recruitment of members who indicated an interest in future organiser’s positions. Bill trained three current organisers. McLaughlin and his faction stopped this despite Bill raising this at Officer’s meetings and State Council. They don’t want potential competitors threatening their jobs in elections. McLaughlin’s faction includes a candidate for organiser with absolutely no experience as an organiser, who is expected to operate in an arena where our members face litigation.

The McLaughlin faction claims industrial officer Avon Lovell went to Thailand and attended the Police Royal Commission on Union pay. This is not true. Avon lost about $17,000 in wages during that period, yet his work could have fitted within the Union’s human rights objectives. His agreed unpaid work in these matters benefits all West Australians including our members and their families. The shadow attorney general Peter Foss, stated that the Police Royal Commission was going nowhere until Avon provided evidence that has led to many exposures. Avon has done invaluable work for our members and is without doubt the most innovative industrial officer our union has ever had. Les fails to report that it was Avon’s brilliant work in the Industrial Commission that saved the Contracting Award redundancy clause, one of the best base conditions in the industry.

Bill Game: achieved the only totally controlled union training centre in WA, which provides discounted quality training. Bill’s efforts were constantly frustrated by McLaughlin’s negativity and pessimism. Les McLaughlin: argued for big, powerful cars for organisers.

Bill Game: argued for smaller, cheaper cars and threatened to take the issue to a vote of members before Les backed off.

Bill Game: raised his concern four years ago that Jim Murie did not function as an Assistant State Secretary and was not capable of leading this union in the future. Murie was assigned the job at an officers’ meeting to design a future management plan for the union, and could not do so. He remains an integral part of McLaughlan’s faction. How can you get any “recharge” into that, or claim they are going in new directions when they couldn’t come up with a battle plan in nearly four years?

Bill Game: has always had a battle plan. The Union has always had excellent direction. Bill and the Union have fought at legal, Commission, industrial and grassroots levels with outstanding success. As the old adage says: “If it ain’t broke, it don’t need fixing!”

Bill Game: inherited a deficit in the union’s finances, inherited the $100m Hamersley litigation; inherited the Court-Kierath first, second and third-wave attacks on unions and workers: the worst possible time to take on the leadership of a union. Despite this, under his leadership, focus and drive, the Union today is in surplus, free of draining litigation, and in the forefront of the daily battles in the workplace, Commission and courts. We are today recognised as a tough, intelligent and successful union under Bill Game’s leadership.

Bill Game: has enemies amongst some politicians and union leaders who resent his outspoken and successful defence of workers.

Give him your support.

August 21, 2003

The results, a balance sheet of the debate about the elections, and a few suggestions about what Anthony Benbow and the DSP might do now

About 2050 of the 3800-odd ETU members who got ballot papers voted in the WA ETU elections. This is a turnout of about 55 per cent, which is spectacularly high in any blue-collar union election in the current industrial climate, even for an election that was fiercely contested.

For the vital state secretary’s position, Bill Game won by six votes, 1023 to 1017 for Les McLaughlan. For three positions on the federal council of the union, Mahood, who was on both tickets got 1792, Fiala who was on Game’s ticket got 1095, McLaughlan (Game’s opponent) got 1067 and Game missed out with 1056.

The result for the state council is less clear, and this body may be fairly evenly divided, as a number of people who were elected were supported by both teams. The Recharge team claims to have a majority on the state council, but that will have to be tested, as it’s possible that the day-to-day legal power of the state secretary and the prestige of the state secretary’s office may lead a number of the people elected unopposed to either support Game or not oppose him vigorously.

In day-to-day matters the elected state secretary is legally vested by the industrial system with running the union. There have been situations similar to this in a number of unions, where the mix on a state council is a bit different to the views of the state secretary, but over time the state secretary has tended to re-emerge as the dominant personality, and in this case most observers say Game is an energetic and skilful industrial operator. I’ll come back to this later.

In an earlier post, I made the following observation: “I can envision a situation where the DSP may well be saying, privately, something like this: Look, Bill Game isn’t a bad bloke. He has been an honest socialist militant, but he has lost the plot because of his ultraleftism. He’s going to be beaten by the other bloke. We’ve got to cut our losses and go with the other bloke, because we may be able to influence events to the left, under the new regime, if we are seen to be supporters of Les McLaughlan’s push for power, and that will also be good for relations with Kevin Reynolds and his industrial/political machine.”

The DSP, however, doesn’t say anything like that publicly. It prefers to maintain the argument on the plane of rather high-flown abstractions, such as “that McLaughlan’s leadership will be better for the ETU”. Well, surprisingly, Anthony Benbow does say something like that in his reply to me.

He makes this surprising tribute to Bill Game: “It is true, as Gould notes, that Game is a socialist and has been outspoken on issues of principle in the past such as opposing the wage-cutting prices and incomes accord of the federal Labor government under Hawke and Keating. This was a courageous position to take. Game has also maintained a principled opposition to the ALP as a party which does not represent the interests of workers. Game is not a member of the ALP and the CEPU is not affiliated to the ALP … In recent times, Game hasn’t promoted as much activism among members as he might have done in the past. Game’s key achievements are in the past rather than in the present.”

Benbow also says: “The choice is between continuing with a principled leadership that has come through tough fights in the past but has no effective plan to address several pressing issues the union currently faces; or, to elect a new leadership team that has a plan to meet these challenges and which has proven itself to be industrially militant and is left-wing.”

It could hardly be more clearly expressed by Benbow, the DSP’s judgment was almost exactly what I imputed to them in my paragraph above. It clearly included an estimate on their part that the Game team would be resoundingly defeated. They’re not terribly good judges in these matters.

Elsewhere in his response to me, Benbow lays a political basis for his opposition to Game’s team and his support for McLaughlan and Recharge by stressing that McLaughlan is a leftist with a past association with the New Left Party, although he hasn’t had a high profile like Game.

Benbow is also quite frank that he supported another unsuccessful challenge to Game back in 1995 by another bloke from the New Left Party, and he also gets in the jab that McLaughlan and his supporters aren’t so full of socialist theory as Game when he asserts that Game would have got a lot of theory in the Socialist Labour League, thereby getting in the idea that Game was once in the SLL, something I’m not aware of. It’s all very well of Benbow to say the bloke he supported in 1995 opposed the accord. If he did, he would have been one of the very few in the CPA-NLP industrial and political stable to do so. I ask readers of this exchange all over the country: how many member of the CPA-NLP stable were serious opponents of the accord? Mostly they supported it, and were up to their ears in it.

In making a judgment as to whether the challenge to Game was from the right or the left it’s also extremely useful to do a balance sheet of the campaigns conducted by the two sides. I’ve just receive the modest little eight-page broadsheet official union newspaper of the ETU in WA, edited by a Game appointee under Game’s supervision.

It’s only black and white and it’s not very flash, but I was very taken with the May issue, which appears to have come out around the middle of May. This issue contains a very large article taken from and attributed to a Socialist Worker booklet titled “Stop Bush’s War on Iraq: A Dossier of Lies”. The same issue has a full-page article about Daryoush Hoshmandnejad, an asylum-seeker about to be deported to Iran, and the heading of that article is “Secret Iran-Australia Deal Will Send Union Activist to Die”. Another headline on the same page, which is completely devoted to the rights of asylum seekers, reads: “Phil the Phibber Rats on Rights”.

Two pages out of eight in a modest little union journal are devoted to the two central issues in Australian politics from a defiantly left-wing point of view, which was mailed under the secretary’s name to every financial member of a quite traditional craft union. I haven’t seen anything as leftist as that in any union journal in recent times. This went out in the journal over the name of the secretary who was about to be challenged vigorously in a ballot.

It says a great deal about Bill Game’s notion of principle. The context in which the challenge took place has to be understood within the framework that the challengers no doubt believed that Game was vulnerable because of such acts.

No wonder Benbow says: “McLaughlan has advocated progressive causes while being a union official, although he doesn’t have a profile on the left outside the union.” That’s a coded way of saying McLaughlan hasn’t stuck his neck out like Game, which isn’t really surprising if his political training was, as Benbow says, in the New Left Party.

The character of the propaganda from the two teams is strikingly different. The Recharge team’s material isn’t even really economist in tone, it’s kind of sub-economist and consists mainly of general motherhood statements, plus a lot of personal attacks on Game, talking about “Game’s failed leadership”, which is of course a way of making a pitch for any more backward workers who may have been antagonised by Game’s public and belligerent leftism, particularly his stand on the Iraq war, and racism towards asylum seekers. One needs to remember that this is an election in a craft union in WA, possibly the most conservative state in the country on matters such as asylum seekers.

The Recharge material is better edited and much more expensive than the Game material: four-colour printing with lots of photos, and in my view is technically much more accomplished from an advertising point of view than Bill Game’s material.

The Bill Game material, on the other hand, is belligerently left-wing, and argumentative about issues and policies in the union. Game and his associates are obviously kind of village Hampdens, so to speak, and they reply in enormous detail to every accusation made against them by Benbow’s Recharge mates.

Their material is dull but persistent and detailed on industrial matters. A central part of their propaganda is a pedestrian little yellow leaflet listing 90 workers in about 50 workplaces, many of them delegates, who support the Game team. My WA contacts, who now include some of the Game team, as I got in contact with them, assert that the other team was extremely well-funded and relied heavily on the new technique of ringing every member. The script being used in the ringing of every member was rather primitive, and relied mainly on talking about “the failed Game team”.

It now appears that the challenge to Game was supported by the Centre Unity right-wing group in the Labor Party and unions and also by the moderate left grouping in the WA Labor Party and trade unions. They ganged up against Game because of his belligerent attitude towards the WA Labor government.

That kind of line-up is familiar to a number of left-wing unionists in NSW from the 1980s. There can be no serious question that the challenge to Bill Game and his team was essentially a challenge from the right, not the left, and it’s unsound for Marxist socialists to be associated with such a challenge, no matter what ultraleft mistakes Bill Game may have made concerning the Labor Party.

In the event, the main tactical assumption made by the DSP in engaging in this opportunism: that the Game team would be comprehensively defeated, turned out to be a very grave misjudgment.

The expenditure of a lot of money and a glossy, rather backward campaign was not quite sufficient to dislodge Game’s team. The Game forces obviously had the ear of the more militant, organised section of the membership, because a close study of the other side’s campaign suggests that it is would very probably have got its votes from the more conservative section of the membership.

The enormous size of the poll suggests that there was a sharp polarisation between militancy and conservatism in this election.

What happens now?

The worst possible outcome would be a continuation of a vicious war to the death between the two factions. It may even turn out that Anthony Benbow and couple of others may have the balance of power. I strongly recommend to them that they do what they should have done before the elections and try to play a conciliatory and moderating role between the two groups.

Despite the pitch to perceived discontent with the radical Game leadership made by the Recharge challenge, most observers, including people in the Game camp, say most of the McLaughlan team are not extreme right-wingers. Most of the challenge was motivated by wanting the jobs, which is a human consideration in union matters. Benbow and the DSP have the chance to play a positive role in drawing the two factions together, if they seriously try to do so.

In this complex new situation, with two factions more or less evenly balanced, the ball is well and truly in Benbow’s court. He can make up for past opportunism, if he wishes, by trying to play a conciliatory role between the two factions, and I hope he and the DSP decide to do that, rather than persisting in an exhausting and demobilising factional war with Game, which they would very probably lose anyway in the longer term.

September 4, 2003

Sackings in the ETU (WA)

January 13, 2004

A short news item from the January 13 Australian is a basically accurate account of the current situation in the WA ETU, although it puts the Murdoch press’s conservative spin on these developments.

A few facts need to be added. The three sacked union officials, who are taking the action in the federal court for reinstatement in their jobs, are left-wingers.

The election vote for the secretary’s position indicated that the two factions were almost equally balanced, because the incumbent leftist Bill Game won by four votes. Immediately after the elections, simultaneously with sacking the three organisers from the rival faction, the new majority on the state council closed down the small but courageous union paper edited by Game, the previous two issues of which had vigorously opposed the Iraq war and defended asylum seekers, which is no small thing in a craft union in WA.

My information is that the council voted to start a new publication, but, so far, that hasn’t appeared.

The painful fact is that the coalition that sacked the three leftist organisers and closed down the radical union journal includes a leading member of the DSP in WA.

Battle for control of key union

Roger Martin

A bitter battle is being fought for control of Western Australia’s electricians’ union as three of its former organisers sue the organisation for unfair dismissal.

Former advocate Avon Lovell and former organisers Shane O’Byrne and Carl Young are claiming unfair dismissal by the electrical division of the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union last September. While the brawl is on public show in the case before the West Australian Industrial Relations Commission, the struggle has wider implications for control of the Labor Party.

The CEPU is not affiliated with the ALP, but a faction that took control of the union last September has strong Labor ties. If it returned to the ALP, it would probably join the Centre faction of ALP powerbroker and Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union boss Kevin Reynolds. Mr Reynolds is suspected of supporting a challenge to CEPU state secretary Bill Game at the September election, who is believed to have backed Reynolds opponents at a CFMEU ballot a year earlier.

Both men survived the challenges, but Mr Game is now a lame duck leader after his opponents gained control of the CEPU’s governing state council.

After the September ballot, the newly elected state council terminated the employment of three of Mr Game’s supporters — Mr Lovell, Mr O’Byrne and Mr Young. All are now suing the CEPU for unfair dismissal.