Bob Gould, 2004

Weirdness in WA
Something strange this way comes. The DSP-Socialist Alliance floats abolishing Unions WA

Source: Ozleft, Green Left Weekly discussion list, December 18, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Green Left discussion list

There’s a new fashion in DSP-Socialist Alliance circles for personal web blogs run by individual members, a fashion pioneered by the indefatigable Dave Riley in Brisbane and taken up by someone called Rachel in Sydney, whose blog is exceedingly strange, and someone in WA called Gramscian.

The Gramscian blog, which appears to be run by a DSP member, has an account of a recent Socialist Alliance Fightback one-day event in Perth. Gramscian says there were 35-50 people in attendance, and mentions meeting a number of non-aligned people at the event.

That probably means there were 30 or so people at the plenaries, about half of whom were DSP-Socialist Alliance members. That’s not a very big gathering, but not too bad for Perth, a city of a bit more than 1 million.

The nitty gritty of the event, as reported by Gramscian, was the address on industrial matters by Joe McDonald of the WA CFMEU, which is led by Kevin Reynolds, a Labor Party figure who runs his own right-of-centre faction in the Labor Party, which calls itself the Centre faction. The CFMEU, however, is extremely militant industrially.

McDonald’s address was pretty interesting. He denounced certain labour movement personalities, who he named, Cameron, Sutton and Combet, in very strident terms. Later in his speech he recommended ignoring the state’s “silly industrial relations laws” — don’t take them seriously, he said, and eventually times will change.

In my view that’s very dangerous rhetoric. It’s impossible for any individual or unionist to ignore the savage industrial relations laws, state and federal. McDonald made some kind of comparison with the O’Shea events in 1969, but the point was that the O’Shea general stoppages took place in conditions of rising class struggle, 50 per cent trade union density and a powerful left-wing nationally in the trade union movement.

The O’Shea events were not a case of the people who triggered them and led them being indifferent to the anti-union laws of the bourgeois state. O’Shea’s challenge to the state was a direct attempt to make draconian industrial laws inoperable, and it succeeded because it was backed up by a comprehensive national industrial mobilisation.

That mobilisation was organised mainly by the Communist Party and the 26 left-wing unions in Victoria.

One has only to describe these events cursorily to see the differences between then and now. A challenge to anti-union laws is desirable, but it can’t be plucked out of the sky and it’s unlikely to be advanced without substantial, broadly based organisation in the trade unions.

In the present defensive situation facing the trade unions extravagant left talk doesn’t help.

A second address was given by Chris Cain, the energetic and courageous secretary of the WA Maritime Union, which has about 1500 members. The high point of his address, according to Gramscian, was that “Cain also put forward the proposal to disband the lifeless Unions WA and to get the more militant unions into an alliance”. He got great applause for this.

At the end of the event, Gramscian reports, “most people left the conference with a look of determination on their faces, and feeling that much more inspired to show solidarity with the oppressed”.

When I read this blog with the account of the conference, I was rather taken aback. A proposal, obviously supported by the Socialist Alliance, and presumably by the DSP, slithers through the door, apparently without serious discussion, and is endorsed by a meeting of about 30 people, about half of them members of the DSP.

The endorsement by a tiny meeting of left-wingers of a proposal to abolish Unions WA is almost a caricature of the political practice of Stalinist ultraleftism during the so-called Third Period of the 1930s. How can a small meeting of this character seriously expect to mobilise sufficient forces to abolish Unions WA? Besides being politically dangerous, the idea is a bit on the fantastic side.

I have a considerable amount of respect for Chris Cain, but in this instance I believe his proposal is badly misguided. I’m curious as to who has advised him on this course of action.

Is it coming from the DSP-Socialist Alliance, or is it coming from the Kevin Reynolds grouping in the WA unions and Labor Party, or possibly from both? Of one thing I’m reasonably certain: Chris Cain is unlikely to have floated such an idea without getting indications of support from some individuals or organisations.

If he’s proposing a new group of militant unions, it seems likely he’s talking about the CFMEU, the transport workers, the maritime workers (MUA) and possibly the electrical trades (ETU) under the new leadership supported by the DSP (which has reaffilitated the ETU to the Labor Party in WA, despite all the DSP’s rhetoric about disaffiliating unions from the Labor Party).

I have nothing in particular against Reynolds and his group. In industrial politics in WA, they’re often militant, but they’re also a powerful force in the Labor Party, positioned on the centre-right. I was an observer in the gallery at the last Labor Party federal conference and as far as I could see, the delegates of the Reynolds grouping voted with the rest of the right and the ALP leadership in the tense argument on the refugee issue, against the proposals of Labor for Refugees.

The DSP has carefully laid the basis for an alliance with Reynolds by the statement of one of the WA DSP people in a recent Socialist Alliance internal bulletin that differences between left and right in the ALP are no longer significant.

I’d be inclined to be very cautious about a proposal to abolish Unions WA and start a new WA trade union structure if it emanated from the Reynolds camp.

In Labor Party politics, threats to start new union structures are usually pressure politics, and are seldom persisted with for any great time after the unions making the threats strike a new equilibrium in the ALP and union power structures.

In present defensive circumstances facing the unions, the proposition to, in Chris Cain’s words, “disband the lifeless Unions WA” is dangerous and problematic. The timing of this proposal is particularly dangerous, as everyone knows a state election, which will be bitterly fought, is due in February. Surely the last thing the labour movement in WA needs is a hullabaloo about a split in the union movement in the run-up to a state election.

In these circumstances, the union movement needs organisational splits like a hole in the head. What is actually needed is a substantial united mobilisation of the whole trade union movement to defeat the Howard government’s industrial proposals, and a proposal to split the WA trade unions cuts right across that necessity.

That’s not to say that organisational splits in peak trade union bodies are not sometimes a regrettable necessity. The classic example of a justifiable split in the Australian union movement was the breakaway of the 26 “rebel” unions from the Victorian Trades Hall Council in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Chris Cain, and the DSP leadership if they’re capable of it, should study the careful account of that split in Labour History magazine.

The first point is, that split took place in the context of rising class struggle. The second point is that it only took place after every avenue for structural change in the THC had been exhausted. The situation was that the moribund right wing of the THC hung on to control of that body under totally undemocratic rules, which gave tiny right-wing unions votes out of all proportion to their membership.

The THC refused to democratise the rules, but the left unions fought very hard to change the rules before they even contemplated a split. When they eventually did split, over several years they effectively starved out the reactionary Jordan leadership of the THC by withholding their affiliation fees.

After several years of split and industrial confrontation a compromise settlement was eventually reached that was basically favourable to the interests of the left unions, and in the years since the THC has been transformed into a relative left stronghold.

It’s worth noting that for the last year Michelle O’Neil has been the president of the Victorian THC. Anyone interested in the history of the breakaway of the 26 unions in Victoria in the 1960s and 1970s should read the very useful article in Labour History No 36, May 1979, by DH Plowman, titled “Unions in Conflict: The Victorian Trades Hall Split, 1967-1973″.

The questions that must be asked about any proposal to split a peak trade union body are: what are the demands of the left unions for the structure of Unions WA? Are there some unresolved organisational problems? What have the unions that Chris refers to done to solve these problems? What proposals have they put to the leadership of Unions WA?

Not being a Western Australian, I concede that there may be issues in the WA union movement of which I’m not aware. I am aware, however, that Helen Creed, the dominant personality in Unions WA, is generally on the left.

Any proposal to split the unions in current conditions is an extremely serious matter. It shouldn’t be slithered through the cracks of a tiny meeting of radicals, such as the DSP-Socialist Alliance gathering of 30 or so people.

I put it to Chris Cain, who may read this, that he should very seriously consider the implications of any such move, and he should discuss the likely outcome with whoever is talking to him about this question, whether it be the DSP leadership or the Reynolds grouping, or both, and try to talk them out of it.

The other affiliates of the Socialist Alliance, and other socialists outside the SA are entitled to an explanation of why this course of action is proposed, if it’s coming from the DSP leadership, which is powerfully suggested by the Gramscian blog report and the tone of the report on the Socialist Alliance event.

No serious response yet from the DSP leadership about the problems of the WA labour movement

December 21, 2004

Chris Latham responded to my last item on WA by posting several articles from the WA press about recent issues in the labour movement there. I thank him for that because those articles, as far as they go, are useful and informative.

I would be interested to know if there are other articles from other angles in the WA press that throw more light on some of these issues.

Chris Latham makes a general statement about judging affiliations to peak bodies on the basis of how they serve the interests of union members. However, he does not go on to express a clear view as to whether the proposal to split Unions WA, endorsed at a Socialist Alliance meeting of 30 people, is a good one or not.

It seems to me that it’s incumbent on the DSP leadership, if it is advocating a course of action, as it seems to be, to explain why it’s a useful course of action given the political and industrial relationship of forces.

Chris Latham then asks me what I think of the split of the 26 rebel unions from the Victorian Trades Hall Council in the 1960s and 1970s. Well, I answered that question at length in my original article, saying that split was justified and the eventual outcome was useful and progressive, although the outcome took the form, ultimately, of a kind of compromise.

The fact that Chris asks the question suggests that he may not even have read my original article, and perhaps someone rang him saying that pain-in-the-neck Gould has put up an article, and asking Chris to respond.

The current situation in WA and the situation in Victoria in the late 1960s and early 1970s are quite dissimilar. To quote Nicholas Bukharin from the useful little book, Lenin as a Marxist, published by the British Communist Party in October 1925:

I will remind you of a series of points and formulae which Vladimir Ilyich presented. One of common tactical formulae concerning experience, reads: “A very great many errors occur through slogans and measures which were quite correct in a definite historical phase and in a definite state of affairs, being mechanically transferred to another historical setting, other correlation of forces and to other situations.”

In my view, this applies with considerable force to making some kind of mechanical analogy between Victoria in the 1960s and 1970s and WA now.

I repeat my request to the DSP leadership: will you make some clear statement on the strategic implications of the proposal to split the WA trade union movement in current circumstances.

It seems to me that the proposal to split is unwise and unsound in the current conditions. Splitting Unions WA is a rather indirect way of getting at the hegemony of reformism in the Labor Party.

The ETU leadership, for instance, which is supported by the DSP, has just reaffiliated to the Labor Party. The Maritime Union remains affiliated to the Labor Party (unless it has disaffiliated very recently).

The grouping of unions around Kevin Reynolds remains entrenched in the Labor Party and runs its own centre-right ALP faction.

None of those political relationships seem likely to be changed by splitting Unions WA, so why split with a very small number of unions rather than campaigning to improve Unions WA?

These are big and important questions and they require a more serious response than a few press cuttings.