The Trade Unions: Communist Theory and Practice of Trade Unionism, Lance Sharkey. 1961

The Role Of The Industrial Groupers

The post-war period witnessed the rise of a most reactionary organisation within the trade union movement.

This was the organisation of the so-called Industrial Groups. Nominally, these Groups called themselves Labor Party cells working within the trade unions.

The reality, however, was quite different. They were organised under direction of reactionary Roman Catholic hierarchs by the notorious Mr. Santamaria.

Their purpose was to subvert the trade unions, rob them of their class character, put an end to the traditional forms of trade union struggle, particularly strike action, an end to all militancy, oust left wingers and communists from trade union positions, to substitute class-collaboration in its most extreme form for class-struggle, and by these methods, prevent further development of class-consciousness in the working class.

In a word, the aim was to subordinate the working class to the needs of monopoly capital.

Their policies were copied from the “Labour fronts” of the former fascist regimes of Italy and Germany.

In place of unity, organisation and militancy in the struggle for a better life by the trade unions, the groupers proclaimed “greater productivity” through working harder, incentive payments, piecework and bonuses, together with reliance on arbitration courts as the methods of the working class.

It became clear to most trade unionists that this would have left the workers at the mercy of the employers, of ruthless exploitation and oppression by the monopolies. A struggle so commenced throughout the movement against the groupers and their policies. Already “greater productivity” has led to displacement of workers in a number of industries but no improvement in living standards.

The industrial groupers were a parallel to the “political groupers” within the A.L.P.

These politicians, allied with the most reactionary elements of the Roman Catholic clergy, set out to convert the A.L.P. into a rabid anti-communist party, openly supporting the “cold war” and imperialistic aggression, the political and economic policies of monopoly-capital. The “groupers” are pacemakers for fascism and war.

Alongside the anti-grouper struggle in the trade union movement, the progressive elements within the A.L.P. and those who said that such policies would lose mass support for the A.L.P. and “create a void which the Communist Party would fill”, commenced a struggle in the A.L.P. This resulted in the expulsion of the main core of the political groupers from the A.L.P. and the adoption at its Hobart and Brisbane Conferences of policies more in keeping with the traditional outlook of Labor liberalism.

The struggles within the A.L.P. and the trade unions were therefore closely linked and were, in fact, fought against the same opponents. In the main, the groupers have been defeated in the major trade unions and many grouper officials removed from office, most notable exceptions being the Federated Ironworkers and the Clerks’ Union.

The Ironworkers’ Union previously had a leadership composed of communists and genuine Labor men. This leadership had been responsible for building the union, from a weak, ineffective force into one of the strongest unions in the country.

It had unionised a number of non-union establishments such as the B.H.P. steelworks at Newcastle and had succeeded in making substantial wage gains and improvements in working conditions of the union members.

This leadership was removed under the legislation to control union ballots and activity initiated by the Chifley Government and later extended by the Menzies Government.

As the ironworkers are the biggest single group of workers employed in the iron and steel industries, controlled by the single giant monopoly, the B.H.P. and its subsidiaries, it is clear who benefited from a “company” union imposed under government legislation.

It was in the interests of the B.H.P. that the State organs removed the progressive leadership from the Ironworkers Union and installed in its place the present grouper leadership.

A comparison between wages and working conditions, union organisations and activity of today and the same factors in the Ironworkers’ Union of ten years ago supplies ample proof of this point.

The progressive leadership of the Ironworkers’ Union was the target for a violent and unscrupulous campaign by the monopoly press, the employers and the industrial groupers for a number of years.

Some mistakes were made by the union leadership, which resulted in too narrow and bureaucratic methods of leadership which had the effect of helping the campaign of the reactionary forces. Steps had already been taken to correct these errors before the Arbitration Court stepped in, particularly by the introduction of rank and file conferences to give members of the union more control of the union and its policy.

One of the first acts of the groupers when they got control of the union was to wipe out the rank and file conferences and to change the rules in other ways so that today the rank and file have very little say in the running of the union.

The campaign against the progressive leadership was not the result of shortcomings in its work however, but arose from the very successes arising from militant activity which aroused hate and fear on the part of the big employers.

Similar sustained campaigns are at present conducted against the Waterside Workers, Seamen and other unions in the forefront of the struggle in defence of genuine trade unionism and improved living standards and working conditions.

The groupers in control of the Ironworkers do not parade their true colours, but hide behind the A.L.P. label. They maintain affiliation with the A.L.P. (with the exception of the State organisation in Victoria), and refrain from open support for the D.L.P., the political party organised by those expelled from the A.L.P., whose tattered banner is that of anti-socialism and anti-communism and whose political function, up to date, has been to keep the Menzies Government in office.

However, the groupers have not been able to suppress altogether the struggle of the ironworkers. Their 1959 annual report stated that 707 strikes have occurred in the industry, since they were placed in control.

Capitalist sources make a lot of noise about stoppages on the waterfront, but even with the heavy handicap of a reactionary leadership, the rank and file ironworkers continue their struggle, along with the waterfront unions, the metal trade unions, the miners and other leading detachments of the great trade union movement. The recent big movement of ironworkers in Newcastle is evidence of this.

The groupers, industrial and political, have done incalculable harm to the trade union movement. It was their propaganda and disruption primarily that enabled the Menzies Government to extend court-controlled ballots and impose the “Court of pains and penalties” upon the trade union movement and to outlaw strike action.

Their anti-working class activity also was a prime factor enabling the capitalist class to impose the “wage freeze” and depress the purchasing power of the basic wage and margins.

While, in the main, the grouper offensive has been rebuffed by the working class, the struggle is by no means over and the groupers in many places are adopting more subtle disguises and tactics.

They have the powerful support of the monopolies and Roman Catholic hierarchs.

The Democratic Labor Party (so-called) carries on its vile and slanderous campaign not only against communism, but against everything progressive, including even the worldwide struggle for peace and against an atomic war.

Not only this, but it is clear that the right wingers in the Labor Party are contemplating a rapprochement with certain sections of the industrial groupers and the D.L.P.

This calls for vigilance and unremitting struggle on the part of all the progressives in the labour movement against their pernicious activity and influence.