Australasian Spartacist No. 230

Spring/Summer 2016-17


For Class Struggle Against Labour-Hire Bosses!

Down With Anti-Union Laws!

One Out, All Out, to Reinstate CUB Maintenance Workers!

NOVEMBER 2—We reprint below a 14 October Spartacist League leaflet. This has been distributed by Spartacist supporters to unionists at the encampment outside CUB and at Trades Hall in Melbourne. There has been some keen interest by workers in our call to shut down production at the site. However, with the union bureaucrats bowing to the anti-union laws and refusing to mobilise their base, this potentially explosive fight has been transformed into a waiting game. The dispute is now buried in arbitration and the maintenance workers have been left in limbo. If the unions continue to play by the bosses’ rules their power will continue to be weakened. We need a class-struggle leadership of the unions, prepared to unleash the mass strength and solidarity of the workers movement in opposition to the capitalist class enemy and its state.

On 10 June all 55 maintenance workers at Carlton & United Brewery’s (CUB) heavily unionised Abbotsford plant in Melbourne were summarily fired. They were offered their jobs back on the condition they accepted a non-union Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) under a different labour-hire contractor. This would have meant a whopping 65 percent pay cut! The workers, members of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), responded by picketing the site to demand their jobs back on union pay and conditions. CUB, currently part of the massive SABMiller brewing conglomerate (now taken over by the even bigger AB InBev brewers), have bussed in scabs to maintain the plant and production continues, despite the picket. If the maintenance workers are sacrificed to corporate profits, other CUB brewery workers will soon face similar attacks themselves. We say: One Out, All Out! The unions need to organise a mass, militant picket line to shut down the brewery until all the maintenance workers are reinstated on full union wages and conditions.

The Australian capitalist rulers dodged the worst of the worldwide recession sparked by the 2008 global financial crisis in large part due to a massive expansion in mining sustained by demand from the Chinese deformed workers state. But now, with the resources boom winding down and government debt rising, a reckoning is fast approaching. As the capitalist rulers have done overseas the bourgeoisie here seek to make workers and the poor pay for the vicissitudes of their irrational, exploitative profit system. The Liberal/National Coalition government has embarked upon a savage austerity agenda targeting medical care, education, welfare and pensions. To remove a key obstacle to these assaults and to maximise their profits, the bosses seek to undermine and weaken the organised working class. Thus their unrelenting campaign against the unions, currently spearheaded by a federal government vendetta against the CFMEU construction union. This vendetta has resulted in millions of dollars in fines, raids on CFMEU union offices and threats of jail against officials on trumped up charges.

The struggle at CUB is a test case. If this union busting is not stopped here it could open the floodgates. In September ExxonMobil sacked over 100 Bass Strait catering workers replacing them with non-union workers at two-thirds the pay. The company’s 500 mainly off-shore oil and gas workers face even worse attacks. The company has applied to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to cancel their EBA. If successful this would mean a 40-60 percent pay cut. The energy giant AGL is moving to do the same against their 600-strong Loy Yang power station workforce based in Eastern Victoria. Last July in Western Australia (WA), the company running one of two coal mines in Collie succeeded in having the FWC cancel an EBA. Now several other companies in WA are attempting to do the same thing.

Unions Must Play Hardball to Win

There is widespread sympathy for the CUB maintenance workers from the unionised working class. They know that they could be next. Thousands of unionists, particularly from the ETU as well as the AMWU, have contributed to a regular levy to support their sacked CUB colleagues. There have been several support rallies including one of several hundred MUA members. And on 8 September thousands of construction workers walked off city jobs to join a solidarity rally which blocked the centre of Melbourne for a couple of hours.

But this support is being squandered. Months after the sackings, the union leadership has still made no move to mobilise their ranks to shut the brewery down tight. The picket encampment looks like it’s built for an army but where are the troops? The purpose of a picket line is to stop production. That requires picket lines that no-one can cross. There is evident support among the brewery production and distribution workers, who stopped work in solidarity on 25 August. When they walked out, production stopped. But with the United Voice and CFMEU union tops bowing to anti-union laws against solidarity actions, they were quickly sent back to work a few hours later.

Craft divisions perpetuated by the union tops only help the bosses’ attempts to sow disunity amongst the working class. All workers in one plant or industry should be organised in one industry-wide union for maximum strength. Powerful industrial unions can only be built based on working-class solidarity in struggle. The once militant AMWU and ETU have been shown up by the victory of the National Union of Workers’ members who recently shut down Polar Fresh’s warehouse in Melbourne with a solid picket. Defying court injunctions they also sent out flying pickets, which shut other Coles distribution centres. Within days they forced the supermarket giant to accept a much improved EBA.

The bosses have laws to prevent everything the working class needs to do to defend itself. If you play by their rigged rule book you lose. To beat back these attacks and defend and extend union power it is desperately necessary to fight. This means employing the class-struggle tactics that built the unions in the first place, from solid strikes and occupations to black bans and solidarity strikes. And this means workers at CUB’s Yatala brewery in Queensland need to be out as well—instead of being used to undermine the fight by making up the shortfall from the Melbourne brewery. The union tops boast that they’re prepared for a “long fight” but AB InBev can hold out as long as production continues. And workers will not endlessly contribute to a levy when there is no sign of real struggle.

With their hands on the levers of production, workers possess enormous social power. But instead of exercising this muscle through strike action, the union officials are running a toothless publicity campaign to “shame” CUB and encourage people to stop drinking CUB beer. Consumer boycotts are almost always ineffectual. The most effective way to stop consumption of CUB beer is to stop
the cans and bottles rolling off the line. The only “boycotts” that really count are “secondary boycotts,” i.e., black bans and solidarity strikes. As to “shame,” the only real shame capitalists experience is when their share prices fall if they don’t meet their profit-gouging targets.

Break With Laborism

Why have the union bureaucrats not done what would have quickly won the dispute? For one, the sackings took place in the midst of a federal election campaign when the union tops were devoting all their energies into trying to bump their ALP “mates” onto the government benches in Canberra. They were not about to do anything (like some hard class struggle) that might have been perceived to jeopardise Bill Shorten’s run for the Lodge. Rather, the union officials have been actively promoting the ALP traitors. Thus, the keynote speaker at the 8 September mass rally was Victoria’s ALP Minister for Industrial Relations, Natalie Hutchins, in charge at a state level of policing Victorian workers on behalf of the bosses.

The union leadership is joined at the hip to the ALP, which aspires to run the Australian state. This state exists for the purpose of defending the power and profits of the capitalist class who own the banks, industry, mines and agribusiness. While based on the unions, the ALP is thoroughly pro-capitalist in its outlook and program: a bourgeois workers party. It works to pacify workers with promises to defend their interests, while, in power, it administers for the bosses no less than the bosses’ open representatives in the Liberal/National Coalition. It was the Hawke/ Keating Labor government that smashed the Builders Labourers Federation and the pilots’ union in the 1980s. Almost every attack being carried out by the current Turnbull government has its antecedent in the previous ALP government, from the decimation of the TAFE system to the slashing of pensions.

The union tops back the ALP because it reflects their nationalist and class-collaborationist outlook. They seek a partnership with the bosses in the “national interest” while sowing illusions that workers can share in the prosperity. But the national interest is nothing more than the interest of the bosses who own the country’s wealth. Their first priority is simply profit, which is obtained from the exploitation of workers’ labour power. There can be no common cause between the proletariat, who survive by selling their labour power, and the capitalists, who grow rich from the exploitation of this labour.

Workers need a multiracial revolutionary workers party. In political struggle against the Laborite union tops’ nationalism and servility to the state, the Spartacist League of Australia aims to build such a party by winning the proletarian base of the ALP away from its pro-capitalist leadership. Such a perspective is a far cry from the reformist left who tail after and amnesty the treacherous role of the union bureaucracy. Among the most slavish in this regard are Socialist Alternative (SAlt). They have written numerous articles on the dispute at CUB with not a word of criticism of the union tops’ losing campaign of “informational” pickets and consumer boycotts. This is no aberration. In 2012, SAlt praised a Perth union rally that was dominated by Australia-first protectionism and economic nationalism. In the following year they covered for the union tops’ backing of a reactionary picket at the Werribee sewage treatment facility, which protested the employment of Filipino guest workers on the site (see “Unions Must Defend ‘Guest Workers’!” ASp No. 220, Winter 2013).

For Proletarian Internationalism— Not Nationalist Poison

Workers have no interests separate from their international class brothers and sisters who in every capitalist country face similar attacks. Workers in India have also been fighting a union-busting attack at SABMiller’s Sonepat brewery in Northern India. CUB workers should make common cause with these workers against their common exploiter. Instead the union tops express their commitment to the “national interest” by decrying CUB’s union busting as “UnAustralian.” UnAustralian? From the savage repression accompanying the shearers’ strikes of the 1890s, to Labor prime minister Chifley’s use of troops to smash the 1949 NSW coal strike, to the last three decades of attacks on the organised working class, union busting is as Australian as Fosters Lager. The union tops’ blather about union busting being “unAustralian” is of a piece with the nationalist myth of an “Aussie fair go.” Tell that to refugees languishing in hell-hole detention centres like Nauru and Manus Island, or Aboriginal people facing “Third World” living conditions and racist state terror, or the besieged Muslim minority vilified and targeted for state repression as “terrorists.”

To believe in the “Aussie fair go” one also has to believe that the “Fair Work” Commission is a neutral arbiter. While the union misleaders decry the dodgy nature of CUB’s scab EBA, the real point is that it was the FWC which gave this scab contract legal force. It is also the FWC that enforces the laws prohibiting the production workers from striking and pickets from doing what a picket is meant to do. The FWC even issued a ban against union officials using the word “scab” as scabs go into the brewery. Today while the FWC is threatening to slash pay and conditions by cancelling EBAs, it is also laying the groundwork for the destruction of penalty rates. If successful this would mean a further gutting of hard-won union conditions and would drive some of the country’s lowest paid workers, many of whom are women, further into poverty. The truth is that the FWC, including its powers of arbitration, is just another bosses’ court that upholds rules written by the bosses’ parliament and which is enforced by the bosses’ police. Alongside the prisons, cops and military, the courts form part of the machinery of state whose purpose is to defend the bourgeoisie’s power and profits against those they exploit and oppress.

The union officials also appeal for a government inquiry into the “misuse” of labour hire companies to break down job conditions and wages. But that is precisely their purpose. CUB outsourced and slashed their maintenance workforce in 2009 after a nine-day strike was defeated. To pull off this latest attack all they had to do was change labour-hire contractors. Ditto for ExxonMobil in dismissing their unionised catering workers. Labour hire has long been a cancer eating away at union conditions. Responsibility for its proliferation rests with the union leadership that has failed to fight the destruction of permanent jobs.

The fight against the parasitic labour hire companies starts with a fight on the job for permanent fulltime jobs at union rates and conditions. There should be equal pay for equal work. This requires organising the unorganised, including overseas guest workers, into the unions. It demands opposition to deportations and for full citizenship rights for all who have made it here. A class-struggle leadership of the unions would fight for trade-union control of hiring and training. This would undercut the bosses’ attempts to divide the working class along craft, racial and religious lines, or to screen out union militants. Such struggles would not only reverse the decline in union membership but also draw in new and powerful sources of fighting strength and forge a living bridge to proletarian struggles overseas.

To defend itself the working class must reject the bosses’ divide-and-rule tactics and defend all victims of capitalist tyranny—from Aboriginal people, to single mothers, to Muslims and refugees. What is desperately necessary is a class-struggle fight that recognises that ultimately the only way to put an end to the miseries of capitalism is through workers revolution. To realise this, the proletariat needs the leadership of an international Leninist-Trotskyist party committed to smashing this system of wage slavery and establishing the rule of workers councils on the road to an egalitarian socialist society free of the grinding exploitation and oppression that define the capitalist system.