Australasian Spartacist No. 214
Defeat O'Farrell's Attacks on NSW Public Sector Unions!
For Class Struggle Against Capitalist War on Workers!
Break With Laborism—Build a Multiracial Revolutionary Workers Party!
On 8 September, in the biggest protest by the organised working class in Australia for years, tens of thousands of New South Wales public sector workers mobilised in Sydney’s Domain against the O’Farrell Liberal/National coalition state government’s vicious anti-union attacks on their pay, jobs and conditions. Elected in March in a landslide victory against the justifiably hated previous Labor government, the O’Farrell regime has announced $8 billion in public sector cuts, including the slashing of 5,000 jobs. Sidelining the Laborites’ beloved arbitration courts, earlier O’Farrell arrogantly declared that all public sector annual wage increases would be capped at 2.5 percent unless there are givebacks on working conditions. With even official inflation above 3.5 percent, this is effectively a pay cut. Meanwhile givebacks and job cuts mean speedups for those left in work and further degradation of NSW’s decrepit public services. O’Farrell also aims to privatise Sydney Ferries, an open union-busting attack on the maritime union.
Highlighting the widespread anger over O’Farrell’s attacks, teachers across the state went out on a 24-hour strike, defying the bosses’ NSW Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) order to halt the action. Joining the thousands of striking teachers at the Domain were ferry workers, who had walked off the job, as well as contingents of firefighters, transport and hospital workers. However, in a provocation against decent unionists and all opponents of state repression, the pro-capitalist leaders of Unions NSW also welcomed into the demonstration contingents of police and prison guards, the sworn servants of the bosses. Promoting these forces as bona fide workers, the union tops outrageously gave over the speakers’ platform to a cop and prison guard, the latter railing against those locked up in the bosses’ brutal injustice system. The military, police, courts and prisons are the core of the capitalist state. Along with their auxiliaries such as security guards, the cops and screws have no place in the workers movement and should be ousted from the unions!
To turn back O’Farrell’s attacks, it is necessary for workers to organise independently of the capitalist state. Using the methods of the class struggle, including strikes, mass pickets and occupations, a leadership needs to be built that would seek to draw in all workers and oppressed minorities in a common struggle against the cuts and for jobs for all with full union wages and conditions. Workers need a leadership that will say to hell with the bosses’ arbitration courts and anti-union laws, which serve the interests of the profit-gouging capitalist rulers by shackling and suppressing workers’ struggles. Hard class struggle can turn the anti-union laws, including the huge fines levelled against unions by the likes of the witchhunting Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), into a dead letter. In 1969, when Victorian tramways union leader, Clarrie O’Shea, was jailed for refusing to pay fines for defying anti-strike laws, concerted mass strike action won his release. These strikes spiked the arbitration court’s penal powers for over a decade. The only illegal strike is one that loses!
The chief obstacle to mobilising workers in struggle is the current, hidebound union misleaders, who push reliance on the bosses’ arbitration system and divert workers’ anger into pressuring bourgeois parliament. These bureaucrats are fused at the hip to the Labor Party, a bourgeois workers party, i.e, pro-capitalist in its leadership and program while based on the unions. When in power, as it is today federally, the ALP administers the capitalist state for the bosses. During 16 years of successive ALP state governments in NSW, the wretched union tops refused to lead the necessary battles against attacks on workers’ rights and jobs, on health, education and transport services, thus paving the way for the current attacks. In political struggle against the class-collaborationist program of the union tops, which sacrifices workers’ interests for the bosses’ profits, we fight to win the working-class base of the ALP away from its pro-capitalist leadership in the struggle to build an internationalist revolutionary workers party.
Capitalist Economic Crisis and War Against Workers
The attacks by the O’Farrell government are part of a multi-pronged attack by the capitalist rulers across the country and occur in the context of the ongoing international economic crisis kicked off with the 2007-08 crash. With the U.S. heading towards double-dip recession, and multiple European countries on the brink of collapse, one government after another is announcing savage measures to starve the poor, bust unions and drive down wages. While the banks and mining giants in Australia are raking in record profits—largely thanks to exports to the Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers state—the economy outside the resources sector is stagnant if not in decline.
In the last six months, 50,000 jobs have been lost in manufacturing nationally. Meanwhile, the retail sector is sagging, welfare is being slashed, and more and more workers are threatened with losing their jobs and benefits, superannuation and homes. In this “boom and gloom” economy, the capitalist rulers have launched a broad campaign to target unions and make the workers pay for the malaise of their irrational profit-driven system. The bourgeois media is bellowing for the minority federal Labor Government to enforce even greater workplace “productivity,” “flexibility” and “labour reform” through strengthening their already draconian anti-union laws.
The escalating anti-union campaign is captured in a 9 September Australian editorial, which smugly advised:
“A return to the option of individual contracts for new employees and a clamp on unions ‘striking now, bargaining later’ would help bring the system into the 21st century, as would an overhaul of unfair dismissal provisions.”
This mouthpiece for the bosses demands a more atomised, compliant workforce with even less rights so the capitalist rulers, who grow fat from the wealth produced by the workers’ labour power, can increase their rate of exploitation and expand their profit margins. Already, cost-cutting, speed-ups and poor working conditions result in hundreds of workers being killed and thousands more injured across the country every year.
Down with Nationalist Protectionist Poison!
With the ongoing erosion of Australia’s outmoded manufacturing base—built behind high tariff barriers—numerous union bureaucrats are demanding that if only the anti-working-class Gillard minority Labor government would act to “protect” local industry this would protect workers’ jobs. Exemplifying such chauvinist appeals, the anti-communist leader of the Australian Workers Union, Paul Howes, responded to Bluescope Steel’s announcement of more than 1,000 job cuts by railing, “I’m not a protectionist but I believe it’s the role of the Australian government to protect Australians and I believe it’s the role of the Australian government to put the interests of the Australian people first” (Australian, 26 August).
Far from waging a fight against job losses, such nationalist demagogy serves to line the proletariat up behind the ruling class and their state. Opposed to a class-struggle defence of workers’ rights, and pushing the lie that there can be a mutually beneficial partnership between labour and capital, the trade-union misleaders have spent decades selling out workers’ hard-won gains in the “national interest,” that is, in the interest of capital. During the Hawke/Keating Labor governments of “national consensus” from 1983 to 1996, the union tops presided over a massive loss of jobs, dismantling of union gains, and wage cuts. When workers’ organisations stepped out of line, they were met with savage union-busting by the Labor government. It is necessary to forge a leadership that is based on the understanding that the interests of the working class are irreconcilably counterposed to those of the capitalist exploiters.
The bureaucrats’ nationalist defence of “Australian jobs” pits workers against their international class brothers and sisters. Protectionism serves to protect the bosses’ profits, while driving up the price of imports. It does not lead to more jobs and better conditions for workers but ultimately to trade wars. And, as seen in the barbarism of two World Wars last century, trade wars lead to shooting wars in which workers are lined up to slaughter each other in imperialist conflicts for the division and redivision of the world’s resources and sources of cheap labour to superexploit in the neocolonial countries.
In Europe, where there have been massive strikes and protests against brutal government austerity measures, the nationalist, reformist misleaders of the unions similarly push illusions in bourgeois parliament and protectionism as they seek to insulate “their nation” from the economic crisis. Keeping workers tied to their own capitalist rulers and sowing poisonous divisions along national lines, the protectionist union tops undermine the unity of the multiracial proletariat at home and keep it divided from workers in other countries. Against the union bureaucrats’ putrid nationalism, we Marxists declare that workers have no country: workers of the world unite!
For a Class-Struggle Fight to Defend Unions, Minorities!
The social power of public sector workers is not that of industrial workers, who can directly stop the wheels of production, and thus of profit, from turning. But public sector unions include transportation, utility and other workers who provide the means and services by which the economy runs. Hard class struggle would win plenty of allies among the unemployed, immigrants, and all those thrown on the scrapheap by the ruling class. It would also help to forge a fighting unity between public and private sector unionists such as wharfies at Patrick and workers at Toyota, Qantas and myriad others who have gone out on strike and protested against the bosses’ attacks. In the recent period Qantas workers, organised in multiple unions, have struck against threatened job cuts and erosion of conditions. In this situation it is vital to overcome craft divisions and fight for “one out—all out,” backed by mass pickets that no one dares cross. This is how the necessary industrial unions will be forged. Against the bosses’ attempts at scabherding, unions need to fight for the rights of casual workers and the unemployed, bringing them onto the picket lines.
To unite the working class in anti-capitalist struggle, the proletariat needs a leadership that will unleash its immense social power in struggle against the exploiters for its own class interests and all the oppressed, from women, to victims of “anti-terror” witchhunts, to the besieged Aboriginal population. It is necessary to champion the rights of immigrants and oppose the rulers’ war on refugees, its raids and roundups of undocumented workers and cruel deportations. Recruiting new layers of immigrant workers to the unions, with full rights and responsibilities, would bring into the unions new and powerful sources of fighting strength and provide a bridge to working-class struggles overseas.
This is part of defending the unity and integrity of the working class against the divide-and-rule schemes of the capitalist rulers. The fight to organise the unorganised would not only reverse the decline in union membership but also address the spiralling poverty and exploitation of masses of workers, including the growing number of casual workers battling to survive under capitalism.
A class-struggle fight against the exploiters would take up such demands as jobs for all through a shorter work week with no loss in pay, to spread the available work around; equal pay for equal work; a massive program of public works to rebuild crumbling roads, schools, hospitals and transport systems; for decent healthcare, pensions and other social services. Such measures will not be granted by the capitalist ruling class, whose only interest is maintaining its profits and privileges. It will take socialist revolution to provide jobs and a decent life for all.
Reformist Left: Loyal Tails of Pro-Capitalist Union Tops
Any hard-fought defence of workers’ rights, or the rights of the oppressed, will face the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state, which exists to suppress the proletariat and anyone else who might challenge the bourgeoisie’s exploitative rule. The cops, who violently attack workers’ picket lines and student, refugee and anti-war protests, and the prison guards, who enforce the bosses’ repressive prison system and beat up and kill Aboriginal people behind bars, are the enemies of workers and the oppressed.
Such an understanding is diametrically opposed to the views of reformist left groups such as Socialist Alliance (SA), Socialist Alternative (SAlt) and the Communist Party (CP). Commenting on the 8 September rally SAlt declared, “The crowd, which filled Sydney’s Domain, was made up of all different public sector workers including nurses, bus drivers, ambos, RTA staff, librarians, park rangers and even prison guards and police.” For its part the CP gushed, “The Police Association, whose members were on the same side of the blue line as the protestors said the police were not going to be bought off with government announced exemptions on the 2.5 percent wage cap and other cost-cutting. They will remain united with the rest of the union movement to defeat the cuts.”
Such disgusting trash is consistent with the wretched reformism peddled by these opponents of revolutionary Marxism; they truly believe that the capitalist state can be pressured to act in the interests of workers and the oppressed. However, as Russian revolutionary leader V.I. Lenin wrote in his famous 1917 pamphlet, State and Revolution, “The state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another.” It cannot be cleaned up, reformed or pressured to act on behalf of the workers and oppressed; it must be smashed through victorious workers revolution.
In embracing cops and prison guards as supposedly union brothers or, as the Socialist Party contends, “workers in uniform,” the reformists act as loyal tails of the pro-capitalist Laborite union tops. Thus, the CPA also reported uncritically on a placard at the rally that declared “No IRC No Justice,” backing the prostrate union tops’ campaign to restore the authority of the arbitration courts and the IRC’s supposed role as an “independent umpire.”
Compulsory arbitration, established in the early 1900s, was based on a historic racist pact between the Laborite bureaucracy and the capitalist rulers institutionalising tariff-protected industries and a “whites only” labour force. It also enshrined unequal wages for women. It is no “safety net” but a safeguard for the bosses to keep workers’ struggles firmly within the bounds of capitalism. As a part of the capitalist state apparatus, it serves to regulate union struggles in every sphere, from wages and conditions, to strikes. If the working class is to further its own class interests it must be mobilised in complete independence from the capitalist state. We say: No reliance on the bosses’ courts! Bury Arbitration!
We also oppose on principle all state intervention into the internal affairs of the unions, including “corruption” investigations such as the one now targeting the Health Services Union. Similarly we oppose the legal actions launched by competing factions in the Electrical Trades Union, centred on Victorian “left” union official Dean Mighell and national secretary Peter Tighe. By inviting the bosses’ courts into union affairs, the union bureaucrats legitimise the very state whose institutions, such as the witchhunting ABCC, are conducting a war on the unions. Down with the ABCC! State out of the unions! Unionists must clean their own house!
The Fight For Revolutionary Leadership
Together with the pro-capitalist ALP parliamentarians, the bureaucratic caste of trade-union misleaders is based on an increasingly thin layer of privileged workers. This caste is bought off by the crumbs obtained from the profits generated by Australian imperialist exploitation abroad. As such they act in general to subordinate the interests of the working class to the bourgeoisie. However, under pressure from the union ranks, they are at times forced to lead struggles against the capitalist rulers’ attacks. Unions are the basic defence organisations of the working class against the capitalist exploiters. Where there is no union, there is no organised force to resist the relentless drive by the bosses to increase profits at the expense of workers’ livelihoods and lives. Despite their rotten Laborite leadership, any refusal to defend the unions against the bosses’ attacks is class treachery.
Thus, we warn against the dubious Socialist Equality Party (SEP), whose supporters were trawling the 8 September rally with a leaflet calling on workers to organise “independently from the trade union apparatus, though [sic] the formation of rank-and-file committees.” What these political bandits mean by this is spelled out in their January 2010 “Statement of Principles,” which brands the trade unions “reactionary” and calls on workers to rebel “against and break with these corrupt organisations,” declaring that unions “in no way represent the working class.” By conflating the trade unions with their misleaders, the SEP line up behind the bosses’ anti-union attacks and provide an apologia for strike-breaking.
Counterposed to the SEP, who spit on the trade unions, and the reformists who hang off the coat-tails of the union misleaders, we Trotskyists are for a resolute political fight against the Laborite tops, in the process of building a class-struggle leadership. Rebuilding the unions as fighting organisations able to take on and defeat the bosses’ union-busting offensive will necessitate a serious, politically-organised fight against Laborite nationalism and reliance on the capitalist state. This is inextricably linked to the fight to forge an internationalist revolutionary workers party committed to the struggle for socialist revolution to end the whole system of capitalist exploitation. The way out of the endless boom-and-bust cycles of the capitalist system was shown by the 1917 Russian Revolution, when the workers took power, seizing the banks, factories and mines from the capitalist class, and established a proletarian state based on an internationalist program. Only when the capitalist system is destroyed root and branch on a global scale through victorious revolutions and an internationally planned, collectivised economy is established will the material basis for the elimination of all poverty and exploitation be laid.