Coles workers at the Smeaton Grange distribution warehouse have been locked out over Christmas for months on end without pay, battling both Coles bosses and the union bureaucracy whilst fighting for a fair redundancy package. Union officials at the United Workers Union have failed to support Coles workers in any way in their struggle, and have actively and repeatedly undercut rank and file efforts to mount a resistance to Coles’ horrific actions which have put profit over people’s livelihoods during a pandemic. The union officials, as proven time and time again, have opposing interests to ordinary workers – they aimed to solve the dispute quickly, refusing to give over strike funds to workers without income, and pressuring the rank and file to accept unsatisfactory and concessionary deal clauses. Even the community picket organised in support of workers at Smeaton Grange was undercut by officials who withdrew their support and encouraged other unions to do the same, such as the MUA.
This is reflective of the broader state of the union movement in Australia which has been significantly eroded since the Accords in the 90s, where union bureaucracy sold out workers’ power in a deal with the government, which has had a hugely damaging effect on rank and file organising to this day. This dispute has shown how necessary it is to support and bolster rank and file activity in unions, and that we cannot rely on union bureaucracy to support this activity because it never will. Union officials and leadership cannot be pandered to; the existence of their position as a mediator between classes necessitates the continuation of capitalism and the relations between workers and bosses, and because of this fact leadership is inherently reformist and its actions detrimental to genuine grassroots working class movements. In any context, we must be encouraging and supporting rank and file activity where we can, and dragging union officials behind as they are forced to capitulate to hard won reforms. We can never rely on them to increase support for both social and labour movements because we know it’s from the ground up that real radical change occurs.