On Monday the 20th of September, a small gathering of nominally CFMEU Victoria members escalated into a riot and right-wing attack on the Union offices. Shop stewards and Organisers fought with rank and file members and the anti-vax rent-a-crowd. The CFMEU is nominally the most militant, powerful union in Australia. It was reduced to scrambling to defend its offices from a protest involving its own members. The situation reflects the dire straits of working class politics today.
Socialists have watched in horror at the inter-union fighting and thought, what should we do? The answer is clear. We should defend the CFMEU, like all unions, against right-wing attacks. An outright assault on the union and its representatives is nothing short of fascist in intent, even if this comes from right-wing elements within the union itself.
But the question remains, how did we get to this point? This might sound a little abstract, but it helps to sketch out the logic in analysing the situation today. So firstly, it is worth understanding the role of unions. Nominally, unions are organised by workers and defend their interests. But they also have the function of negotiating between labour and capital. This ensures a comfortable life for workers that in turn, is beneficial for capitalists as productive work continues. Hence, unions face a contradiction. The actions they take in making demands of the boss inspires workers to higher aspirations, it also prods the capitalist to take retaliatory measures.
Despite the contradictions, the fact remains that unions are the front line of working class defense. They are the primary vehicle for day-to-day struggle for bettering our lives, and they are where the organised mass of the working class remain. It is imperative that they are key to socialist work.
For quite a long time, Australian unions have been simultaneously integrated into the management of the nation, while also being the target of right-wing offensives. The Accord, signed between the Australia Council of Trade Unions and the Labor government, particularly restricted unions from taking industrial action. This was a trade-off for SuperAnnuation, Medicare and other “social democratic” measures.
On the ground, this amounted to a slow death of militant trade unionism. Membership has massively declined, from above 50% of the working class to less than 15%. The unions that remain have become less democratic, less militant and most importantly, less political. It was not just the membership of trade unions, the front line of working class institutions that declined. But the restructuring of the Accord eroded the very idea of working class politics itself.
In the era before the Accord, construction unions in particular were a hotbed of radical politics. The NSW Builders Labourers Federation were renowned for not only their direct action in the struggle for workplace conditions, but the causes they supported. Environmental protection, Aboriginal rights, women’s rights, anti-imperialism, the list was endless. A highly democratic, militant trade union structure put an emphasis on political education and mass participation. This helped pave the way for radically progressive politics amongst the majority of its blue-collar membership. The BLF broke from the mould of Labor-Party affiliated politics, striking an independent path that put the interests of workers and marginalised social groups first. In fact, it built an identity around working class politics.
There is one more factor to the radical nature of the BLF that cannot be ignored. The active intervention of the socialist left. The BLF wasn’t always progressive. Communists and other radicals organised over decades, slowly winning arguments at the rank and file. Eventually, the base of the union was won over to radical ideas.
Today, the CFMEU, or at least its Construction division, is the inheritor of the BLF’s radical past. The union boasts an impressive membership and a solid structure of Health and Safety Representatives and Shop Stewards who consistently take action to defend workers’ safety and interests. This is maintained even in the face of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) a special governmental agency established just to police, and essentially wear down the CFMEU and other construction unions. None of this is to be disregarded, in fact it is something to be proud of and to defend.
However, in facing the political questions of today the CFMEU has come up short. Over time, the politics of the union have become more conservative. Post-amalgamation secretaries like John Cummins maintained a degree of Communist influence. But this is not the case today.
While economic interests of workers are still in focus, the CFMEUs modern positions are often a shallow reflection of the real interests of working class people. For example, the union is fractured over its position on climate change. The mining division sides with the bosses to support more coal mines, rather than campaign for transitions to sustainable industries. On the surface, workers need jobs. But workers also need a healthy planet to live on. This is an example of weak economism playing out over political depth.
The question of COVID-19 and the global pandemic is where the wheels have really fallen off. When the outbreak first began in Victoria, CFMEU leadership collaborated with the State Government and the Masters Builders Association. They struck a deal to keep construction open while all other ‘non-essential’ industries closed down. Construction is too big a part of the Victorian economy, it is argued, to close down for the sake of containing the virus. Economic pressure encouraged rapprochement with the MBA. The rank and file of CFMEU members are concerned unemployment benefits won’t meet their financial needs. The paltry sums offered by disaster payments do not even approach the average income of one of Australia’s best paid industries. After 18 months of on and off lockdowns, many working class people’s lives are in shambles.
Political leadership means trying to answer difficult questions. The issue of where to focus campaigning is a paramount example. More effort needs to be put into education and encouragement around why members should be vaccinated.
During the first round of Covid, the construction industry largely got away with avoiding a shutdown. Despite a few cases during the height of Victoria’s first gruelling lockdown, numbers in construction remained minimal. This was largely due to fairly high standards of OHS practice. Temperature scans as you enter site, mandatory masks, staggered shifts and spaced out lunch rooms. However, during the current Delta outbreak this strategy has failed. Upwards of 15% of current covid cases in Victoria are recorded in the industry. In response, the Victorian government has now offered an ultimatum; get vaccinated, or stay home. In the void of failed negotiations, frustrations exploded into demonstrations.
The CFMEU cannot continue to satisfy both the immediate economic interests of their members and construction bosses, while simultaneously providing safety for their members and the broader Australian working class. It is this contradiction, exacerbated by decades of the decline of real working class politics, that has allowed an element of right wing populism to seize a foothold. There is no quick and easy path out of this situation.
Political education in the construction industry needs to be made a priority amongst union members. Unions must seek to articulate to their members a clearer understanding of how capitalist society really works, not only on the day to day level but how broader social issues connect. Working class politics, and not of the shallow, economist sense, should be put back front and center.
This includes not only education, but a set of practices. After all, content and form are a relationship. Political leadership requires structures that allow members to contribute to the development of union ideals and values. The current leadership of construction unions, who by and large have earnt and maintain the trust of most members, could be replaced by progressives. But even if that were to happen, tomorrow’s leaders would face the same pressures and lack of rank-and-file politics.
We need mass direct democracy that encourages debates amongst the rank and file, shop stewards, and HSRs. Collective direct action, helping workers realise they have the potential to initiate and achieve their interests. In turn this builds solidarity. Collective self-education, where unions invest in helping their members understand the broader forces at work in society. Branch meetings, union youth groups, and site toolboxes are all brilliant places to situate this work.
The socialist left has a key role to play in renewing unions like the CFMEU. It requires long, slow and patient organising at the rank and file level. There are no shortcuts. We must defend the unions from the right, while remaining principled in our criticisms of leaderships mistakes. If the right has managed to gain a foothold in the trade union movement, then the left must fight to take back its own.
Sectarian divisions amongst the left are often meaningless to rank and file workers. Where possible, socialist should stand together with progressive elements against right wing agitation.
How should anarchists understand the “Accord 2.0?”, Sydney Anarcho-Communists
Chemist Warehouse strike – how should anarchists relate to existing trade unions?, Eko
What can anarchists do to organise within unions in Australia?, Sydney Anarcho-Communists
Police are enemies of the labour movement, Sarah Missen