It looks like the IR nut-jobs in the Coalition are refining their political strategy to keep working people down. Peter Reith has called for a broad-based inquiry into union behaviour and governance. The IR nut-jobs have clearly learned from the WorkChoices but it was clearly not the message that a majority of Australians were attempting to teach (you know the one about taking rights at work seriously). Instead, the idea is to use an inquiry of some description such as a Royal Commission to fundamentally weaken the independent organising capacity of the union movement. All with the added sweetener of ensuring complete corporate dominance of the hundreds of billions of dollars of workers’ capital in industry superannuation funds.
For this gambit to succeed in its presumably overall aims of increasing employer power and decreasing labour costs, the political messaging would have to play out over a number of stages. First, we would have the prospects of Coalition politicians (past and present), corporate lawyers, members of the managerial class and right-wing media mouthpieces expressing solidarity with regular working people. This will probably be reported uncritically in most mainstream media looking to fill column space and airtime. We can see this in Peter Reith’s comments earlier in the week in the Fairfax media on the ETU, “[m]embers have no capacity to follow the trail and insist on accountability”. It will be in the name of working people to have the right to transparent and honestly run unions that such an inquiry will be run. In the second stage we’ll see the inquiry taking place. The rhetoric around expressing solidarity with union members will be supplemented by novel and rehashed stories of misdeeds. And while I have no knowledge of any corrupt behaviour, I’m sure with over 4,000 employed union officials in the country an inquiry will find something newsworthy (even if it’s just a remixed version of HSU/AWU matters) and complying with the inquiry will take up much time and energy in union offices around the country. The third stage will revolve around the swift introduction of measures to ‘tackle this problem’ on behalf of union members. Whether or not any inquiry recommends this expect to see some interesting new measures such as the appointment of a Fair Work Australia panel of “independent” (read Coalition mates) auditors. This could lead to unions having to report proposed expenditure on organising campaigns to IR nut jobs. I wonder what they’ll say about such matters? Out of this will also arise further restrictions on unions spending money on community/political campaigns such that there can never be a repeat of a Your Rights at Work style campaign again. Oh yeah, and some stuff about industry super funds not having union officials on their boards (it’s really annoying that industry super funds not run on a for-profit basis outperform big finance).
The final stage of political messaging will see a shift from expressing solidarity with workers to being able to freely demonise them again. Big capital will be free to engage in a full-scale assault on the living standards of Australians. Think of it as austerity on steroids.
This overall strategy is ingenious. But the thing to realise is that it is a strategy born of ideological weakness. The IR nut-jobs lost the argument – the whole neo-liberal idea that ‘deregulating’ (read regulating in favour of the State/capital) the labour market will lead to some sort of equilibrium where everyone is better off has been thoroughly discredited. The vast mass of Australians know that if you remove their working rights you’re simply lowering their entire quality of life, and their ability to support their families. This is the context in which Reith’s strategy was born.
It is only when we appreciate the weak starting point from the Coalition’s gambit to attack workers’ rights that the broader union movement can begin to piece together a coherent response. And you respond to weakness with strength and courage. The courageous thing to do in this situation is for the leadership of the union movement to acknowledge that there is a corruption problem in Australian society today. That working people have too often been the victims of corrupt and illegal behaviour – the sort of behaviour that has damaged their ability to make a living, ruined their communities, compromised the infrastructure they rely on, cast doubt on key cultural institutions and brought the nation itself into disrepute. And that unfortunately a few union officials such as Michael Williamson and Ralph Blewitt have been part of this cancer. That for the good of the nation, we need to cut this cancer out in its entirety. And if we just focus on a small part of the corruption cancer it won’t make a jot of difference to the health of our society.
We need a wide-ranging Royal Commission that tackles corruption in the public sector, in political institutions, the corporate sector (including Australian firms operating overseas), the media, and the not-for-profit sector including unions. With the behaviour of former Labor politician Eddie Obeid in NSW, current Liberal politician Geoff Shaw in Victoria, the Reserve Bank, ongoing police corruption with particular regard to illicit drugs, and the actions of Australian mining multinationals in developing nations (and that’s just off the top of my head – what can you think of?), there’s plenty to go on.
In other words, meet the Coalition head on. Don’t run away from the fight but run into it. I’m willing to bet that the top end of down has closets chock full of skeletons. The fundamental of organising is to bring on the question. It’s about working hard to make your opponent have to answer the questions that you pose. And that your opponent’s only possible responses are those which will give momentum for your campaign for justice and equality. And in this case the question is whether the Coalition cares more about corruption or just attacking the rights of working people.
For all this to work though the union movement has to accept one tough lesson; the death of the trade union official class as its presently formulated (one which I’m very much part of). It will have to be rank-and-file workers who the union movement will need to put forward – they will be the ones to put the ask on the Coalition. They will be the ones who will demand the sort of inquiry which can actually make a difference for the 99%. For what the Coalition is doing is like the climax of an action movie. They are the wounded villain in a position of weakness attempting to get off one last shot at the hero. And here’s the thing about the hero, ultimately they have to sacrifice themselves in order to reach a resolution in favour of the greater good. As such, the only long-term response to such Coalition attacks is to move away from a weak representative structure and towards a networked and direct model of unionism.