December 16th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY The meaning of Christmas

CANBERRA OBSERVED Parliamentary stampede tramples freedoms

EUTHANASIA Palliative care remains the true solution

FOREIGN AFFAIRS The more Zimbabwe changes, the more it stays the same

AGENDA FOR AUSTRALIA Putting the 'fair' back in the fair go for farmers

OPINION The new Reformation: How Christians found themselves on the 'wrong' side of history

PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIETY Why Marxists will not engage with opponents

ECONOMICS Kim Beazley rides in as a white knight for the TPP

INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS Mergers could give unions a striking profile

MUSIC Sounds like ...: A vain search for meaning

CINEMA Casablanca: Contender for the 'perfect film'

BOOK REVIEW Australia behind the scenes in WWII

BOOK REVIEW Political sparks at the 'Friendly' Games

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Mergers could give unions a striking profile

by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, December 16, 2017

Members of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) have voted to merge, to form a militant super union with 144,000 members.

Employers are not happy that these two unions, both known for their hard-line industrial campaigns, are joining to reinforce their industrial and financial might. Sources in the industrial movement say that the merger of the MUA and CFMEU may be the first of many, as unions seek to reinforce their dwindling numbers by merging with like-minded industrial organisations.

The union movement is under threat everywhere, a victim of modernism. Machines do much of the work that men “on the line” once did. It is much easier to organise a large workplace with fulltime workers who are relatively well paid than a service industry with workers, the bulk of whom are poorly paid, in part-time or casual employment, and female.

It costs money to organise a workplace; if it’s not financially viable, the union won’t do it. By building on their strengths, the unions can stay relevant

The MUA-CFMEU merger may not, however, be plain sailing. MUA national secretary Paddy Crumlin has made it clear that the MUA will not be responsible for any fines or costs incurred by the CFMEU in court cases being brought by companies such as Boral and Lend Lease.

Today’s economy is different from that of 50 years ago. Service and knowledge workers are difficult to organise. Frequently knowledge workers are highly mobile and the workplaces tend to be small. They often do not feel empathy with the ethos of the industrial movement. Service workers, such as those in the health and child-care sectors, are poorly paid and union dues can take a big chunk out of their wages.

Need we recall that within the last several years major industrial enterprises, such as the car manufacturers, simply shut up shop, throwing thousands of unionised industrial workers onto the dole queue?

The notion of the One Big Union has a long history. The Australian Workers Union (AWU) held the belief that it was the One Big Union. In the brutal Shearers Strike of 1891, the squatters ultimately defeated the AWU, but the AWU went on to organise the rural industries. The AWU was convinced that the workers could assert their rights only through political action.

Felix could turn feral.

The AWU went on to assist in the formation of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). The AWU was fiercely anti-communist. In some areas of outback Australia, the AWU was for many years the sole organisation saving the ALP from oblivion.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as “Wobblies” or “I Won’t Work”, was founded in Chicago in 1905. Its aim was to form one union that would encompass all workers. This would be a revolutionary act that would bring about the downfall of capitalism.

The One Big Union is a feature of syndicalism. Syndicalism proposed an economic system to replace capitalism. Workers and industries would be organised into syndicates or confederations. Industries would be owned and managed by the workers. Instead of producing profits, industry would be for the benefit of the community. Syndicalism tends more towards anarchism than state socialism.

Syndicalism can be either reformist or revolutionary. Georges Sorel (1847–1922) was a French syndicalist who, at various times, promoted revolutionary syndicalism, via the general strike, as a cure for society’s shortcomings. Sorel seems to have been a thinker of the type that only France can produce, veering in the course of his life from middle-class engineer to revolutionary to monarchist. The syndicalists’ ultimate weapon against capitalism was the general strike.

The fragmentation of industry and the hostility of governments are making it difficult to organise workplaces, and not only in Australia. In the United States, many states, especially in the South, have Right to Work laws which are intended, strangely enough, to keep unions out of workplaces.

Many industrial enterprises, especially foreign carmakers, have established plants in Southern states that have Right to Work laws. Michigan, the heartland of American industrial unionism, now has Right to Work laws. American companies are also moving their plants from the North and Midwest to the South.

The Wobbles reached their peak of power during World War I. They were vehemently opposed to “tame cat” unionism, especially the AWU. In 1916, at the peak of the anti-conscription debate in World War I, a Wobbly group, known as “The Twelve”, was charged in relation to a suspicious fire in Sydney.

Left-wing historian Dr Ian Turner examined the case in Sydney’s Burning: An Australian Political Conspiracy (Alpha Books, 1967). The Wobblies were outlawed, but later staged something of a resurgence. In fact, they still exist.

The notion that One Big Union could bring down the capitalists’ regime has continued to be attractive. Unions realise, as do the MUA and CFMEU, that they will need to become more powerful to remain effective defenders of their members’ rights. If the Fair Work Commission grants the MUA and CFMEU the permission to merge, it could be the first of many such amalgamations.

Jeffry Babb has been a member of the Water Supply Workers Union, the Australian Workers Union, the Federated Clerks Union and the Australian Education Union.

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