AUSTRALIAN COMMUNISTS IN THE TRADE UNIONS
Written By: M.Hooper
ACP CC Member
Is it a realistic prospect to break the connection between trade unions and the Labor Party in Australia? Is it possible to defeat the hold of social democratic “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” thinking on the clear majority of workers in this country? From the foundation of the Communist Party in 1920, Communists have always answered these questions in the affirmative. They have organised with varying degrees of success at different times and in different industries in pursuit of these goals. In today’s circumstances, where it is difficult to describe the ALP as a reforming social democratic party, it is worth dealing with those questions again to test the priorities of the newly-founded Australian Communist Party. It is also important to question the role Communists have played at different times in the history of the trade unions to see if there are lessons for us today.
A bit of history
The close links between the ALP and the trade unions should come as no surprise. As noted by Marx and Lenin, the “natural” default political position of workers is a defensive and “economist” one, i.e. their aspirations are to squeeze the best deal out of the prevailing political and economic circumstances. The idea of completely re-ordering the priorities of society by establishing working class state power must come from without; from an effective and ideologically clear Communist Party.
“What a peculiar capitalist country is this in which Labour predominates in the Upper House and recently predominated in the Lower House and yet the capitalist system does not suffer any danger!”
Added to this is the weight of historical events that shaped the organised labour movement in Australia. There was the bitter defeat of major strike struggles in the 1890s, the most notable of which was the Shearers’ Strike, which went down in history as the closest Australia has yet come to a civil war. Leaders of the labour movement considered what to do in the wake of that setback. Some decided to leave Australia and form what became two feuding workers’ communes in Paraguay. The majority threw their energies into forming a party that could change the legislative landscape of the country to ease the conditions of workers.
The ALP was the first social democratic party in the world to form government. Gains were made but the now-familiar revolving door of Australian parliamentary politics became established. Labor governments would inevitably disappoint workers and open the way for the re-election of openly conservative parties. In 1913, Lenin made an observation about Australia that would remain valid for decades to come:
“What a peculiar capitalist country is this in which Labour predominates in the Upper House and recently predominated in the Lower House and yet the capitalist system does not suffer any danger! An English correspondent of a German Labour newspaper recently explained this circumstance, which is very often misrepresented by bourgeois writers.
“The Australian Labour Party does not even claim to be a Socialist Party. As a matter of fact, it is a liberal-bourgeois party, and the so-called Liberals in Australia are really Conservatives."
The ALP went on to serve capital first and drop the occasional crumbs from the table to workers, the unemployed and other exploited people. When capitalism moved into crisis, Labor was handed the poisoned chalice and had the job of imposing further “austerity” on workers. The military was called in to break strikes twice in Australian history – by the Chifley Labor government against coal miners in 1949 and the Hawke Labor government against airline pilots in 1989.
With the election of the Hawke government in 1983, the ALP and most of the trade union movement formally gave up any semblance of class consciousness. The prospect of a “win/win” future for bosses and workers was held out. Unions have never recovered from the ideological and organisational consequences of this betrayal (see elsewhere this issue).
Communists earn a reputation
Communists have always had influence in Australia’s trade unions beyond what their numbers would suggest. Some of the founders of the CPA were previously members of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW or “wobblies”) – brave militant workers who had tested syndicalism in practice and realised its limitations. In line with its commitments to the Third International, the new party threw its energies into the trade unions and sought to win them to a more militant and class-conscious position.
Briefly, under General Secretary Jack Kavanagh, the party took a very sectarian attitude insisting Communists could not belong to trade unions whose leadership and membership were not comprised mostly of Communists. This “left” slogan had a right-wing outcome. The opportunist social democrat leaderships of unions had no effective challenge; no restraint on their sell-out tactics.
“This “left” slogan had a right-wing outcome. The opportunist social democrat leaderships of unions had no effective challenge; no restraint on their sell-out tactics.”
With the election of JB Miles as General Secretary and Lance Sharkey as editor of the Workers’ Weekly, the party’s line took a sharp turn. The Sixth World Congress of the Communist International held in Moscow set down a clear course to win unions away from the social democrats who were, for a time, labelled “social fascists”. They were considered the worst enemies of the working class because they fool many workers that they are their champions.
Whether or not the term “social fascist” was appropriate, the CPA went about its task with tremendous energy. The onset of the Depression and the actions coordinated by the party in defence of workers and the unemployed combined with the dynamic leadership of Miles and Sharkey saw membership grow four-fold in 1930. The party entrusted the job of winning unions away from the ALP to an organisation called the Militant Minority.
The Australia-wide movement was modelled after the British one of the same name and was also affiliated to the Red International of Labour Unions. It insisted on central direction of strike struggles and, at the same time, greater rank and file control to limit the scope for betrayal at the hands of well-paid officials. The success of the movement gave Australia many examples of militant resistance to the extreme austerity imposed on workers on behalf of capital, chiefly by Labor governments.
The rise and fall of the Militant Minority is worthy of study for lessons about union activity at a time when the odds were stacked against workers. Unemployment hovered around 25-35 percent of the work force. Outright wage cuts were handed down by the Arbitration Commission to the point where people could no longer pay their union dues. The role of Communists in bucking the system with successful strike struggles began the Party’s reputation for sound trade union leadership. The Communists were different. They weren’t careerist, they were plucky and outspoken and starved on picket lines alongside everybody else.
The long boom and decline of Communist influence
Despite the mammoth effort devoted to trade union work, Communists did not manage to wrest control of the unions from the ALP. A less combative approach was taken towards social democracy influenced to an extent by the united and popular front tactics against fascism that followed the Seventh World Congress in the Communist International in 1935. Nevertheless, Communists would continue to influence many in the labour movement.
After WW2, Communists led a crippling, though ultimately unsuccessful, coal strike in 1949. They held union office in several strategic unions, much to the alarm of the CIA at the time. Capable and militant leaders such as “Big Jim” Healey and Eliot V Elliot became legend in trade union circles despite the grip of social democratic thinking on the movement. Opponents of the Communists, like the Industrial Groups (the “Groupers”) of the ALP right and the Catholic right’s National Civic council, received official encouragement to undermine Communist influence.
Eventually, the long boom of capitalism and the rigours of the Cold War saw the CPA overtaken by revisionist, liquidationist thinking and the embrace of “Eurocommunism”. Pluralism, a rejection of Leninist organisational principles and emphasis on a broad “coalition of the left” killed off the notion of the leading role of the party and its duty to inject a revolutionary consciousness into the working class. The party became a “think tank” for the left of the ALP, a ginger group or even the conscience of the Labor Party attempting to draw it back from a closer, more open embrace of bourgeois ideology.
Members of the Central Committee of the CPA became co-designers of the disastrous Prices and Incomes Accord described above. When the CPA was unravelling, as many Marxist-Leninists predicted, some leading figures like AMWU Victorian state secretary John Halfpenny left the party to join the ALP. That was the inglorious end of the involvement of the original CPA with militant trade unionism in Australia and the ambition to free it from the choking grip of social democracy.
Some founding members of the Socialist Party of Australia (the current CPA) held trade union positions. Pat Clancy was secretary of the Building Workers’ Industrial Union (now part of the CFMMEU super union) and a member of the new party’s Central Committee. He was nominally opposed to the Accord but did little to disrupt its application.
Clancy was far less militant in his approach to industrial issues than Jack Mundey, the then secretary of the NSW Branch of the Builders’ Labourers Federation and member of the CPA or Norm Gallagher, federal secretary of the BLF and member of the CPA-ML. His neglect of Party work in the SPA and disregard for its political line led to his expulsion in 1983. Clancy was part of a new phenomenon of Communist trade union leadership. He swore allegiance to the working class and eternal loyalty to the Soviet Union. He used terms derived from Marxist political economy but pursued an extremely cautious industrial policy. The “united front” with the ALP was, in practice, sacrosanct.
The need for renewed Communist attention to trade unions
It was thought that the show down with the Clancy group was the end of the problems with the right opportunist trend in the SPA. For a time, it seemed like that was the case but old habits deriving from strong social democrat pressure die hard. In recent times, these behaviours returned to plague the SPA, now known as the CPA.
The editorial line of the Guardian at election time became more and more one of voting for the lesser evil – the ALP ahead of the Coalition. With a few notable exceptions, there was little interest in running candidates to offer supporters a choice other than the dismal one of the ALP or the Greens. And in the trade union sphere, little was done to challenge the overall, very limited ambitions of ALP-sanctioned trade union campaigns.
The worst example of this came with the recent “Change the Rules” campaign which, as predicted, morphed into a marginal seats campaign for the re-election of a Labor government. A leaflet about this aspect of the CTR campaign authored by the then General Secretary was criticised loudly on the Central Committee for “endangering 50 years of united front work with the ALP”. Opportunities mentioned previously to inject some class-conscious politics into the campaign were not taken up. The line of getting rid of this “rotten Liberal government” was to the fore.
“By far the most dangerous habit dragged into our Party is factionalism. Factionalism is the death of democratic centralism and by extension, our entire internal Party life”
There was opposition to this line but the promotion of individuals pursuing it was forceful. Factionalising in favour of its proponents in the Maritime Branch of the party was obvious to all. Over time, social democrat practices were imported into the party rather than Communists taking their outlook into the trade unions. Then Editor of the Australian Marxist Review, Michael Hooper, described this behaviour in a contribution to a discussion journal published prior to the CPA’s 13th national congress:
“They [Communists active in the unions in previous periods] held out against the bad habits carried forward in the labour movement. They include the tendency to engage in bluster devoid of content. They never mistook aggressive behaviour for ‘straight-talking’ faux militancy. They eschewed factionalism (branch block voting, the us versus them approach, etc.) While willing to work with all sorts of forces, they exposed the ALP playing at democracy, their ‘bush lawyering’ instead of adopting the spirit of decisions. They never had an inordinate focus on union work at the expense of Party work. They added Communist analysis to issues and situations and sought to build the Party in the workplace.
The first of many bad habits tracked into our Party from the union movement, like mud from one’s boots, is ‘bluster devoid of content’. The ability to make a rousing speech to workers on site is a staple of a good union organiser, but the mediocre unionist becomes used to throwing out stock phrases that sound revolutionary but lack any understanding or useful content. Empty threats to ‘stick up a job’ while doing sweetheart deals with the bosses were never their [Communists active in previous periods] style.
“By far the most dangerous habit dragged into our Party is factionalism. Factionalism is the death of democratic centralism and by extension, our entire internal Party life”
“The second harmful habit is to apply the same aggressive, confrontational style to inner-Party interactions and to mistake downright uncomradely behaviour for ‘straight-talking’. From my own experience in the construction industry, I understand just how vicious the bosses and their agents can be. Being a unionist on a building site, a wharf or other industrial field means dealing with intense stress, bullying and violence coming from the class enemy on a regular basis. It’s understandable that experienced union officials can be a little ‘rough’, however there is absolutely no reason to treat comrades in the same way we treat scabs. Failure to understand the fundamental difference between a comrade you disagree with and a boss who is getting workers killed to save a few bucks, and treating them accordingly, is inexcusable for a Communist. Aggressiveness also does not equal candour, and is especially egregious when the comrade’s attitudes are ill-informed and immune to reasonable debate.
“By far the most dangerous habit dragged into our Party is factionalism. Factionalism is the death of democratic centralism and by extension, our entire internal Party life. It shuts down discussion that would help establish a correct line and neuters any collective leadership. Comrades infected with this bug turn differences of opinion that should be resolved through honest discussion, into life or death struggles against hated enemies. ‘Us’ (our mates) versus ‘Them’ camps are unilaterally formed in secret while comrades are slandered behind their backs. Branches under the influence of factionalising individuals block vote at higher bodies, attempting to seek the election of their faction members. The ultimate result of this behaviour is that the Party is hijacked by a minority with their own sectional interests placed above those of the Party.”
Unfortunately, the trade union leaders in the CPA have forgotten the observations and advice of former General Secretary of the CPUSA, the late Gus Hall in his oft-quoted essay Trade union work – plus! The Communist essence.
“Do we have problems with comrades who become full-time trade union leaders? Yes. This is an old weakness. In fact, I resigned as a full-time trade union organiser mainly because of this and because of the unlimited expense account.
“When these comrades leave the Party orbit they almost always move to the Right. In the trade union they move to the Right, but in their rhetoric, they become more Left. They move Right and talk Left. They become extra critical of the Party from the Left, while they are moving to the Right.
“We have had cases where they were moving in an opportunist direction in the trade union movement and in the Party, they were moving Left – defending Stalin in the Party. Their lifestyle changed. They were going to more cocktail parties and fewer Party meetings.”
“Do we have problems with comrades who become full-time trade union leaders? Yes. This is an old weakness. In fact, I resigned as a full-time trade union organiser mainly because of this and because of the unlimited expense account”
We saw this behaviour with the trade union leaders currently on the CPA Central Committee. They rarely attended party meetings because they were engaged at international gatherings of dubious value or because they were involved in the “real” class struggle of the workers. Absences on occasion are understandable but the growing frequency of such apologies reflected a disdain for the party and its politics, especially where it impacted on trade union work. It was the pattern established by the Clancy group to a T.
Where to begin?
The road back to an effective Communist presence in the trade unions will be a long one. The newly-formed Australian Communist Party is still small and with few members able to bring some influence. This will change. They are committed to growing their numbers and upholding the Party Program in their trade union work:
“The Party seeks to build the strongest ties with the struggles of the working class and less privileged in Australian society and to earn a position of trust and leadership”. The ACP respects the struggles of the Australian working class and the leading role of Communists in achieving many of its greatest gains throughout its long history. During those episodes, Communists were able to overcome the limiting influence of social democracy. Social democracy claims that workers’ rights and interests can be secured without challenging the rule of capital. This battle of ideas and tactics continues to this day and the ACP is determined to win workers to support the creation of a system where their demands and needs are at the centre of decision-making. That system is socialism.
The grip of social democratic ideas on the Australian movement is strong. Organisation is often based in a trade union consciousness of a ‘fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’ that ignores the reality of antagonistic class interests between workers and capitalists. The defeat of epic strike struggles in the 1890s led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party and the pursuit of a parliamentary strategy to improve the lot of workers. Despite its program containing a ‘socialisation objective’, the party never sought to dismantle capitalism. It led Australia into imperialist wars of conquest and imposed austerity on workers during times of capitalist crisis. The close relationship between the trade unions and the ALP led unions to tie their tactics to the electoral fortunes of Labor.
“This lack of vision and militancy has cost the Australian working class dearly. It has led to the disillusionment of many workers and trade unions now struggle to remain relevant. The ACP is determined to inject class consciousness into the labour movement and to draw the most aware and active workers into its ranks. It works towards the independence of the trade union movement from the ALP and to demonstrate leadership in the deepening struggles ahead.”
The position of the ACP on trade union work is clear. The assessment of the main obstacle to militant, class-conscious trade unionism is also set out in plain language. There is no other, easier path back to a more engaged trade union movement. The vital element is a strong Communist Party guiding committed and self-sacrificing members in the unions. The ACP looks forward to this challenge.