Trade Union Policy

The Australian Communist Party and the trade unions

The ACP stands for militant, class-conscious trade unionism independent of hostile ideological influences.

“Militant” means being prepared to make greater demands of employers for pay and conditions including workplace health and safety. It means being prepared to take actions to back up those demands. Unions should not restrict themselves to “protected action”, i.e. industrial action taken outside the term of the latest Enterprise Bargaining Agreement but should be ready to defend workers’ interests at any time. Action should not be reckless in the sense that fines and other penalties could cripple or destroy the union but there must be no compromise on matters of principle.

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“Class conscious” means that the members are educated in the true, exploitative nature of the society they live and work in. The interests of workers are opposed in every sense to those of their employers. There are no “win/win” scenarios in the class struggle. Workers need to be made aware of their indispensible role in the economy. Their labour power is the source of all wealth in society and their historical mission is to control all of it, to exclude the exploiters and to ensure that all the wealth created is devoted to meeting workers’ needs and those of the whole people.

Workers need to be reminded that gains, even significant gains does not alter the fact that they are exploited. Gains can be stripped away and only continued organisation and action can maintain or extend the advances made. Workers must bear it in mind that capital survives by denying workers the full value of their labour power. Talk of a win/win situation under capitalism is a lie.

The ACP is well aware that the current regime of industrial relations based on Enterprise Bargaining and oversight by the Fair Work Commission is not in the worker’s interests. The bureaucratic nature of the system demands too much time from organisers who, otherwise, would have more time to devote to assisting on-the-job organisation. The ACP works for an end to the involvement of state agencies like the Fair Work Commission.

The ACP adopts the position of the Communist movement in this country that recognises that instrumentalities like the Fair Work Commission and its predecessor, the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, have the function of blunting class struggle. These bodies present themselves falsely as independent “umpires”. The Conciliation and Arbitration Commission may have had a partially beneficial effect for workers in weaker sections of the organised labour movement through “flow on” of gains made by more organised workers but the overall intention on the part of the state was to delude workers about its role and to hide from workers the need to struggle for their interests.

The ACP acknowledges that industrial action is a right recognised by the UN’s International Labour Organisation and the capacity of the capitalist state to limit it on behalf of employers must be removed. Of course, this state of affairs will need concerted effort to achieve.

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Unions are still the biggest mass organisation of workers and still play a vital role in the defence of their welfare and that of their families. So members of the ACP must also be members of their relevant trade union and play an active role within them. However, from the time of the creation of Australian unions in the late 19th century, unions have been misled into compromise with employers by social democrats and their successors in the modern Australian Labor Party. It is the task of cadres in the ACP to break that connection and to build a spirit of militancy and class consciousness.

The ACP opposes narrow craft and enterprise based unionism. It favours unions based on industry and, in theory, the bigger the union the greater its leverage in struggle. However, due to the lingering and strong influence of ruling class ideology on the labour movement, amalgamations have not always resulted in greater strength or effectiveness on behalf of members. Sometimes amalgamations have led to a weakening of class consciousness and militancy as the class collaborationist habits of one of the unions involved overtake the entire newly-formed “super union”. This process is ongoing and the ACP will need to form an opinion and lead workers to oppose amalgamations that are not in line with their interests.

Unions under capitalism are not revolutionary organisations. They grew up with capitalism and their role is limited by this fact. They began as totally illegal organisations in Britain. Some of the earliest trade union leaders (the Tolepuddle Martyrs) were transported to the Australian convict colony for administering “illegal oaths” to workers to stand united to protect one another from attacks by employers. Since those times, unions have been coopted to help administer capitalism. On the trade union side, this work was carried out willingly by highly-paid social democrats whose declared “socialist” beliefs were/ are not sincerely held. Restrictive legal frameworks have been erected to further limit workers’ capacity for action.

The attacks on working class ideology and the promotion of class collaboration never stopped. In Australia this reached new heights with the Prices and Incomes Accord introduced by the Hawke Labor government in 1983. The legislative straight jacket on workers tightened as a result of the disarmament of unions from that time to the present. The pressures on sincere unionists in this environment are immense.

In spite of all these developments, the remaining scope for united action by workers makes unions a potential school for the education of workers about their power deriving from the crucial nature of their labour. For revolutionary change to transform workers into the masters of their own society, a vanguard revolutionary Party is necessary. That is the consciousness that members of the ACP must take into their trade union work. The Party must primarily be built in the workplace.

Party cadre will inevitably encounter difficulties as they seek to establish leading roles in the workplace or trade union organisations. Reformist and outright capitalist ideas dominate in both spheres. The Party has a great responsibility to educate cadre to be good trade unionists and to add that element described as “trade unionist plus” – the distinctly Communist element of their work.

A difficulty that has grown over the decades is that some trade unions no longer operate as unions at all but, rather, as agents of the employers. The Shop Distributive and Allied employees association falls into this category and others hover on its edges. The ACP does not advocate US-style competitive unionism. That reduces the potential effectiveness of unions. In the case of the SDA, however, the possibilities for change have become so small that we support the rival, as yet unofficial Retail and Fast Food Workers Union. The ACP must continue to survey the situation of other unions to decide if other “unions” need the same response from workers.

The ACP works for the fullest, determining role of the rank and file in trade union activity. Democratic forums that have fallen into disuse must be revived. Industrial action must involve the greatest possible rank and file activity. These objectives absolutely rely on the most effective on-the-job organising. The work of greatest value for an ACP member for the time being is that of a well respected workplace delegate.

ACP members should consider taking up union official positions with caution and always with advice from higher bodies of the Party. Dangers for our members working in unions are exposure to social democratic ideas and pressure including pressure to join and work for the ALP. If this is unavoidable in order to maintain employment, that is one thing. To work beyond what is absolutely necessary on ALP election campaigns, etc., is another thing entirely and must be avoided at all costs. The ACP accepts that some members taking up union positions might need to conceal their Party membership but this should in no way change their approach to union work or their duty to act under the guidance of the Party in all aspects of their work.

The ACP does not accept the interference of the Australian Electoral Commission in trade union elections. Trade union elections must be conducted by the unions themselves with sufficient member oversight to ensure fair play. The ACP will work to abolish union official election funds. These have had the effect of crushing many worthwhile rank and file campaigns. All candidates should benefit from a modest information campaign without prejudice carried on by the union itself. Officials should not be able to use their full time status to neglect union work and, instead, engage in self-interested election campaigning.

The ACP sees value in a militant organisation seeking to achieve the goals set out here. The ACTU has become a focus of the limiting, ineffective approach to industrial action and gathering community support. The recent Change the Rules campaign is an example of the approach we reject. Its abuse through subordination to the electoral ambitions of the ALP was blatant and not at all in the interests of workers. In the final analysis, the election of an ALP government is not in the interests of workers as parties of that type inevitably continue the agenda of the ruling capitalist class. In these times of crisis, that agenda is to place the burden of the downturn wholly on the backs of workers and other exploited people. An organisation with the same scope and activities of the Militant Minority in Australia in the 1930s or PAME in Greece since the late 1990s should be investigated.

In summary, the ACP is committed to reviving and extending trade union rank and file activism and fighting constraints placed on the movement by the capitalist state. Members must work patiently and methodically to build class consciousness among union memberships and show themselves to be worthy leaders. We demand an independent union movement, i.e. with no formal affiliations or career paths for trade union bureaucrat leaderships and independent of the party that represents that phenomenon, the ALP. We don’t work for affiliation of unions to the ACP. While insisting on independent unions we certainly do strive for increased influence of the ideas of militancy and class-consciousness, the ultimate expression of which is a Communist consciousness. This outlook sees the need to achieve working class state power and a socialist society in which unions will have a different role. They will move beyond the irreconcilable contradiction of worker versus their exploiter to become the builders of the new society based on social justice.