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The ACTU must respond to challenges to its leadership

Nick G.

The Australian union movement is under vicious and sustained attack from the imperialists and local monopoly capitalists.

Some of that takes the form of open, undisguised threats and actions, including the police, the courts and the jails.

Some of it takes the form of disguised “support” designed to undermine, demoralise and white-ant the movement.

Recently, Murdoch’s un-Australian carried a lengthy piece from former Assistant Secretary of the ACTU, Tim Lyons.  Titled “Unions on the road to irrelevance”, it contained extensive criticism of the union movement’s subservience to electoral politics, much of which we would agree with, and put forward alternatives that would see organised labour supporting a “strong Left agenda”.

The question arises as to why Murdoch (by which we mean this filthy rich American’s editorial hatchet men and women in Australia) would give pages of space to an apparently “left” call for stronger unions in the workplace and the community.

Who is Tim Lyons?

Part of the answer lies in Lyons’ personal history.

Lyons worked for 13 years with the National Union of Workers before he joined the ACTU as Assistant National Secretary.  The NUW was part of the right wing group of unions in the ACTU and there was nothing in its history at that time to suggest that Lyons was on about building the "permanent organised power in workplaces and communities" that he now espouses.  
After six years as deputy to National Secretary Dave Oliver, Lyons mounted a leadership challenge. 

Although the challenge by Lyons to Oliver was couched in terms of the ACTU being “out of touch with ordinary workers”, and having an “outdated approach that didn't appeal to members”, his real target appeared to be Ged Kearney who had upset Labor powerbrokers from the moment she became ACTU President.  

In one of her first speeches she stated that the agendas of the ACTU and ALP were not necessarily the same and that the ACTU needed to have its own independent agenda. This  position of ACTU independence from the ALP’s electoral fortunes was reflecting the wishes of growing numbers of union activists and rank and file unionists.  It was a tactical position that the CPA (M-L) has been promoting for several years - we were the only organisation within the labour movement that had been raising a demand for an independent working class agenda.

The Lyons challenge to Kearney and Oliver was meant to change the direction of the ACTU. Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review correctly identified “long running tensions inside ACTU headquarters over the strategic direction of the union movement” as the trigger for Lyons’ challenge.

It is indicative of how the ruling class viewed this challenge that the AFR article was basically a puff piece for Lyons, extolling his “skills as an advocate and strategist” and remarking that these would be “a significant loss for the peak union body”.

Lyons’ timing of the challenge was condemned by many in the labour movement, coming as a major distraction from the main event of that week, the Liberal Party’s spill motion against Tony Abbott.

In the event, Lyons withdrew his challenge and resigned his position. He had failed to get the support of the right-wing Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Union.  Only the National Union of Workers and the progressive United Voice seemed inclined to support him.

ACTU vacillates on independent agenda

One of the outcomes of the Lyons challenge was a commitment to keep the ACTU independent of the ALP.  In a Campaign Operational Plan for 2014-2015, the ACTU stated clearly its position, namely:

“We will not be campaigning for the election of an ALP Government, we will be campaigning for an independent agenda or vision for our country.  This agenda is also a demand we have on business and all those who influence the living standards of our members.

“We will not make the mistakes of the past where we stopped campaigning after the election.  We will build an alternative agenda through undertaking the biggest mass participatory process ever undertaken in our country.  We aim to involve hundreds of thousands of people online, in their workplaces and in their communities.”

In practice, and in the context of a campaign that focussed on marginal seats, the ACTU in the last federal election became consumed with working for the re-election of a Labor government and adopted the ALP’s electoral “strategy” in its entirety.  Nothing was really done that might have resulted in the election being a platform for the promotion of an independent working class agenda. Attempts by union activists and rank and file to even broaden the agenda and strategy beyond the ALP were squashed. 

Lyons understands the significance of the ACTU’s vacillation on an independent agenda and the opening it provides to attack its leadership for spending “workers’ money on general issues of campaigning and electoral politics because it’s easier than talking about and doing real organising…”

What does Lyons propose?

Lyons essentially proposes a traditionally economist brand of trade unionism.  Economism is that trend within the labour movement that argues that the fight for better wages and conditions should be the sole focus of unions.  

Economism stands squarely opposed to the revolutionary agenda of removing the system that forces workers onto the eternal treadmill of fighting for bigger crumbs, or even the same small crumbs, from the bosses’ table. 

Economism stands squarely opposed to introducing into struggles around wages and conditions the ideological, political and organisational leadership to enable the working class to think and act independently of capitalism, to be a class-for-itself.

It is economism that runs through the five proposals with which Lyons concludes his piece in the un-Australian.  Within those five proposals is reference to “collective power” and “making a difference”.

It is all very well for Lyons to criticise the unions for the fact that "strikes are statistically extinct", but what does he say about the reason for that, about the unremitting fight by capital to smash even the smallest acts of resistance and struggle?  

Where in his five concluding points is there any call to take back the right to strike, and any suggestion of the sacrifices (not just fines and jail, but seizure of houses and sale of workers' assets) that will need to be made to win back basic industrial rights in this country? 

He refers to the days of the Accord as "salad days", as a paradise for workers, but the Accord was set up by the ALP-ACTU as a gift to the bosses and it began the process of disarming the workers in this country.  We now have “rights” at about the level of those “enjoyed” by workers in Turkey, the Philippines, in Indonesia, and Lyons wants us to believe that without the most militant struggle, without the most extraordinary sacrifices, that we can “transform unionism” on the basis of “core industrial and organising issues”!

With the ACTU in seeming retreat from its commitment to an independent working class agenda, Lyons’ attack from the “Left” on its recent performance serves only to further weaken confidence in key ACTU leaders.

The real challenge for ACTU is to start fighting for Australia’s working class first and foremost, and stop being a lackey of the ALP politically, organisationally and ideologically.

The challenge for ACTU leaders is to uphold an independent and fighting working class agenda that will restore workers’ confidence in the power of a united and fighting union movement.


The ACTU must respond to challenges to its leadership
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