Union amalgamations must enhance the independent working class agenda.
Recently the CFMEU amalgamated or merged with the Textile and Clothing Trades Union and the MUA.
From an industrial occupational coverage perspective, it appears a strange amalgamation with a maritime worker, building site worker and clothing factory worker obviously performing very different work. However, the two largest unions are themselves products of amalgamations (the CFMEU: labourers and tradespeople in construction then further amalgamating with forestry workers and workers in some sections of mining and in energy; the MUA combining seamen and wharfies).
All three unions had a history of working together on campaigns that impact on the working class as a whole, such as the Your Rights at Work campaign which defeated the Howard Government's Work Choices and the MUA Patricks dispute in the late 1990s. In this amalgamation, the smallest of the three unions, the Textile and Clothing Trades Union is a fine example of two stronger sections of the working class supporting a weaker section as the textile and clothing manufacturers moved production to cheaper labour countries.
Strengthening the industrial representation of workers is highly desirable. At the same time, it carries within it the danger of reinforcing the worst aspects of trade union ideology: the belief that officials and lawyers are the answer to workers’ problems; that campaigning must be tightly controlled by the union and that rank and file organisation is too risky to that control; that instead of refusing to pay fines, as O’Shea did, membership fees via the chequebook can be used to head off conflict with the courts and the capitalist class.
Such a strengthening can also be said to arise from a position of weakness: a merger of desperation arising from the lack of working class militancy and power industrially, and the general decline of the power of the organised working class.
The inability to build a militant class struggle perspective and movement because of industrial legislation and fines,(lack of class conscious leadership also plays a part) in turn strengthens the tendency towards reliance on the ALP and parliamentarism.
Logically then the struggle is fought on the capitalist class home ground - in the courts. Unless the unions can build strength on the ground amongst its members to take serious industrial action, the only logical alternative is to re-enforce your current position ie. pool the money to continue the court battles and pay the fines.
Despite the outcries and fear-mongering of the LNP, capital in general is willing to accommodate larger unions - as long as they play by the rules. In many cases since the trend towards amalgamations started in the 1980s it has been highly beneficial to capital. Before where the employer may have had two or three unions to deal with in one industry, capital only has to deal with one leadership, and as long as that leadership is able to be bought off and can keep its members in line then happy days.
Contradictions within the newly amalgamated union will inevitably arise and will require the leaders of the new union put the interests of the working class as a whole above their own ambitions or factional parliamentary political interests. They will need to resolve contradictions in a non-antagonistic manner, if the amalgamation is to strengthen the position of all members of the new union in the class struggle.
Other union amalgamations are "in the wind" which cut across Labor Party factional lines and on the surface also appear to be "strange marriages". For example, some unions contemplating amalgamation, such as United Voice, have such broad industrial coverage already that an amalgamation with any other major union may stretch their organizing resources too far. Unions hit hardest by the destruction of mass manufacturing industries such as the AMWU, CEPU and AWU would arguably do the working class movement a favour if they formed one union. ALP political differences across such unions should be put to one side when considering the merits or otherwise of amalgamation.
The decline of union membership density to under 11% in the private sector will lead to more amalgamations. Provided they occur with the aim of developing an independent working class agenda to unite millions of workers, they should be supported. Where their aim is to tie workers to the dead end of the three-year parliamentary cycle or the self-interest of particular union leadership interests they should be opposed.