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Amalgamations of unions - for better or for worse

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Ned K.
In recent months there have been reports in the daily press about amalgamations of unions. 
The first major one was between the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).

A most unlikely amalgamation with respect to common or similar industrial and/or occupational coverage. Both unions are in the firing line of the multinationals and big business due to their member’s willingness to take collective action and their ability through struggle to win relatively high wages and good working conditions for their members.

Perhaps the executives of both unions thought that since the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is not effective enough in uniting all unions to mobilise their members in support of the attack on the CFMEU and MUA, then they have no choice but to join together by themselves?

There may some truth in this. When the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) was deregistered in the 1980s, there was no campaign by the ACTU to mobilise workers across all industries in support of the BLF. Will it be any different if the government deregisters the CFMEU and hands coverage of building workers to the much weaker Australian Workers Union (AWU)?

The more recent report of possible amalgamation between two unions is that between United Voice and Australian Metal Workers’ Union (AMWU). AMWU membership has dropped from around 200,000 to 80,000 over the last decade with the decline of mass production plants particularly in the whitegoods and car industries. 

Further loss of jobs and hence AMWU membership will occur with the closure of all car manufacturing plants by the end of 2017 and most of the component plants associated with them. With the loss of production workers as members, the AMWU's core membership will be maintenance workers, mechanics in the service sector. The only critical mass of workers they will have left as members or potential members is in the food and beverage industries and defence industries. The AMWU amalgamated with the Food Preservers Union in the 1990s which gave it coverage of workers in food processing plants. It is in food and beverage manufacturing where there is some common interest with United Voice which in some states covers wine industry workers, baking industry workers, brewery workers and milk and cheese manufacturing. Both the AMWU and United Voice are in the "Left" faction of the ALP nationally so the motivation of this amalgamation if it goes ahead could be to do with ALP faction numbers and influence.

However an amalgamation by United Voice with the AMWU may create difficulties due to the diversity of coverage it currently has. What has a child care worker or aged care worker or home care worker got in common with a manufacturing industry tradesperson working on building a naval ship or changing a production run for a different class of wine?

Amalgamations mentioned above and amalgamations generally have the potential to strengthen those sections of the working class the amalgamated union represents and hence the working class as a whole if the leadership of the new entities uses its resources to mobilise existing members in struggles and if it directs available resources to organising the unorganised.

For years when the AMWU had many members in large factories, little attempt was made to organise potential members in smaller workplaces because the union dues kept flowing from the big shops. Now those big shops are gone and there are dwindling resources left to organise smaller workplaces when these are the only workplaces left!

United Voice in the first decade of the 21st Century took a different path and initiated some well- resourced campaigns designed to organise sections of the working class on a national scale such as cleaning, hotel workers and child care.

They has some success in putting into practice Marx's idea that sometimes in struggles between capital and labour the workers are successful, but the real value in these struggles is expanding the organised capacity of the working class movement.

Hopefully the likely amalgamations of unions mentioned above will be used to bring more workers in to the general working class struggle for independence and socialism, and not be just a mechanism to dampen struggle in favour of more influence in the ALP.


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