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(en) Britain, Organise! #65 - on the waterfront - talk given by Greg of the Melbourne

Date Sun, 06 Nov 2005 09:48:39 +0200


This article is based on a talk given by Greg of the Melbourne
Anarchist Communist Group - a long-time anarchist and supporter
of Jura Books - during a recent tour of Britain sponsored by the
Anarchist Federation and the following discussion.
The struggle of the workers is the number
one issue in Australia at the moment. But
it is crucially defined by and at the moment
contained within the framework of
parliamentary politics. Australia has a
written constitution, a federal government
and bicameral parliament with the lower
house (like the House of Commons) having
the primary responsibility for holding the
cabinet and government responsible.
Politics is a two-horse race with the Liberal
(i.e. Tory) Party and its ally the rural
National Party versus the Australian
Labour Party, with each alternating in
government. Things are complicated by a
declining Democratic Party and a rising
Green Party, filling the political vacuum on
the Left with other leftist groups in a
`socialist alliance'.
The Liberals took control of both houses in
the recent elections and now finds it much
easier to drive forward a reactionary
agenda, primarily the breaking of the social
contract which has governed post-war
political, social and industrial relations.
This agenda has been greatly facilitated by
the collapse of the Australian Communist
Party, politically and organisationally. The
working class has been effectively
disarmed by this collapse, rates of union
membership and recognition have fallen
dramatically and rank-and-file activism has
declined.
The Liberal government is reactionary but
also has been tactically astute by following
the `zeitgeist' and only pushing for
`reforms' that are popular or it can win.
These `reforms' enable them to create a
rightwing atmosphere that is increasingly
sexist, militarist and racist. Any unified
response has been patchy: there has been
some co-operation between women's
groups, asylum-seekers, aboriginal rights
groups and so on, and the unions have
played a limited role in facilitating and
linking resistances. There are lots of
slogans but only limited action.
ID Cards are a big issue in Britain at the
moment: what's the situation in
Australia?
This is a relatively new issue that the
government has floated but which they
may not go ahead with. The MACG's
response has been limited due to a lack of
resources but it would certainly advocate
and get involved in resistance to ID cards
and identity registers.
Rank-and-file leadership
Traditionally there has always been a
strong syndicalist current within working
class struggles during the last 100 years
and this has meant union bureaucrats have
had to be far more receptive to the views of
rank-and-file members, despite conflicts
within the unions. But more recently the
bureaucrats have strengthened their grip on
the members through the formation of
`super unions' and by tightening
membership rules and procedures. The
Liberals introduced `enterprise bargaining'
in 1996, which outlawed industry-wide
collective bargaining and agreements and
pitted company against company, worker
against worker. This weakening of
bargaining power caused a massive decline
in union membership, from 50% of the
national workforce to only 25%, to which
the traditional unions and bureaucracies
had no answer. In contrast, Left-led unions
have won successes through `pattern-
bargaining', running industry-wide
campaigns which can then be applied to
individual companies.
What are the concrete reasons for the
decline in unionisation?
Firstly, a decline in class-consciousness.
Secondly, unions have been ineffective in
defending wages and other terms and
conditions. Thirdly, traditionally industries
where unions were strong have suffered
from massive restructuring; newer
industries has lower levels of unionisation.
Fourthly, restructuring has led to down-
sizing of big companies (where unions
were more tolerated) in favour of smaller
companies and casualised working. Finally
the 1983 accord between the ACTU and
the Australian Labour Party created a
framework for restructuring while at the
same time the Communist Party of
Australia abandoned the working class,
leaving it largely defenceless.
The globalisation of poverty wages
The Liberal government is pushing for
further industrial law reform, intent on
ham-stringing the unions: abolishing unfair
dismissal protection in small companies,
getting rid of collective agreements and
terms in favour of individual contracts and
bargaining, appointing new pay tribunals
with a neo-capitalist remit to drive down
minimum pay levels and making legal
strikes virtually impossible through
restrictions and levying penalties on
individual strikers as well as unions. This
last policy is aimed particularly at stamping
out unofficial strikes and industrial action
that has been the most effective tactic due
to the weakness of the official unions. In
Australia legislation would make wildcat
action illegal and would punish workers
directly - unlike Britain - so the only
response is mass defiance. The reality is
that no boss would sue their workers, they
would use the laws as an excuse to sack
workers. Just the threat of action will
severely impact on the likelihood of strikes
and this in turn will let union bureaucrats
(who previously had no choice but to
endorse and support strike action) of the
hook. Finally, special laws are to be
introduced in the construction industry
establishing special commissions to
investigate and break strikes and the
unions, including abolishing the right to
silence: if you don't inform on fellow
strikers and organisers you could face
heavy penalties.
Unions in retreat, workers press forward
During its nine year life the unions have
been resisting the government's plans. The
Maritime Strike of 1998 was able to
establish strong picket lines with support
from the local community and other
workers (especially in Melbourne) that
finally defeated the bosses. Australia's
TUC, the ACTU, has played a negative
role, regularly conceding whatever
government and the bosses want; despite it,
some defensive struggles have been won
but only at the cost of unions being
exhausted and weakened by the struggle.
ACTU is waging a political campaign,
hoping for the return of a Labour
government, but in Victoria unions have
begun a different kind of campaign,
involving a wide range of often illegal
tactics. This change has been led by the
rank-and-file and union delegates (shop
stewards) not the bureaucrats and
opposition to the Liberal
government is deepening and
strengthening as a result. In
March 2005 a mass meeting of
union delegates adopted a
policy of defiance and mass
action against the government's
proposals. ACTU was forced to
endorse the call for a national
day of action in June but was
unable to contain and channel
popular anger and the
development of more industrial
action. 100,000 marched and
took action in Melbourne,
200,000 in Sidney. A follow-up
delegate's meeting in
September proposed a further
day of action this November
and is struggling to prevent the
campaign being taken over by
the ACTU. Additionally, many
union bureaucrats have been
forced to go along but there is a
fear they are merely paying lip-
service to rank-and-file
demands and preparing to sell
out the campaign. This is
because the rank-and-file
movement is not fully
independent but still being
largely organised and
channelled at the local level.
Action is carried out by the
local officials, a change from
the historical pattern of such
events where protests and
action were self-organised.
Leftism vs anarchism
Left groups have tried to launch
rank-and-file groups but
sectarian competition and in-
fighting have destroyed any
hope of a unified independent
movement. Sadly the anarchist
movement has not been able to
intervene decisively because it,
too, is divided. There are three
anarcho-syndicalist groups in
Australia: the Anarcho-
Syndicalist Federation, aligned
to the IWA but largely inactive;
the IWW, which was wholly
anarchist in membership and
orientation but which has
collapsed organisationally; and
the Anarcho-Syndicalist
Network, largely Sidney- and
transport industry-based and
which has been quite effective,
mounting unofficial actions
though generally small-scale. It
has not progressed because it
has failed to take on social
struggles, which has limited its
appeal and reach.
Are you a `platformist'
organisation, believing in a
single, unified organisation
and strategy?

The MACG opposes the
formation of an `anarchist
party' as suggested in the
Organisational Platform of The
Libertarian Communists. We
are also opposed to any
`confederation' of anarchists
and anarchist groups on the
basis of a unified political
platform. We are pro-
syndicalist while remaining
staunchly in favour of
revolutionary anarchism and an
anarcho-communist society.
The working class needs
anarcho-syndicalism to liberate
itself. We believe that if
resistance deepens and spreads,
it will give rise to anarcho-
syndicalist unions.
There are also, of course, many
non-aligned anarchist
bookshops, zines and groups
such as the Libertarian Workers
for a Self-Managed Society and
the Melbourne Anarcho-
Communist Group itself.
Unlike most other groups, the
MACG has a strong class
struggle analysis and
orientation and has thrown
itself into the various struggles,
talking to working class
militants in their own language,
demanding that the rank-and-
file take control of the
campaigns as part of
developing their understanding
and experience of direct action
and democracy.
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