The fundamental purpose of trade unions is to fight for improved wages and conditions on the one hand, and to fight against employer attacks on the other. Trade unions, as fighting organisations of the working class, provide opportunities for the introduction of socialist ideas and are therefore an important field of activity for Communists. We do not advocate a narrow concentration on trade union work only: socialist ideas must also be brought to the anti-war, anti-fascist and climate change movement amongst others. The point must be made that correct, scientific socialist ideas do not spontaneously arise from militant trade unionism, but must be introduced into it through mass work.
Militant unionism without the guidance of Marxism-Leninism is just another form of reformism. It aims for improvements in wages and conditions by direct action and confrontations with the employer, rather than waiting for parliamentary changes or arbitration by an “independent umpire”, but its end result is the same: winning changes within the system of capitalism rather than leading workers to struggle against capitalism as a system.
No matter how militant a union may be, if its leadership rejects the historical experience and basic viewpoint of Marxism, it will be unable to pose, let alone correctly answer, the question of who are its enemies and who are its friends. This question is basic to the survival of unions when they come under attack for their militancy. In the history of our Party, a great working class leader abandoned this approach in his later years and fought his friends as if they were his enemies. Completely isolated, he took the union ship down with himself as its captain. Such lessons should be remembered.
For strong and principled militant leadership
Reactionary views do great damage to the unity of the working class and can never be justified in the name of militancy. All the great leaders of the revolutionary working class were ethical in their personal lives and in the example they set for others. Mao Zedong was a great Marxist ethicist. What the Chinese called his “Three Constantly Read Articles”, namely In Memory of Norman Bethune , Serve the People , and The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains , together with the Three Rules for Discipline and Eight Points for Attention that guided soldiers in the Peoples Liberation Army, are standards on which all working class militants should base their personal relations and political work.
The struggle to work within unions to create a mass movement capable of independently asserting the interests of the workers has gone on since the first days of unionism. Against this has always been a tendency for union leaderships to accept dependency on the ALP and parliament given restrictive legislation and an absence of trade union leaders with a Marxist class struggle outlook.
It is said that the Labor Party is the party of the unions. They created the ALP after the defeat of the working class in the great strikes of the 1890s. It is today the party to which a majority of unions are affiliated. Although it may well be said that it is the party of the trade unions, it is not a party of and for the working class. It is a party of capitalism and will not fight for the working class.
ALP factionalism has become a major preoccupation for many leaders and officials of the unions. Even those union officials who scream blue murder against the ALP generally do so from their own factional positions within it. We do not believe that the cause of militant unionism will be served by affiliation with the ALP. Pouring union funds into its pockets will not change its class character. Affiliation often requires affiliated unions to go soft on the Labor Party when it is in office. Workers need unions that are not bound by cries to “not embarrass the Labor Party”, unions in which there are members determined to maintain an independent capacity to fight regardless of which party holds office.
At the present time, three great straight-jackets restrain the militancy of the working class. They are the Fair Work Act, the Registered Organisations Commission and, for construction workers, the Australian Building Construction Commission. The Labor Party created the first, the Liberals the second, and both parties when in office embraced the ABCC. The ruling class now plans to add the Ensuring Integrity Bill to tighten ruling class control over union members and officials.
We certainly stand for militant unionism. We promote it as a great school enabling workers to learn just how powerful their unity is in action, and how completely dependent upon their labour power are the capitalists. But their economic struggles, their militancy, must take on a revolutionary political character in order to break the stranglehold that capitalism exerts over their lives. Leaders need to come through the unions – leaders who embrace and can popularise that revolutionary perspective, leaders whose motivation is to serve the people in struggle without thought of personal gain, who are not driven by ego or backward ideas and behavior, and who are without fear of persecution and attack. Leaders like Clarrie O’Shea , Ted Bull and John Cummins .
We cannot say for certain when or how the workers will tear off the straight-jackets that are holding them back. Many workers want unions to fight, and resent the fact that they don’t. Resistance to the attacks of the monopolies will grow. Good leadership linked to the wisdom of rank and file union members will see militancy that is conscious and purposeful.
We will carry forward the independent agenda and demands of the working class with the guidance of Marxism-Leninism developed in and applied to Australian conditions.
(The photo that accompanies this article is the front page of a publication issued by this Party in June 1987)