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ACTU Congress: 10-15% union density top priority?

Ecological, political and economic context

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Congress is this week from June 4-6. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Conference will precede it on June 3rd.

The FWC delivers its Annual Wage Review (AWR) decision on that day. This is a big deal for Australia’s working class, despite the rigid rules and regulations and the mainstream media that try to prevent most from knowing what is happening.

The Australian Financial Review (AFR), ever alert to defend the needs of employers, knows what’s going on. The weekend edition (hard copy p.29) carried a feature about a pile of economists warning that the FWC must not award more than 4%. None of these characters are on the minimum wage or award rates. The ACTU is seeking 5% for all workers at the minimum and award rates, and 9% for those in the women-dominated care industries.

There are several aspects to the context in which the Congress meets. Above all are the consequences that flow from living in a capitalist society and, indeed, a capitalist world system. Some of these represent familiar continuities with capitalism, others reflect significant changes.


Interactive crises beget by capitalism

In brief, Australia and the global system remain on the recession's edge. That alone is always a big problem for workers and their unions; unemployment and underemployment are near at hand. Arguably, China is the only country with a serious growth trajectory, still with a powerful public sector. Its most serious problems come from the pro-capitalist changes it has introduced into the working of their “socialism”. Simultaneously, climate change is getting worse faster. Climate change and associated environmental degradation interact with the economic. The Biden-USA solution has sharpened competition between nations for green transition investment in an era of slowing profit rates.

But what is being done to slow and reverse it is nowhere near adequate. Capitalism is just not up to it.

War-making is more active in several theatres around the globe, to the great benefit of the arms corporations, including those in Australia that the Labor government is supporting.  And there is now a new escalation of cold and hot war action in the USA’s attempt to defend its imperial control from the “rise of China”. The global covid19 pandemic has waned, but scientists are now reminding us of new viruses that most governments are unprepared for. The drift to crisis in parliamentary democracy continues, with a rising Right that attracts parts of the working class that want a “strong-man/woman" fascist solution as the preferred alternative. And there is a crisis in human relations, particularly when it comes to race and gender. Australia has its form of these, as experienced by Aboriginal peoples and some migrants, and by women and children. When 50% or more of the population (women and children) do not feel safe living their daily lives we have a crisis.


Change and continuity

The changes make the continuity possible, and the continuity creates the changes. An important interaction. No one at Congress should talk about how much things are changing without showing the causal connection to the continuities based as they are on intense rates of exploitation and the degradation of the nature upon which we all depend.


Falling union density: 10-12% is simply unacceptable, surely

One of the continuities is the collapse of union membership. Here is the latest from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). New data will come later in the year but there is no sign of a growing trend.


Union density is an important indicator of union power, although not the only one.

We see a different sort of crisis. It is a crisis for the working class, not just for the unions.

But a crisis for us is close to an ideal situation for employers and governments who aim to maintain or rescue capitalism.

That is so when the crisis has a “consciousness” aspect within established memberships: that unionism’s gains are given to people rather than achieved through their collective combinations across industries and regions.

This leaves begging an important issue. How many non-members are thinking about fascist-like solutions to their problems, instead of the enriched democracy their engagement in unionism can bring?


Policy, union re-growth and strategy: a new world to win

The Congress will maintain or change established policy on various topics and set new policies on others. That will include hot contemporary issues where policy is outdated or absent.

The Australian (hard copy, p.2) featured an interview with ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus, in which she appeared to focus very much on Artificial Intelligence. How to win shorter working hours and other controls over AI with 12% or so union density will be even more complex than the complex effort to win the most recent reduction in working hours from 40 to 38 in the early 80s.

One wonders whether strategy, not just policy and demand, will be a big deal. Strategy is different to policy and of course different to tactics.

Will the current, prevailing strategy be seriously analysed? The current strategy is to seek new workers and union rights through parliamentary lobbying of the ALP government, coupled with employer peak body consultation. Thus, since the last election, there have been positive and modest improvements to the Fair Work Act and better AWR wage increases than would otherwise have been expected. Fragmenting enterprise bargaining that creates several wage levels for the same job in the name of competition is still the unions’ preference, even when many know it is a serious problem. No one is pushing as intensely as the unions (through the ACTU) for closing the gender pay gap, especially for middle and low-income women, like the union movement.

The new Future Made In Australia Act is another example of “polite unionism” taking a modest step in the right direction after decades of neglect by employers and governments, and patriotic efforts by the AMWU and some other unions.

Of course, there are also dozens of stories of collective action winning gains and defying the status quo. However, what makes them remarkable is their fragmentation, their isolation from one might be achieved by coordinated big and simultaneous working class activity.

The essence of the current strategy is the problem: it is all about union representatives as experts pursuing the improvement FOR workers. Worker protagonism is almost entirely absent. Thus, workers learn very little about why being a union member enables them to make the difference. This reproduces the thinking of the right-wing, grouper unions of the past. Yet, the major victories of the union movement were based on unionism that enabled workers, as members, to take more effective command of their struggles. The first iterations of production computers were a big deal in the 38 hour week campaign actions.

Polite unionism translates as the lowest level of industrial action since at least the mid 80’s, and it was falling even then. It is anaemic.


The continuing decline in union density coincides with the turning away from industrial action. What is the interaction? What does it tell everyone about the level of defiance cultivated by established unions? Surely Congress will be encouraged to get its teeth into that.


The key question for every Congress decision?

Every policy issue (including AI), strategy discussion, tactical idea and so on should be framed so that it addresses one simple question: “How should this be done so that it leads the 88% of non-union workers to change their mind to join and get involved … to learn their calculated defiance.” 

That is not just an organizing method issue, as some are obsessed with; that is, how to “talk union” one-to-one with a non-union worker.

It also goes to major elements of the strategy that the ACTU leadership and their Executive are responsible for.

For example, how should the Annual Wage Review claim be pursued so that at every step it attracts new members and enables their involvement on a scale that the claimed increase, whatever it is, can be won?

This is essential because we do know the current approach – even when it is moderately successful – is not translating to new workers' power through union membership.


“Solidarity Forever”

Almost certainly, at some point, the Congress will unite to sing “Solidarity Forever”.

The watchwords of the whole Congress might be found in the fifth verse (some versions have it earlier):

They have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn

But without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn

We can break their haughty power, gain our freedom when we learn

That the union makes us strong

In 2024, it is as true as it has ever been that workers’ social effort creates all new value in its interaction with the natural and processed ingredients of nature. The violent expropriation of aboriginal land kickstarted the Australian version of that. Both justify every demand and every strategic defiant action against those who continue to take and wallow in their “untold billions” and cock their noses at our politeness.

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1 commentaire


Start talking about class and how the wage system is inherently robbery in motion. Prove it with statistics which back up the the fact that labour produces the wealth. Stop all this class collaborationist nationalism, as if the workers and employers have class interests in common.

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