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We defeat the “Ensuring Integrity” Bill: tactical victory or strategic breakthrough?

How should union movement activists define the first defeat of the Ensuring Integrity Bill (EIB)? A major strategic breakthrough or a significant tactical achievement? And why does it matter?

The May Federal election showed the limits of a union strategy focussed almost exclusively on the parliamentary road to fairness.

During the election campaign Morrison and the LNP policy showed no appetite for this Bill. But the employers did and they wasted no time making sure that the new Lib – Nat government would go after unions in a big way, even though the current Fair Work Act 2009 (FWA09) is heavily stacked in their favour, loaded with what we have called its “broken rules”.

Remember, the government’s full Review of the FWA09 is also under way, as required by the employer organisations and their gross lie to the Australian public that the FWA09 is loaded against them, not workers.

Defeating the renewed EIB became an immediate priority for us because it would hit hard at workers’ capacity to use both compliant and defiant unionism And, we had to build that fight very quickly on the rocky terrain of a dispirited and somewhat confused activist base arising from the election result. This necessary defensive engagement was consistent with but could not expect to break through against the FWA09’s anti-worker “rules”. The activist base of our depleted union movement responded strongly in a lobbying campaign and has been defined as the main reason for last Friday’s win.

Our victory means we are marking time, not set back, nor marching forwards towards a “fairer” Fair Work Act, of which the most important feature is the “the right” to strike. What remains at stake is how we go about fighting wage suppression, wage theft and inequality, and associated climate catastrophe. Can we entertain strategic options beyond the “parliamentary road”?

There are 3 good reasons for talking about last Friday’s “win” as a tactical achievement.

There will be a round 2 of this battle pretty quickly

The first and the most obvious is that the Bill will be returned to the Parliament probably next week for reconsideration early next year. The battle will have to be won again, but next time over the torpor of the summer holiday funk that most union activists yearn for. The terrain for us to win again might improve if, in the meantime, the government loses out in the Taylor affair, and on other fronts like its proposed changes on religious discrimination. One self-indulgent, careless act by any union leader in this time will have consequences.

Whatever the thinking behind the ACTU’s courtship of One Nation (ON) and its leader Pauline Hanson, this was a necessary tactical decision; not because of the headline rapprochement with Hanson, but because it paid due respect to the significant working class cohort in the ON electoral base. However, ON’s rejection of the Bill at this Senate vote will not necessarily be repeated. Hanson is rarely consistent or logical. Repeating our effort will depend again on our movement’s effort to mobilise working class ON members and hangers on to tell Hanson and Roberts to vote NO once more. Where Senator Lambie will go next time is also an unknown.

We should never forget that ON politics is based on a racist view of the world that in its essence divides the working class. All the more reason not to build our offensive strategy for the future on tactical necessity to persuade their leaders in the short term.

What type of unionism: compliance and / or defiance?

The second reason for defining this win as a tactical achievement lies in the character of the unionism that we wish to practice both immediately and into the future.

Much of the “mainstream” debate was framed around militant unionism being bad and obedient unionism being acceptable. The EIB is an attack on both. The Bill’s primary spokesperson, Attorney-General Christian Porter, defended the Bill because it would inflict no harm on the Shop Assistants Union that he defined as a “gold standard” union.

To be accurate about it, the ACTU’s messaging was not always about this: highly regarded union workers like nurses, teachers and firefighters, need to to defy the “unprotected action” laws of the current FWA09 to run effective campaigns on healthy employment ratios and the like.

However, this messaging was not always promoted to the broader public. Pushed along by Senator Lambie’s bargaining position, the tendency to “CFMMEU bad, nurses good” was quite prominent.

The modern parliamentary ALP wants compliant unionism. It was the primary architect of the “broken rules” of the FWA09. At the May election it advocated quite narrow reforms if it won government that would reward cooperation with employers and not include an advance on the “right” to strike. There are enough union leaders around who are quite comfortable with that model of compliance.

But do we want an early 2020 tactical campaign to allow ourselves to be defined as “compliant”? What is wrong with defying laws that deny workers the bargaining power to deal effectively with employers on a single employer or industry basis, or to intervene industrially in issues of great social consequence, for example anti-apartheid, anti-war and the march to climate catastrophe?  Compliant unionism has been a dominant feature of our union history but the great historical breakthroughs have been made by defiant, militant unionism that stretch and even break the law. They have NOT been produced through cooperation with employers.

From defensive actions to a new strategic offensive

For 2 to 3 years our union movement has followed a parliamentary road to fairness as its prime strategy. The development and use of restored industrial power was pulled back until a Labor government would “Change the Rules” of Labor’s broken FWA09.

With some exceptions, business as usual has meant obedient grievance handling, compliant enterprise bargaining, and inadequate and obedient annual wage review interventions. These are the elements of the current strategy. But this strategy is not working: it is not generating momentum for union re-growth let alone breakthroughs against wages suppression or defining the role of workers in dealing with climate change, or fixing unions in the public mind as the effective leaders against wage theft.

The enterprise bargaining addiction – despite our deeply felt complaints against it – is particularly harmful. It is a dead end: the number of agreements is declining and their general quality, not just the reduced wage outcomes, is worsening. Nevertheless, we are so addicted that we celebrate the occasional enterprise bargaining victory as a reflection of a noble undertaking. The addicted get their hit and we stagger on blindly searching for the next one. We consent to the logic of competition between employers and in supply chains.

This is the fruit of strategic compliance pushed along by leaders and accepted by members who have not developed thinking and messaging for a new strategy beyond working to get the ALP into government.

We desperately need a new strategy that restores the primacy of industrial campaigning, not least because unions are at their core workplace and industrial organisations. Social intervention depends on that primary rationale, not the other way around. Unions that do not struggle to take wages, conditions and safety out of the competition between employers and their supply chains will wither. The current strategy does not stand up to that core test.

A new strategy means a different line of march that starts on the terrain we are on and that includes limited union consciousness, although strong instincts, among our members, not just those who have not yet joined.

Restoring industrial power to workers will not come from wishing for it, but rather from lots of union education (not just in classes) and less meming, and steadily building industry wide actions that provide experience of it, rather than calling for the “right” to do it. This means building towards common, shared industry-wide defiance, not jumping immediately to it. That means some unions who think they are ready for it now, must be patient and help bring lots more unions into it.

We can see this strategic possibility (instead of the current one) by paying attention to the possibilities that lie in the Annual Wage Review (AWR), conducted by the Fair Work Commission under the requirements of the FWA09, that include the denial of protected industrial action rights. (For more on how this works, please read here.)

The Annual Wage Review (AWR): struggling industrially against wage suppression, instead of complaining about it

The AWR is, potentially, the most important annual event in which workers, led by union workers, can be the prime protagonists against wage suppression and wage theft. (The last decision can be read here.) It is an opportunity to practice the fight against rising inequality and associated rising rates of exploitation by shifting it onto better terrain.

The AWR outcome impacts directly on low paid workers, those on the minimum wage or on or close to the minimum rates in our industrial awards. However, the outcome also spins off to affect those who are on wage rates that are above those minimums. (Basic union education can explain how and why this is important at all levels of our union movement.)

The current AWR is now underway. Each year the ACTU lodges a claim on behalf of all workers, not just union workers. At time of writing, the ACTU claim for the current review has not been announced. In previous years its claim has aimed to lift the current minimum to what it defines as a “living wage”, that is 60% of the overall median wage. (Keep in mind that the median wage includes the salaries of chief and senior executives thus understating the real median of real wage earners.)

This year’s review will proceed as the global economy, and the Australian economy along with it, drifts into downturn and, possibly, even worse. And this coincides with the fiery burn to climate catastrophe.

The common chorus from across the ruling class – employers and their organisations, their LNP government, the mainstream media and economics commentators, bankers, and the Reserve Bank – will reject a decent increase because it is not affordable. Wage increases should be left absolutely within the power of each employer. The Reserve Bank Governor calls for wage increases but will not support the ACTU claim.

Historically, economic downturns have usually pushed Australian unions into retreat, and more recently, the FWC have directed a zero increase.

But we do not have to comply. We could defy, and do it socially and industrially: building steadily towards an actual demonstration of popular union power that builds in and attracts new union members. We grow by calculated and measured, steadily escalating, industrial actions.

In April and May there were big Change the Rules demonstrations on working week days, 120,000 plus in Melbourne and 6000 (possibly more) in Sydney.

Next year let’s have 6000 or 60,000 workers from all incomes demonstrating and packing out the FWC hearing rooms. That does require a strategy of imagination and defiance. But it has been done before and there is nothing in the genetic makeup of the 21st century Australian worker that says it cannot be done again.

Every union has members, and importantly, thousands of potential members who will be directly affected by the AWR outcome. The outcome will spread to that minority of members who are on enterprise agreements. A movement wide campaign is an opportunity to give living effect to class solidarity, making our singing about it dynamic instead of a ritual.

We do not wait for “the market” to restore wages as if there is some ordained law that demands our obeisance and humiliation. We work away from enterprise bargaining. We fight our way out of the morass with calculated, educated defiance rather than blind compliance.

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