Unions should “burn the village and go to war”, breaking laws preventing strikes and secondary boycotts even if it means fines and economic devastation, says union legend Dave Kerin, who worked with Jack Mundey on the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF).
Mundey (pictured top right), the union hero who united the labour and environmental movements to launch “Green Bans” on over-development, saving some of the most cherished parts of Sydney and Melbourne, has died at the age of 90.
Despite using methods that would be seen as radical today, shutting down construction on over 40 sites, Mundey won support far beyond the working class, by fighting not only for industrial rights but broader social, political, environmental and cultural interests as well.
Kerin (pictured top left), 69, told Voice of Action that if Green Bans were done today unions would be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars per day, and individuals involved would be hit with tens of thousands of dollars in fines.
He said the laws restricting strikes and secondary boycotts, which for decades have prevented workers showing solidarity across industries, need to be broken openly if the union movement is to have a future.
“My advice has always been burn the village and go to war, don’t think that there’s going to be a more preferable set of circumstances available to you in the future … because it ain’t going to happen,” said Kerin.
“This is class politics, by the very nature of it the more your opponent takes the more they will organise to take again. I don’t know how much clearer economic elites need to be before we start believing them, they don’t need our unions anymore to maintain the social contract; they threw the rule book out, we’re still trying to demand that they follow the rules.”
Kerin, who helped save Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market from redevelopment in the 70s, said the movement should be picking a couple of the worst employers and “absolutely industrially smashing them, make it impossible for them to profit … don’t stop punching until you win”.
Paul McAleer, Sydney branch secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, said if they weren’t willing to break the law unions were complicit with the status quo.
“The status quo is some of the most reactionary, aggressively anti-union laws that we’ve ever seen and if we’re not going to break them then we’re saying that they’re good enough to be in place,” McAleer told Voice of Action.
“Jack made it clear, along with all other militant trade union leaders, that if we have an objective of achieving justice and dignitiy for working class people then the status quo must be smashed, and arrests, fines, imprisonment and all the other consquences of breaking the law must be understood in that context.”
Former Geelong Trades Hall Council (GTHC) secretary Tim Gooden told Voice of Action “there’s just not enough militant action or campaigning taking place” and unions needed to get outside the workplace gate and campaign on important issues, “otherwise what’s the point of being in the union”.
Gooden, current GTHC delegate and CFMEU shop steward, said multiple unions should band together and “if we can’t fight under the current laws then we need to get out of that system and fight in a different way”. He said new organisations could be set up so unions would not have to worry about their assets and resources being stripped through fines.
“Years ago [former ACTU secretary] Greg Combet said he was prepared to go to jail, [current ACTU secretary] Sally McManus said bad laws should be broken … but none of them actually lead a campaign that does really take on the government and does put those consequences at risk,” said Gooden.
“It’s all play safe and feed in with the system to try and get a little bit here and there.”
Colin Long, former president of the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) and former secretary of the NTEU, said Australia had “the most oppressive anti-union laws in the OECD”; anyone today who tried to do what Mundey did “would be fined out of existence, deregistered and maybe imprisoned”.
Long, who is now the Just Transitions Organiser at VTHC, told Voice of Action it was the laws, not the unionists themselves, who had changed, while casualisation and enterprise bargaining had crushed the ability to organise.
Long said “we’re at the stage where we have to break the laws” and increase militancy as “we’re being slowly destroyed”. The union movement should stop paying fines “and see what the authorities are prepared to do”.
“I’ve believed for a while that probably some union officials need to go to jail to test the resolve of the ruling class,” said Long.
Kerin traces the decline of the union movement to the 1977 anti-secondary boycott laws, implemented by the ruling elites to “strike at the very heart” of unions by making it illegal for them to show solidarity to other unions or within their own ranks.
The industrial relations changes since then, from the Hawke/Keating 1991 Accord which introduced enterprise bargaining, to the Howard Government’s Workchoices laws, progressively constrained organised labour to the point where not only were unions prevented from organising across industries but even across individual firms.
“The secondary boycott law, that was a garrote thrown around the throat of the union movement, all the other laws that came were a twist in that garrote,” said Kerin.
“The minute you can stop the unions finding solidarity, privatisation, casualisation, offshoring of jobs, sham contracting, those big four could happen, and that’s how we got to where we are today. Solidarity is both the means and the end – it’s how we win.”
Kerin said the capitalist class decided unions had to be crushed in the early 70s when the alliance between the organised labour movement and the environmental movement for the Green Bans held up over $3 billion worth of building materials.
Since the ban on secondary boycotts “we have not been equal before our own courts”, as solidarity among workers was prohibited but encouraged among businesses, who were free to employ “scabs” to block any strikes.
But the union movement never took up the fight, he said, and while older Communists in the movement at the time pledged to duck and weave the rules, this ended when they retired.
Kerin said unions had to fight for the right of workers to organise and show solidarity with each other and the only way to do this was to “step outside those laws, break them openly and say alright bring it on”.
Gooden said the only time the Australian ruling class gave up concessions was when the working class pushed back, crippled businesses and demanded what it wants.
“They only give up a concession after a fight and unless the trade union movement is fighting then the government and bosses aren’t going to give up nothing,” said Gooden.
“The bosses have got to know that they’re going to suffer and workers will make them suffer if they’re organised to campaign around something.”
Gooden criticised the ACTU’s campaigns like Change the Rules as focused on simply electing Labor, but even if Labor was elected, as Rudd and Gillard showed, the working class would not win any concessions without strong movements willing to stand up to power.
“They’re not going to [pass pro working class laws] because they’re our mates, they’re going to do that because it’s so bad out there that the bosses can’t make any money because the workers are on strike,” said Gooden.
“You’d have to be over 40 to remember what it was like to be on a picket and go without money for six weeks.”
McAleer concurred, saying it was “disgraceful” that Labor would not support legislation that enshrined the right to strike. He said the ability for workers to withdraw their labour had achieved “the greatest advances in the history of humanity”.
“The idea that we can rely on the Labor Party or any party of capital to secure the rights and interests of working class people is a fundamental mistake and has been for decades,” said McAleer.
“Labor have engaged in deregulation, privatisation, casualisation as much as the Liberals and if we don’t target those 3 attacks then it doesn’t matter what Labor do in power because the working class have no power.”
McAleer said union leaders must recognise that there are two competing classes in society and only one of them can win.
“The unwillingness to engage within a framework of class struggle means that it could be seen as almost complicitness with these bad laws, and it’s really our duty to expose the anti working class nature of the laws that are used against us and break them,” said McAleer.
Long said the union movement should develop clear and concise demands around issues such as insecure employment, improved union/workplace rights laws, income security, climate change and a 30-hour work week, and unite behind pushing them. It must break out of the framework of growing the pie and hoping for crumbs to drop off the table for workers, to focusing on who owns the means of production.
McAleer advocates nationalising all industries and redistributing profits based on the needs of the people. Businesses struggling during the current crisis should not be bailed out but transferred back to the public sector.
“If unions aren’t fighting for the nationalisation of industry then all we’re doing is basically apologising for the for profit system that continues to savage us and brutalise us,” said McAleer.
McAleer said he had found a great deal of inspiration from Mundey’s community union model, which has “made the current model of trade unionism obsolete or at least anachronistic”. He said MUA Sydney and other unions were evolving to “become life representatives not just job representatives”.
He said the MUA’s fight against the sell-off of public housing in Millers Point in Sydney, which was ultimately unsuccessful, was “a continuation of Jack’s legacy”.
“The Green Bans challenged the notion that all development is good … if the interests of people weren’t at the forefront of development then those developments wouldn’t go ahead,” said McAleer.
“Without the politically conscious membership of the BLF and the radical rank and file approach to trade unionism it wouldn’t have been done.”
McAleer said what made Mundey’s legacy so profound was his ability to draw in people who wouldn’t normally be part of a working class or trade union movement, but who aligned on the community interests he was fighting for. He said the union movement as a whole didn’t support the BLF and continues to ignore the militant elements within its ranks.
“Unfortunately the union movement has sort of entrenched itself in workplace unionism and it’s failed and we can see the effects of that with 15% of the workforce organised,” said McAleer.
Kerin said increased militancy would likely trigger an economic collapse as overseas capital is withdrawn, so to avoid a pyrrhic victory the militancy can’t just be aimed at getting a bigger share of this economic pie, it must be aimed at moving towards an “economic democracy”.
He sees worker-owned coooperatives as being the key building blocks to creating a social sector of the economy that’s democratically owned and controlled. It is up to us to create new jobs in democratic institutions like cooperatives and mutuals so people can see that it’s possible to have working people own economic institutions and make decisions democratically without the sky falling in.
Long and Kerin were founders in the late 90s of the Earthworker cooperative, which makes solar hot water systems, and they’re in the process of launching a cooperative around energy, Cooperative Power Australia.
Kerin wants the trillions in superannuation (“socialised capital”) to be redirected to support an economy that’s based on “satisfaction of human and planetary need” rather than “environmental degradation and war”.
He says it is the job of organised labour to create the worker-owned economic institutions that can act as a “pole of attraction” for our capital that is held in super. Showing people we can create jobs in a new way was more important than convincing someone of some overarching ideology or world view.
“We’ve got our capital we just don’t control it so we’ve got to have that political fight about the democratisation of super,” said Kerin.
“All of that non-EBA social movement unionism has to be happening, we can’t just sit outside someone’s gate with our fists in the air … we’ve got to move beyond protest into ownership.”