Rebel Worker replies to the Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group
A Debate over how anarcho-syndicalist mass would emerge in Australia and how the Anti-Capitalist Milieus are confronting the current intensifying employer offensive associated with the Howard's New Industrial Relations Legislation.
This article is based on a talk given by Greg of the Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group (MACG) 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 outlook of the times and only pushing for ‘reforms’ that are popular or it can win. These ‘reforms’ enable them to create a rightwing atmosphere. Any unified response has been patchy 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..
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 downsizing of big companies (where unions were more tolerated) in favour of smaller companies and casual work forces. 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) off 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. The 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 and 200,000 in Sydney. A follow up delegate’s meeting in September proposed a further day of action this November (which was held) 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 playing 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 are self organised..
Leftism vs Anarchism
Left groups have tried to launch rank-and-file groups but sectarian competition and infighting 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 (International Workers Association) , but largely inactive; the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), which is wholly anarchist in membership and orientation but which has collapsed; and the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network, largely Sydney and transport 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” organization, believing in a single, unified organization and strategy?
The MACG opposes the formation of an “anarchist party” as suggested in the Organisational Platform of the Libertarian Communists. We are 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 and the MACG 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. Edited.
Thanks to “Organise” No.65
THE STALINIST LEGACY
It entailed vanguardist style stacking and manipulating of meetings via clandestine cells to secure power for the party in various arenas and organisations, psychological manipulation of its members, ballot rigging in unions, restricting debate at meetings, slander campaigns, etc. These practices have particularly influenced the various factions of the ALP such as the Rightwing Faction in N.S.W. and via Trotskyist groupings which mushroomed like toad stools in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s have blighted the Leftist milieu and most graphically in campus politics. As these unwholesome practices have become all pervasive and “acceptable”, affecting groups of different stripes. .
A Garden of Leftist “Poisonous Weeds”
The combination of this “Stalinist Legacy” and the predominance of lower middle class elements – professionals, academics, lower level union officials, etc and students lacking much experience of the class struggle but outraged by the various misdeeds of contemporary capitalism and “worshiping” the bogus identity politics of “oppressed monolithic” imaginary communities of women, indigenous, queer, etc and the bizarre antics of “political correctness” – organisational navel gazing, focusing on gender dynamics and balance in meetings and women’s spaces, “indigenous welcomes” at conferences, etc, has encouraged the proliferation of the sect phenomena in the anti-capitalist milieus in Australia today.(2) .
That is groupings which are largely “existential”. They exist for their own sake providing “pseudo families/tribes” for those seeking to escape the alienation of capitalist society and maintaining the elitist activist lifestyles of party gurus via the recruitment of naive new members on the basis of an ever changing merry go round of “campaigns” on every issue under the sun. They are hostile to encouraging a climate favourable to debate and research essential for the development of strategies to facilitate the “workers’ control” project. It is more this problem which precludes major assistance from leftist groups for grass roots fight backs against the present Howard Government and Neo Liberal offensive and the lame duck and traitorous role of the union hierarchy. Not the “divisions” and different groupings, Greg complains about. After all different groups could put out grass roots publications in important industries in different states and regions to help out grass roots self organization and direct action. Subsequently, they no doubt would become more coordinated in their efforts. However, Leftist groups which wave different flags are generally not pursuing such useful work today. .
An exception to this sorry state is the work of the ASN which in contrast to what Greg has to say, has contributed to “major” grass roots successes. Particularly assisting militants defeat of a restructuring for privatisation push in the N.S.W. railways in 1999, which would have led, if successful to the privatisation of remaining Govt. owned industry in N.S.W. and other significant initiatives (3). .
Lately ASN activity to assist the grass roots has expanded in quite a range of spheres such as Canberra buses, maritime transport and the fire brigade. However, our priority is not “building the party” and the recruitment of middle class/student elements through pandering to various exotic fads and aimless activism. But assisting the grass roots to establish a mass syndicalist union movement, which must mean strategic organizational work. .
Our focus on Transport, which Greg mentions extremely briefly , is essential to this project. It’s not just some “single issue”, on a “washing list of good causes”. Success in this sector will enable the wiping out of the existing bureaucratic unionism via future syndicalist organising drives in various industries assisted by syndicalist transport workers and the general raising of the morale in the workers’ movement stemming from major victories won by the direct action of transport workers. A raging torrent of an expanding syndicalist movement will be unleashed..
This “outside the job” activity assisting “on the job” activity and organization has always been a key aspect of syndicalist activity. It is this sort of activity in contrast to Greg’s fascination with purely “spontaneous” activity of workers which has led to sectors of the labour movement taking on a syndicalist direction. An important example is of course the N.S.W. BLF in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.The grassroots movement which pushed the union in a syndicalist direction involving grass roots control of union decision making, limited tenure of office for officials, “workers’ control” actions, such as the “green bans”, etc in these years didn’t just occur “spontaneously”. The Communist Party played an important role in bringing militants together and producing its journal the “Hoist” to establish a grass roots movement. Whilst Communist Party militants who were BL’s were influenced by the “workers’ control” push influential in the party during its “destalinisation” phase in t he late 60’s & early 70’s. (4).
Certainly, this sweeping talk of “spontaneity” by Greg, seems as an excuse for the disregard of assisting on- the- job organisation in industries and workplaces which would make sense as part of a strategy to establish mass syndicalist unionism..
Such an approach would take account and assist militants in getting around on-the- job obstacles to their activism e.g. intense speedups, networks of “bosses stooges”, increased surveillance, long shifts, legal difficulties, etc, involving long range serious work. Militants need this kind of nitty gritty sustained assistance, not just abstract “arguments” and “preaching from the outside”.