feature | Suzanne Jamieson & Tom Bramble


summer 2008

published 19 November 2008


Suzanne Jamieson and Tom Bramble debate Bramble’s new history of the union movement (Trade Unionism in Australia: A History from Flood to Ebb Tide, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 9780521716123, $49.95)

Suzanne Jamieson:

Writing under a pseudonym in Pravda in June 1913, Vladimir Lenin noted:

Capitalism in Australia is still quite youthful … The leaders of the Australian Labour [sic] Party are trade union officials, everywhere the most moderate and ‘capital-serving’ element, and in Australia, altogether peaceable, purely liberal … Naturally, when Australia is finally developed and consolidated as an independent capitalist state, the condition of the workers will change, as also will the liberal Labour Party, which will make way for a socialist workers’ party.

It seems that the workers are still waiting.

In this fine scholarly history of Australian trade unionism since 1968, Tom Bramble analyses recent developments in the union movement within a Marxist framework – or, more particularly, a framework informed by his activism within the Trotskyist group Socialist Alternative. The avowed aim of Socialist Alternative is revolutionary change brought about by workers, students and the oppressed, organised from the ground up, and it is not too much of a stretch to see the essentially reformist Australian trade union leadership as the real bogey-man in this analysis. This necessarily means that much of his analysis is sectarian in a left-wing way, with the main objects of his critique the Australian Labor Party and the now defunct Communist Party of Australia. Less is said about the Socialist Party of Australia or the breakaway Maoist Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist).

In an era when it is difficult to get any books published at all, it is pleasing to see such a prestigious publisher not shy away from work written outside the mainstream. Equally it is difficult in such a small space to do justice to Bramble’s narrative and level of detail. What follows are a few observations on what Bramble has written, from the perspective of someone who teaches this material and who has lived through much of the events described as an activist.

The essential thesis of Bramble’s book is that the natural militancy of the Australian working classes, which by the end of the 1960s resulted in high levels of union activism and membership (and, more importantly, membership density), was allowed to ebb away in the following decades by timid – if not downright treacherous – union leadership. In this analysis, the Prices and Incomes Accord, which was so significant in national economic policy under the last Labor government (1983-96), comes in for a very special pasting, as do all of the union officials associated with it – particularly those of the Left, from whom Bramble expects so much more.

Any work of history involves decisions about what to include, what to leave out, and what emphasis should be accorded to the material selected. It’s a small quibble, but why was the Waterside Workers Federation’s Ted Bull included but the better known (at least in Sydney trade union circles) Tas Bull left out? Surely not because Ted joined the CPA as a teenager and then became a Maoist while Tas, as is well known, left the CPA and joined the Labor Party? Similarly, why is so much space afforded the physical attack by trade unionists on Parliament House in 1996, except to show that the leadership of the unions, including those of the Left, were keen to abandon the attackers and emphasise their own respectable credentials? I suspect it has more than a little to do with the traditional Trotskyite fondness for the strike and, in particular, the general strike, as tools of revolution.

Bramble is at great pains to record the failure of the Labor Party and the Australian Council of Trade Unions under Bob Hawke’s joint leadership to call for a mass rising of workers on 11 November 1975, after the sacking of Whitlam’s government. Maintaining the rage was always going to be difficult when, as we saw, most Australian voters were heartily sick of the government by then. How is a mass strike supposed to overcome the democratic will of the nation, if that democratic will does not accord with Bramble’s and mine?

Much space is devoted to the strike statistics which, along with union membership and density, have been heading south since the end of the 1970s. Bramble has missed an interesting opportunity to discuss tactics and theory in his coverage of the technology dispute involving the Australian Telecommunications Employees Association at Telecom (forerunner of Telstra) in 1977 and 1978. His source for this dispute (not actually named by Bramble) is a Journal of Industrial Relations article written by a certain B. Carr, then of the Bulletin magazine. If Bob Carr didn’t provide much in the way of insight, readers may be interested to know that the huge dispute (which did not depend on the general strike) was theoretically informed by the recently published book Labor and Monopoly Capital by the US author Harry Braverman, which drew on Marx’s largely forgotten work on labour process theory. That episode constitutes one of the very few occasions known to this reviewer when an academic book actually assisted the trade union leadership to cogently theorise, contemporaneously with events, what was happening to the workers – we social scientists cannot very often claim that kind of glory.

In an otherwise splendidly indexed book, there is no mention of equal pay for women, though the issue is dealt with in some detail in the material on women in unions. In passages drawing heavily on Bramble’s comrade Diane Fieldes’ much more thorough doctoral work in the area, we are treated to an essentially accurate narrative which privileges the role of unions in seeking and achieving equal pay for Australian women workers. Yet we get no flavour of the role played by feminism in this struggle. This is truly the F word: feminism is, according to the website of Socialist Alternative, about playing identity politics – and we can’t have the movement split by that, can we?

Of course, feminist groups inside and outside the trade union movement have been active in this area since at least the 1930s, with Muriel Heagney’s name springing to mind. But we all know that the interests of working men and women are the same, aren’t they?

Bramble’s book appears to have been written in a very short period during a sabbatical leave and necessarily a few errors have crept in. On page 21, he correctly identifies the Miscellaneous Workers’ Union as a union that has rarely struck, but its long-term leader was not Arthur Gietzelt, as Bramble has it, but his brother, Ray Gietzelt, who (with the late Lionel Murphy as his hired gun) wrested control of the union from the forces of the Right in the 1950s, when the vast majority of unions were headed in the other direction. The other tiny error appears to be the mention of Stephen Ludwig on page 232. This, I suppose, is a reference to Queensland Senator Joe Ludwig of the famous Australian Workers’ Union dynasty and currently Minister for Human Services in the Rudd government.

There is much to enjoy and much to dispute in this dense narrative history. I mostly enjoyed Trade Unionism in Australia but then I grew up in a family where my late father, if he prayed to anyone in the 1970s, prayed to Laurie Carmichael and John Halfpenny as Father and Son. Dad certainly would have had a rollicking good time with this book. I think I can hear him shouting now, as boilermakers do when angry.

Tom Bramble responds:

I would like to thank Suzanne Jamieson for the kind words in her review. In response I will take up what I believe to be her two most significant points: my treatment of the role of strikes and the strategies of the union leaders as explanations for the rise and decline of trade unionism since the 1960s.

An argument about the importance of strikes in building and sustaining the union movement is not peculiarly Trotskyist in origin. Indeed, it used to be common coin in the union movement that a successful strike is the single best recruitment tool. It was precisely when unions fought for workers’ rights that recruitment levels soared. During what I refer to as the ‘flood tide’, between 1968 and 1974, when the strike rate increased six-fold, union membership rose from 2.3 to 2.8 million. Union coverage, which had fallen from 60 per cent in 1951 to 49 per cent in 1970, recovered to 56 per cent by 1976 and stayed at that level for the rest of the decade.

Unions in the thick of action during this period – for example, the Builders Labourers, the Storemen and Packers, and the Transport Workers – all doubled their memberships between 1969 and 1975. Those unions which were timid or tame-cat, such as the Australian Workers Union and the Federated Ironworkers, lagged a long way behind.

Strikes help to build unions not just in numerical terms. They also stimulate working-class confidence. The strike wave of the late 1960s arose out of, and interacted with, the growing revolt against the stifling political conservatism of the 1950s. The rising anti-war movement was central to this. Consider the meeting of 300 union representatives in Melbourne in December 1969 calling on soldiers to mutiny rather than fight in Vietnam, or the efforts made by the left-wing unions to build the Moratoriums in Melbourne and Sydney in 1970 and 1971.

But it was not just the war that inspired workers to step outside the wages struggle. Unions refused to serve members of the touring South African Springboks in 1971. They lent material support to the struggle for Aboriginal land rights. Similarly, metal trades unionists, who were mainly male, fought for equal pay for women in the 1960s, years before politicians or arbitration judges took any notice of the issue. Such actions expressed the confidence that workers developed not just to struggle for their own immediate economic interests but to fight for justice for other oppressed groups.

Contrast this virtuous cycle to the past quarter century when workers and unions have been on the defensive (what I refer to in my book as the ‘ebb tide’). The beginning of the rot came precisely when the leaders of Australian unions came up with a cunning plan to strengthen trade unionism by foreswearing workers’ most potent weapon, the strike. This was the ALP-ACTU Accord arrangement of 1983-96, during which the strike rate fell by two-thirds and kept falling: an important element, as Jamieson points out, of my explanation for union decline.

During the Accord years, the leadership of the ACTU and of the other big unions went out of their way to quash strikes over wages and employment conditions. In the case of the Builders Labourers Federation (1986) and the Pilots Federation (1989), senior unionists even colluded with government and employers to smash unions which threatened the ‘no strikes’ policy. The idea underpinning the Accord was that partnership with the ALP government and employers could substitute for action on the job in terms of maintaining and improving working conditions, employment and the social wage. The outcome proved rather different: real wages, the social wage, and the position of the working class more generally, went backwards.

With the decline in strikes, the vitality of the union movement withered. Shopfloor organisation, built up laboriously over previous decades, either collapsed or was corrupted by the Accord process of selling off working conditions for a wage rise. Union density, already hit by the 1982 recession, fell precipitously.

With the election of Howard, union strategy did not change in its essentials. Cosy chats with government ministers were gone, but union leaders still insisted that they had to ‘keep their powder dry’ in the face of the most sustained decline in union coverage in Australian history. Even when staring down Chris Corrigan in the 1998 waterfront dispute, the leaders of the MUA and ACTU were desperate to ensure that the massive sympathy for the wharfies did not develop into large solidarity strikes. The dearest wish of the union leaders was ‘partnership’ with business. But with union membership plummeting, business could now sideline the union leaders, leaving them clutching at thin air.

We have now had twenty-five years of unions ‘boxing clever’ rather than boxing. The strike rate has fallen for the longest period in Australian history. In Trade Unionism in Australia, I argue that union revival will depend on the kind of struggle waged by the unions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In order for such a revival of struggle to occur, however, the union movement needs to be shaken up from top to bottom. A majority of the current generation of senior trade union leaders have come to power without having led any significant strikes. What’s more, they possess no great enthusiasm for strikes. This brings me to my second argument – that reviving the union movement will involve a direct challenge to the current generation of senior union leaders, their preferred strategies of partnership with employers and governments, and their preferred tactics of public relations campaigns, parliamentary lobbying and court challenges. I use the example of the ACTU’s Your Rights at Work campaign to demonstrate both workers’ willing resistance to the Liberals’ right-wing agenda, and the failure of the union leaders to direct this resistance to best effect. The ACTU pushed the campaign simply into an electoral solution – ‘Kevin07′ – and is living with the consequences today, since WorkChoices remains under Labor. There is no evidence that the current leaders have any appetite to revive the militancy required to breathe new life into the union movement.

A particular responsibility for the current dire state of unions rests on the shoulders of the left-wing officials of the 1980s. This is not an analysis that rests on a ‘sectarian’ agenda of members of Socialist Alternative but is shared by many trade union militants from that decade. The union leaders from the CPA (and its break-away groups) earned their stripes by leading important struggles in the 1960s. Union militants had no time for the leaders of the Australian Workers Union or the Shop Assistants; like Jamieson’s dad, they admired the Carmichaels, the Halfpennys and the O’Sheas. But it was their very stature that allowed the left-wing leaders to direct the militant sections of the working class into an impasse. With their determination to steer the struggle against the Kerr coup into an electoral dead-end, to promote wage indexation in 1975, to isolate the ten-week strike by Latrobe Valley power workers in 1977 and, most damagingly of all, to campaign for the nascent Accord strategy, the left-wing union leaders had, by the early 1980s, killed off the fighting spirit of the earlier years. These actions reflected their generally top-down and bureaucratic world view and their nationalist and reformist perspective, which downplayed or even bluntly opposed the notion that the working class should fight the class struggle with all its might.

How will the necessary union revival come about? The meltdown on Wall Street and the waves of sackings taking place as I write these words tell us that capitalism remains a chaotic and brutal system. The financial crash will most likely bring to an end the economic expansion of the past fifteen years. Even during this expansion, many workers benefited little. Now they are being asked to pay the cost of the financial crisis while the chief executives walk away with millions, which will only exacerbate the contempt in which most workers hold big business.

Further, Australian workers have, over the past two decades, demonstrated time and again their willingness to resist attacks on their conditions with mass demonstrations. Most are heartily opposed to the neoliberal credo that has been foisted on them by governments and business. And, though Labor may have been voted into office on the basis of its rhetoric about fairness and its claimed hostility to WorkChoices, it is tolerated rather than loved by the working class – and even this tolerance will be tested as economic conditions deteriorate.

The combination of relentless attacks on working-class conditions and workers’ growing political alienation from economic orthodoxy forms the soil from which union revival can emerge. It is impossible to predict what form a revival might take, but if the struggle is to go forward and not be quickly snuffed out, it will have to challenge and defeat much of what has been regarded as the conventional wisdom of Australian unionism for the past twenty-five years. I hope that my book might make some small contribution to this task.

Suzanne Jamieson is a senior lecturer in Work and Organisational Studies in the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Sydney.
Tom Bramble is a senior lecturer in Industrial Relations in the School of Business at the University of Queensland. He is a long-time union activist and member.

© Suzanne Jamieson and Tom Bramble
193-summer 2008, p. 60

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