A New Province for Law and Order

The Rise and Decline of the Trade Union Movement

Laurie Short

In 1953, 63 per cent of the Australian workforce was unionised, making it one of the highest percentages in the world. A steady decline set in and by 1982 the percentage had dropped to 55 percent. From then on the decline became acute. By 1990 the percentage had dropped to 41 per cent and this decline shows no sign of abating. Now it is about 40 percent of the workforce. By the end of this decade it could be down to 30 percent and early in the next century the percentage of unions in the workforce be as low as 20 percent, if the present rate of decline continues.

It was inevitable that unions would be organised in Australia by migrants from the British Isles where unions took root. However, unions had not reached any great strength by 1900. In 1901 Australian unions covered only 6.1 percent of the workforce. But the introduction of compulsory arbitration in 1904 gave unionism a big lift, because the Conciliation and Arbitration Act had as one of its chief objects, the encouragement of unions and employer organisations.

Unions were given extensive legal recognition. Conditions of employment were set by Arbitration Awards. By the way, talking about the percentage of unions in the workforce I noticed in the schedule that I have with me, that even in the depths of the Great Depression in the 1930s membership of unions in proportion to the workforce never dropped below 42 percent. So the percentage today is even lower than what it was in 1931, 1933 and 1934. The Arbitration Act provided for extensive rights for unions to send representatives into the employers' premises to examine wages books and power to sue employers for breaches of awards.

Whether or not the introduction of the compulsory arbitration system had a good or bad effect on Australia's subsequent economic and political development is arguable. There is no doubt, however, that it gave unionism enormous stimulus.

Unions played an important part in the formation and the development of the Australian Labor Party. It has often been elected to government, both federally and in the states, of Australia. The Labor Party link gave the unions the strength to pressure it to introduce pro-union legislation.

The early Australian unions reflected the cultural background of migrants from the British Isles. They often railed against employers and governments. Nonetheless, by modern standards of union rhetoric they were moderate. They were principally concerned with the wages and working conditions of members and they were not "strike happy". In fact between 1901 and the First World War was very harmonious, industrially speaking. These early unions campaigned for the election of Labor governments, high tariffs and a White Australia Policy. But they supported a multi-party democracy. For this they were attacked by the Stalinists, when they came on the scene, as "reformists" and "social fascists". The word "reformist" is a swear word in the Marxian lexicon because the Marxists, Leninists and Stalinists stood for revolution. They despised people who wanted to reform the capitalist system. So, when they hurled the charge of "reformism" or "reformist"---it was a very serious accusation. "Social fascist" was a favourite term of abuse of the Stalinists in the early 1930s. It was defined by them as "socialist in words but fascist in actions".

Up to the First World War, Australian unions were led by moderate Labor men. They campaigned for a reduced working week, fair wages and other reforms. Then came the 1917 Bolshevik revolution in Russia. A new and destructive element was introduced into Australian unions and politics.

In 1921 the ALP adopted the Socialisation Objective. This was a direct spin-off from the Russian Revolution. The Labor Party, unions and other sections of the Australian community developed illusions of a socialist paradise. During the attempts to form a national union centre in the 1920s, the objective of socialism was always high on the agenda. When the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) was eventually established in 1927, it adopted as its objective "the socialisation of industry". That too, was a spin off from the Russian Revolution.

The Communist Party of Australia was formed in 1920 with only a few hundred members and remained so until the end of the decade. In 1929 it had about 350 members. Most of them were active in unions, but did not exercise much power until the Great Depression of the 1930s. Nonetheless, they had some influence in unions, State Trades and Labor Councils and the ACTU after it was formed in 1927. In the wave of strikes at the end of the 1920s, the small Communist Party was active on the coal fields, the wharves and in the timber industry. The 1929 Wall Street crash and the subsequent world depression in the early 1930s, dealt Australian unions a heavy blow. Almost half the workforce was unemployed, or employed only part-time. Union activity dropped to a low ebb. In fact, the unions were almost impotent. In the early 1930s the unionists suffered wage cuts and attacks on the standards that had been built prior to the First World War and in the 1920s. With the lifting of the Depression, the Communist Party emerged as a thoroughly Stalinised organisation.

This new Stalinist Communist Party---which took over the Communist Party around 1930---constituted a formidable force inside Australian unions. Remember, it emerged from the depression with about four thousand members. They were disciplined, fanatical, and convinced that they were the "vanguard" of the human race; that history was with them; that they were the wave of the future. A force of that size in 1934-35 would be like 8,000 to 10,000 inside Australian unions today. Communist members were committed to be active in the unions.

It was a crime to be inactive. Inactive members were purged from the Communist Party. The Communist Party boasted that 90 per cent of its members were active in unions. The whole of the left was either in the Communist Party or supported it, unlike today where you have various groups, each claiming to be the communists, and acting sometimes in competition with one another. Throughout the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s the whole of the left was either in, or sympathetic to the Communist Party.

In 1920, the founder of Soviet Communism, Lenin, set down in his pamphlet Left Wing Communism, that communists must penetrate unions by all means. The Australian unions provided an apparatus, a machine from which the communists could operate. Lenin told communists that they must be prepared to---and I quote from Left Wing Communism "engage in any manoeuvre, any deceit, any illegality". The Communist attitude to Australian unions, and unions throughout the world was that they should be turned into revolutionary instruments. Communists used to scorn activists who thought that unions were only in existence to help the members of the union gain better working conditions, and higher wages and other economic reforms. The Australian Stalinist Communist Party took Lenin's advice to heart and Lenin's Left Wing Communism pamphlet, became their bible.

At the end of the Second World War, the Communists had a majority of delegates at the ACTU Congress. They were in charge of most unions and their influence was felt in every union, to one degree or another. This power allowed them to exert considerable influence on the Labor Party and Australia generally. Even though union delegates to ALP conferences have to have members of the Labor Party, they usually vote in accordance with their union policy. And the policies of communist-controlled unions were dictated by Soviet policy. These policies demanded that the Western democracies be weakened so they could not effectively combat Soviet power.

Translated into Australian union terms this called for industrial disruption, the fanning of class hatreds and pressure on public opinion and governments to accept Soviet attitudes.

Through their union strength, the communists prevented Australia realising its economic potential. The Federated Ironworkers' Association (FIA) in the 1930s and 1940s provides a classic story of Stalinist exploitation of union power and internal union repression. True enough, the Stalinists could not operate exactly as they did in countries where they had State power. They couldn't liquidate opponents physically, although in non-communist Mexico they assassinated Leon Trotsky. But they went as far as they could, given the constraints of Australian democracy.

They could smear the character of an opponent, assault him physically, rig ballots against him, defame him, and expel him from his union. I know all about this as I was a victim of all these measures. These are not just wild allegations. I was able to prove it all in open court with the assistance of a brilliant young barrister named John Kerr, later to become the much maligned Sir John Kerr. The communists dominated the FIA so completely that its Stalinist national secretary, Thornton, boasted in print---not in a throw-away, indiscreet emotional speech, but in a written article in a communist magazine Communist Review in 1948---and I quote:

"the policy of the FIA decided in consultation with the leaders of the Communist Party."

In other words, the members of the union did not decide the policy of the FIA, it was decided in secret consultation with the leaders of the Communist Party. The consultations must have been secret because there is no record of them. I have been through records of the Ironworkers' Union. And no reports were ever given of them at Ironworkers' Union meetings.

More and more Australians are refusing to join unions. One of the reasons for this is the feeling that unions are no longer required.

Also, the tradition of being a unionist is fading; fewer fathers now say to their sons and daughters, "You must join the union when you go to work." This is the most noted in people who have come to Australia from countries where unions are weak or non-existent. And those migrants from communist countries had such bitter experiences of unions in their homelands, where unions operated as an arm of the state, that they didn't tell their sons daughters to join unions. And many of them refused to join Australian unions.

Another important reason for the decline in union membership in recent years is that unions such as the Builders Labourers' Federation, with their strikes, stormy picket lines and wild demonstrations, have antagonised many people who see this as thuggery. As well, the frequent strikes which hit essential services such as transport, electricity, petrol and food supplies anger most people, including unionists and potential unionists.

The misuse of union power, as well as the fading of traditional loyalty to unionism, are mostly responsible for the reduction of the number of unionists in recent years. There are other reasons---such as the growth of part-time work and the decline of the manufacturing industry.

There is a growing feeling in the community, that some unions are not interested in a strong economy or a democratic society. As well, unions are often seen as instruments of political and personal power for people such as Norm Gallagher and John Halfpenny.

Many union leaders believe that fewer and bigger unions would arrest the decline in union membership. Of course there are unions that should amalgamate, for instance the Australasian Society of Engineers, known as the ASE and the FIA. That is an amalgamation which is worthwhile. But, union amalgamations are not the answer to the problems of Australian unionism.

Even if it is possible to reduce Australia's 330 unions down to 20 in the near future, as has been proposed by the ACTU, it would not arrest the decline in union membership. Big or small unions with bad policies have no future. Japan has thousands of unions around single enterprises. And the Japanese union movement is effective. Germany, on the other hand, has only 19. Some of these unions have more than a million members, like IG Metal. The 19 big unions in Germany are effective and the thousands of Japanese unions are effective because of their policies, not because of their size.

The unions, big or small, that will survive into the 21st century will be those that reject the doctrine of the class struggle. These will be unions that see the need for cooperation with employers, governments and the general public. Unions must have public approval as well as that of their direct membership.

The Accord between the ACTU and the Federal Labor Government in the fixation of wages led many to believe that wages are cut and dried and fixed somewhere else. The Accord though there could be some argument about its beneficial effects particularly in its early years, has outlived its usefulness. The push now occurring for enterprise agreements and for more involvement of the rank and file at the enterprise level, is good for the country and good for unions.

Above all, unions of the future will not attract members if they are tied to a totalitarian foreign power, like the former Soviet Union.

Why HR Nicholls?

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