tip off

Unions trade member interests for seats and influence

This morning’s Age front page “broken promises“ story reveals the real reason for the Victorian construction industry’s balaclava-clad hostility towards the Rudd government, but it does little to explain the broader labour movement’s continuing counter-productive closeness to its soul mates in the ALP.

Rudd’s apparent “change it all” moment alongside Dean Mighell in a Sydney hotel room and a subsequent “trust me” moment with some CFMEU heavies over his plans to obliterate the Australian Building and Construction Commission says a lot — not least of all about Mighell’s subsequent determination to subject the Fair Work bill to the prying eyes of the International Labor Organization.

The militants’ $500,000 downpayment on the death of the ABCC seemed like a sure bet. But in an echo of Peter Garrett’s Chairman’s Lounge comments, Rudd’s reverse ferret on the commission is less the result of an ALP broken promise and more a symptom of the broader labour movement’s softly-softly approach to dealing with the government.

This morning’s revelations should mean the honeymoon is well and truly over  — but the ACTU’s obsession with gently prodding the ALP in order to secure a “new law” is instead set to continue, as detailed in another Age interview with ACTU chief Jeff Lawrence over the weekend. Since the Your Rights at Work campaign delivered Rudd the keys to the Lodge, Lawrence has become obsessed with cosy internal forums like the Australian Labor Advisory Council at the expense of the rank-and-file activism sorely needed to address to what is about to become a nationwide unemployment crisis.

And in Victoria, the ALP-trade union marriage of convenience is about to have its vows officially renewed. Crikey understands that the CPSU’s Victorian region branch (not the state public servants  — they’re a separate entity) is in the final stages of a plan  to officially affiliate with the Victorian Branch of the party — the first such affiliation in years. Under ALP rules, the CPSU will write to the Administration Committee with the application to be referred to the next State Conference meeting on 13 June. The Conference will then take a vote with the result said to be a fait accompli.

Formal CPSU affiliation will influence the vote on the state conference floor, with the union set to snare around 10 delegates aligned to the left of the party. That, in turn, has the potential to shore-up the so-called left-right stability pact, further marginalising the excluded elements of the Victorian right, including the now-disgraced HSU secretary Jeff Jackson.

The move mirrors actions taken by the NSW, ACT and South Australian branches of the CPSU, with Queensland also considering a formal tie-up. However, the fiddling of internal rules that limited the union’s influence in the ACT won’t apply in Victoria. While seats on the ALP’s National Executive won’t be affected by the move, ALP insiders are said to be rejoicing in the prospect of a revitalised state conference with the surety provided by the expanding ranks of white collar workers.

But for the CPSU’s Victorian members the pay off may be slim. Lindsay Tanner’s halo has long since slipped in the half-shut eyes of sullen APS public servants shuffling gormlessly about Casselden Place, but you wouldn’t know it from the CPSU’s supine approach to sackings, layoffs and the notorious “efficiency dividend”. Of course, the union’s decision to throw its weight behind the ALP is set against the backdrop of national secretary Stephen Jones’ burning desire to take-over from Jennie George in Throsby.

Add the HSU scandal — less to with dodgy credit card statements and more with influence on the floor of state conference, AEU chief Mary Bluett’s decision to kiss John Brumby after concluding its disappointing wage negotiations and the CPSU state branch’s subsequent silence, after one day of initial complaints, over the state government’s 2.5% wage offer — and Victorian trade union activism outside the Mighell sphere is looking stodgy indeed.

Mighell, and his disaffiliated ETU, are quick to identify themselves as campaigning outsiders on Fair Work  — an authentic voice of the rank-and-file activism next to the patrician coziness of the movement’s more mainstream supplicants. These claims should be treated sceptically. But for the time being, and in light of the ALP’s construction watchdog treachery, Mighell’s mob may be the least-worst starting point for those concerned with rebuilding a serious challenge to the status-quo.

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