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ACTU’s rebranding strategy undermined from within

The ACTU’s “growth and campaign” revitalisation plan, the bare bones of which were leaked by dissident unions to the AFR on Monday, could end in tears if forces hostile to Jeff Lawrence’s reform agenda continue to hold sway in key unions across the state.

The fresh strategy, signed off yesterday and set to be ratified at the ACTU’s national congress in June, is a ballsy attempt by Lawrence-aligned forces to recapture the momentum once driven by Your Rights at Work.

Its centrepiece, according to the Fin, are new campaigns around job security, in addition to a buy-local push and superannuation reform.

The source of the leak remains a mystery, but labour movement insiders point to several unions at odds with the ACTU push, including the cash strapped Victorian AMWU, which offers only nominal ACTU support, preferring to contribute to ACTU campaigns at the discount affiliation rate of $2.69.

Monday’s leak is emblematic of the huge task confronting Lawrence. The tensions that produced it may, if left unchecked, cruel momentum still lingering from Your Rights at Work — the most successful labour movement mobilisation in years.

Unions like the AMWU, containing directly-elected strongmen overseeing personal fiefdoms, have a history of hostility to the ACTU’s agenda. These tensions were papered over during the Greg Combet-prosecuted Your Rights at Work push to oust John Howard. But if the AFR story is any indication, the temporary ceasefire could yet unravel, with the struggle between ACTU pointy-heads and front-line militants again taking centre stage.

In fact YRAW could turn out to be the exception that proves the rule in a 20-year story of in-fighting over the best way forward for the labour movement.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the ACTU, cognisant of unrelenting membership falls, began to lean on individual unions to change tactics if they wanted to avoid a slide into irrelevancy. In unions@work, the importance of internal democracy was emphasised while AMWU-style militancy was downplayed.

But in reality, it is individual unions, not the ACTU, that control the organising agenda. The ACTU can encourage compliance through new strategies but it’s up to officials to prosecute that agenda on the ground. Reformers complain about directly elected kingmakers consumed by confrontation. But sometimes, raw industrial muscle can bare fruit as recalcitrant employers are forced to the bargaining table.

The crack up spans traditional factional divisions — an ostensibly “right” union like the National Union of Workers is now as concerned with organising tactics in new workplaces as it is with defending its traditional turf.

But there’s little argument in union circles, that without new tactics, the labour movement risks resuming its slide into irrelevancy. Despite recent ABS data indicating a small jump in membership, the GFC is poised to unleash an assault from which there may be no return.

Even ACTU President Sharan Burrow is sanguine. Ten years ago, the news of the membership jump would have been a cause for celebration. But buried in the latest statistics was the all-too-familiar tale of stagnant density reflecting very limited victories in new workplaces. Some unions have acted to stop the rot by importing new tactics pioneered by the Service Employee International Union in America. There, membership has been successfully rebuilt by grassroots mobilisations.

But locally, that approach, first proposed by the ACTU 10 years ago, is under mounting pressure as membership rates fail to respond.

According to the ACTU, the bottom-up approach has now been bolstered by a decision to also organise along industry lines. Expect the ACTU to ask unions to work together, especially those with supply chain synergies like the NUW and the Transport Workers Union. State branches may come under pressure to delegate their responsibility to their federal counterparts, the beginnings of which were seen in the NUW’s recent push to amalgamate some state branches.

Then there’s the ACTU’s apparent attempt, reported in the Fin, to bolster its ”brand” following the success of the anti-WorkChoices campaign. That could trigger a short-term turnaround in public perceptions but there are fears that this may come at the expense of broader organising efforts. Your Rights at Work worked, above all, because of its direct emotional connection.

But it remains to be seen whether the magic of the anti-Howard era can be recaptured, and if so, whether that will translate into membership gains on the ground.

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