So, they did it. On election night a year ago orange-shirted ACTU activists were skoling pints with their red-shirted ALP brethren, including a still-faithful Bill Shorten, at Melbourne’s Imperial Hotel. They’d given their all for Kevin — street rallies featuring Bomber, marginal seat harassment and even a bizarre Sky TV linkup that saw protests beamed into pubs for those too lazy to get their feet on the street. For one night only, the left’s professional activists were one, toasting both Kevin07 and Tracey, the ACTU taliswoman for casual-roster angst.

But when the mob dispersed it was payback time – the unions, headed by quiet achiever Jeff Lawrence, went to work behind the scenes, hoping their bruvvas in government could wind back the workplace angst of the Howard years. The unions’ eagerness to institute a ‘new law’ in Canberra knew no bounds. Badgering elected representatives became the overriding obsession of a dwindling labour elite eager to hitch their wagon to something, anything, after years of relevancy deprivation syndrome.

Today’s debates on whether this particular version of Australia’s IR laws is WorkChoices-lite (the ETU) or a return to the “Keating-era” of alleged union dominance (the Mines and Metals lobby) misses the point that for most Australians, trade unions in their current form are a cultural and industrial anachronism. Despite the ACTU’s fly-on-the-wall ad magic, unions have never quite shaken the sense it will take more than revamped legislation to revive the fortunes of a moribund movement. Private sector membership is 13.7% and has been in freefall since the 1960s.

The Australian labour movement has forgotten its origins as a living, breathing social movement. Where once trade unions agitated for social transformation; namely by opposing the existing capitalist order in the name of more egalitarian forms of modernisation (‘socialism’), the post-war era has seen these demands morph into a narrow struggle for wages and conditions arbitrated by the political system. In Australia this trend was amplified — unions aimed to capture a greater share of national wealth by working through the institutional structures of the ALP. The Hawke Government Accord was the beginning of the end for the social movement model — the ACTU eschewed strikes and militancy in exchange for a ‘seat at the table’ of government and pork doled out at budget time.

Under Howard, with the ‘IR Club’ effectively crushed, unions were forced to confront their impotence as their institutional power was stripped away. Lawrence’s LHMU, famously described by Bill Kelty as a “militant beast of a commission” was particularly hard hit. Instead of relying on a professional cadre of labour activists, Lawrence realised that to maintain relevancy they’d be better off importing US tactics aimed at energising the base. In early 1999, an ACTU junket even produced a mostly-ignored detailed action plan, [email protected], that aimed to lay the foundations for a new era of labour revitalisation. The focus was on new organising and taking the difficult, painful steps steps necessary for reinvention and rebirth. But yesterday’s Fair Work bill, while bound to make some organisers’ lives easier, does little to revive shifts towards a modern, culturally-relevant social movement that the Howard Government interrupted.

More militant unions will continue to fight for a ‘better law’ – Dean Mighell and Brian Boyd have signaled their intentions to again ratchet up the pressure come 2010. And unions would argue that organising and a better law go hand in hand. But until the ACTU’s senior ranks, headed by original reformer Lawrence, gets back to basics, the Heather Ridouts of the world will continue to kick back, safe in the knowledge that yesterday’s bill will make almost zero difference in the real political economy.

Andrew Crook is a Crikey journalist whose thesis dealt with the contemporary politics of the labour movement.

Peter Fray

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