Beyond the bread and butter: Using history to reshape unions’ broader appeal

Daniel Hannington-Pinto is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne

For scholars and practitioners of trade unionism today, ‘revitalisation’ and ‘renewal’ are not so much buzzwords as guiding principles. 

It’s no secret that the movement’s density, power, and influence has dramatically diminished. But while fingers of blame can be pointed at many corners, seeking to proactively arrest the decline should be the highest priority.

One influential strategy of union revitalisation among observers in similarly-afflicted Northern countries has been the deeply democratic, outwardly-looking, and socially progressive model known as social-movement unionism (SMU).

First used to define grass-roots labour movements that challenged oppressive state power in the Global South – in countries like South Africa, Brazil, and the Philippines – the applicability of SMU’s principles to unions elsewhere was quickly promoted. Kim Moody, a US-based labour scholar, outlined SMU’s constitutive elements in his 1997 book Workers in a Lean World. To Moody, SMU was a unionism characterised by:

  • The pursuit not only of industrial issues, but those affecting society more broadly;
  • The development of alliances with external social movements and organisations;
  • Truly democratic internal structures, with strong rank-and-file agency and voice; and
  • Political independence.

Gay Siedman, another labour scholar, framed SMU as a model whose “constituencies spread far beyond the factory gate … [to include those] whose demands include broad social and economic change.”

Here in Australia, such principles might be key in recalibrating perceptions forged by conservative politicians and sections of the mainstream media. The way everyday Australians see unions is a vital element, and one not necessarily in the strongest health today.

The movement is, of course, right to remind Australians of its long history in winning industrial rights and entitlements. In most cases, though, such appeals fall on already-receptive ears. Where it could arguably go further is in emphasising more forcefully its role in some of the nation’s most iconic struggles around broader social and moral issues. Potential new supporters (and members) await, including those who, driven by such issues, gravitate politically to the Greens, simultaneously remaining oblivious to unions’ social and moral conscience.

In this context too, the Labor Left stands to gain new advocates: in many instances, it has been union members among the Left who have fought hardest in such campaigns. The campaign for East Timor’s independence stands as a prime example.

Following Indonesia’s 1975 annexation of the territory, unionists reacted angrily and swiftly. Continuing a proud tradition of international solidarity dating back to the Great London Dock Strike of 1889, wharfies and seamen imposed bans on the loading and shipping of twelve Nomad aircrafts destined for Jakarta. Factory workers involved in the manufacturing of the planes similarly downed tools, while meat exports to Indonesia from Victoria and Queensland were halted.

The Peace and Solidarity Committee (PSC), representing some forty Victorian unions, raised funds to send a relief ship laden with food and medical supplies to the famine-stricken East Timorese – a mission unfortunately thwarted by Jakarta’s ban on foreign humanitarian assistance (which the Fraser Government refused to challenge).

Despite the 1980s being a decade in which much of the union leadership was preoccupied with concerns of broader domestic economic security, rank-and-file members maintained the rage on East Timor.

Within the Labor Party itself, such members led an attempt – soon after Bob Hawke’s election victory in 1983 – to alter the course of ALP policy. Invoking the “integrity of party policy and the pledge by all party members … to be bound by these policies,” a motion put at a state conference by the Combined Unions and Branches Committee (today the Socialist Left) was defeated by 474 votes to 255. The defeated motion had argued that the Hawke Government’s stance on East Timor had directly contradicted policies agreed upon at conference the previous year.

Union officials from the Left, including Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary John Halfpenny, represented the mass of rank-and-file support for East Timorese self-determination. As the former Victorian state secretary of the AMWU, Halfpenny had led the PSC mission in 1976. In 1991, following the Santa Cruz massacre, he called for nationwide industrial action directed at Indonesian interests – clashing with the approach of more conservative leaders, such as the ACTU’s Martin Ferguson.

Throughout the ongoing campaign, unionists collaborated with organisations focussed on providing assistance to, or educating Australians about the plight of, the East Timorese. One such group, the East Timor Relief Association, succeeded in bringing Noam Chomsky to head a 1995 speaking tour, helping the issue gain even greater coverage.

Decades of union agitation on the moral issue of East Timor would culminate in the movement’s coordinating role in Australia’s response to the violent aftermath of the 1999 independence referendum – a period many readers may keenly recall. Following the referendum, unions such as the CFMEU and MUA made significant contributions not only to the rebuilding of independent Timor-Leste, but to the development of trade unions and the promulgation of workers’ rights in the new country.

As unions look to attract fresh blood, it is arguably stories such as these – and the SMU-inspired principles that sustained them – that need to be better highlighted.

To supporters of the labour movement, they are of course nothing new. But if the movement is to regenerate and build, taking pride in such historic achievements and sharing them among the broader community is vital. Young Australians, who increasingly cite social and moral causes as key factors in their political consciousness, should constitute a key target audience.

Alongside the ACTU’s timely ‘Change the Rules’ campaign, specifically targeted at bringing fairness back to Australia’s industrial relations laws, considered promotion of unions’ broader role in fighting for justice and equality could well contribute to a lethal combination.


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