Labor and the unions, down under
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A TUC delegation to Australia visited Canberra today (21 March) for meetings with a range of Ministers, several of them former officials of the TUC’s equivalent, the ACTU. Despite the political turmoil of the recent challenge to Prime Minister Julia Gillard (who will be seeing the TUC later on today), and the Labor Party’s current poll ratings, there is confidence that Labor can turn the situation around by the time of the next General Election in around eighteen month’s time.
One issue that ex-ACTU Ministers like Greg Combet, Simon Crean and Richard Marles were at pains to stress was the vital relationship with the trade union movement. Not so much the ’embarrassing elderly relative’ in Lord Monks’ trenchant expression, more a key way to ensure that Labor stays grounded in ordinary people’s lives, and can win back their support before the next election.
While we were in Canberra, Parliament passed a measure known as Safe Rates to ensure that long-distance truck drivers aren’t forced onto schedules that require them to pop pills to stay awake. It was warmly welcomed by the Transport Workers Union, who campaigned for the measure by developing an alliance of union members, independent hauliers being undercut by big companies and the families of road accident victims. And it was joined for a celebration of the new legislation by the Prime Minister, in an act of union solidarity that spoke volumes about the relationship. The Senate also voted the final death knell of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the last vestige of the previous National Liberal Government’s anti-union laws.
Measures like this, along with superannuation reform to improve lower paid workers’ pensions, and carbon pricing and mining profit taxes that will provide resources to fund life-changing education and training, are evidence of what a Labor Government influenced by a trade union movement can deliver. They are measures that unequivocally improve workers’ lives, and respond to workers’ concerns as raised in party platform debates, before being implemented by a Labor Party with many more former trade union officials than the UK Parliamentary Labour Party or Shadow Cabinet can muster.
One Minister admitted that Labor had lost its way after the Hawke Government years, and that “as soon as we drift from our values and our working class base, that’s when we hit trouble.” Another said that “the Labor Party is at our best when we own our union background.” Amen to all that!