The ACTU and Globalisation: Not Representative, Effective or Progressive

In 2001 the then Assistant Secretary of the ACTU released a statement on the position of Australia’s peak union body, the ACTU, regarding globalisation. That statement remains the ACTU’s position on the matter, for it remains on the ACTU website under the masthead of “globalisation and trade unions in Australia.”

It demonstrates the extent to which the Australian trade union movement has failed to understand and respond to globalisation. It also demonstrates that we need new modes of industrial and political action to counter corporate globalisation.

The ACTU statement begins by noting that the 1990’s was a decade in which globalisation was one of the leading topics of discussion and concern, and that upon the basis of the activities of the left. We forget now, a mere few days after the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, that from the Zapatista’s to the Battle in Seattle opposition to globalisation in the 90’s was led by the left.

We are told now that after Brexit the global elite institutions, such as the IMF and the WTO, will be more mindful of social concerns lest there be an uprising of the downtrodden. But consider what the ACTU statement, again written in 2001, stated;

The experience of the WTO in Seattle and to some extent the WEF in Melbourne have caused some re-thinking of how the WTO and other international institutions undertake their work. In effect they now understand that civil society wants a voice in their processes and that economic rationalism alone is not the answer which is acceptable to many people.

What we saw instead was an acceleration of globalisation, global austerity following the global financial crisis, wars of imperialist violence, attacks on Indigenous resistance movements, and a corporate led assault on climate justice.

The sense of deja vu is overwhelming.

The left argued, by contrast in the 1990s, that globalisation was hardly a process that followed on from technological change or the requirements of economic rationality, but was rather a self-conscious process of economic and political transformation pursued in the interests of multinational corporations. That process was not inevitable, contrary to the Thatcher principle of TINA (there is no alternative), but once set in train put forth an objective dynamic that gave processes of liberalisation an iron logic difficult to transcend in a condition characterised by capital mobility.

Globalisation lowered trend rates of economic growth, led to financial instability and financial crises, fosters a global convergence toward lower wages, attacked the welfare state, attacked environmental regulation, and increased inequality.

The ACTU statement, although in parts agreeable to this analysis, ultimately does not subscribe to it. Corporate globalisation is seen as a good thing but with unfortunate consequences. So it states;

There is no question about the wealth that trade liberalisation can create. The question is largely about the cost of wealth creation and about the equitable distribution of wealth.

Trend rates of economic growth were higher during the Keynesian era that preceded globalisation than prior to it. A position on globalisation that concedes this point away to the neoliberal ideologues and neoclassical economists is one that must remain framed within the confines of corporate globalisation.

For the labour movement this is a dead end, for globalisation *is* a form of class war directed against the labour movement.

To be sure the ACTU paper states that it opposes trade agreements that do not make provision for ILO labour standards and that come with Investor State Dispute Settlements provisions which enable multinational investors to bypass national regulations.

However, so long as the position of the labour movement does not take globalisation to be what it is, a form of class war in the interests of capital, it cannot oppose it root and branch through a counter class war in the interests of labour. Globalisation, with its emphasis upon capital mobility and international competitiveness, will always chip away at any attempts at regulation pursued within its confines.

This means both organised labour and the workers whose interests it represents will continue to lose out as corporate globalisation proceeds apace.

Consider the ACTU position;

we should recognise that globalisation in many of its manifestations is here to stay:

• technology will continue to change

• markets will continue to be liberalised and more open

• pressure for less regulation will continue

• there is however a question mark over smaller government and lower taxation due to community reaction to fewer and poorer services

• pressure for labour market deregulation will continue – how it affects workers will largely depend on our capacity to engage and defeat those promoting the trend and so defend and improve existing standards

The one sided class war is here to stay, and because it is here to stay there is no counter class war to be waged against it almost by definition. Because there is no class struggle to be mobilised against it, naturally, it will continue. This all on the basis of Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” principle.

The ACTU set itself five goals to achieve in the context of globalisation.

First, we must do the job in our own backyard. Unions must grow back to the levels of a decade ago. This represents our most fundamental challenge.

Second, we have to counter the effects of globalisation as they affect Australian workers. Trends towards casualisation, longer working hours, increased stress at work, individual agreements and outsourcing need to be countered by effective campaigns.

Third, we have to re-energise our policies on economic development to ensure that we maintain, on a competitive basis, strong manufacturing and service sectors.

Fourth, unions need to play an active role in their international federations with an objective of ensuring that they deliver practical outcomes and not become talk shops.

Fifth, unions in the public sector should become familiar with the WTO GATS issue and how it may affect public services such as health and education.

Judged on its own terms the ACTU has abjectly failed. It has failed dismally on all the first four points of substance. Consider “our most fundamental challenge.” The ACTU statement states that union density in 1990 was 41% of the work force. When the statement was written that rate was 25%. Now it is at 15%, with 11% coverage in the private sector.

Failure. Abject failure.

That failure has occurred because the ACTU does not substantively oppose corporate globalistion and nor has it allowed opposition to globalisation to be reflected through greater strike activities and more direct forms of political action.

The ACTU paper calls on unions in Australia to be representative, effective and progressive.

A trade union movement that is dominated by bureaucracy is not representative; a trade union movement that eschews strikes industrially and is reliant upon a neoliberal Labor Party politically is not effective; a trade union movement that fails to recognise that globalisation is a form of class war pursued by the rich is not progressive.

For the trade union movement to be representative requires grass roots models of unionism founded on participatory democracy. For the trade union movement to be effective requires a campaign to fully restore the right to strike, to use that hard fought right in struggle at the point of production in solidarity with global workers, and to wage mass political campaigns to make the Labor Party do what it otherwise wouldn’t in the absence of mobilised social movements. For the trade union movement to be progressive requires a rejection of corporate globalisation root and branch rather than a waving of the white flag to TINA.