From Solidarity 3/12, 12 September 2002
The most militant trade unions in Australia are under fierce attack from Australia's conservative government - and from the top trade union leaders, including supposedly left-wing ones.
When elected in 1996, the Liberal/Conservative government was quite open about wanting to break the power of the unions. So far, on the whole, despite trying hard, it has failed.
Its latest moves are a "Royal Commission" on the building industry - a device to get the construction, mining, and forestry union, CFMEU, de-registered (deprived of legal recognition) - and a drive against the militant Victorian branch of the manufacturing workers' union AMWU.
The branch is a central part of a cluster of militant Melbourne-based unions - CFMEU, electricians, textiles and footwear - which consciously promote active solidarity with each others' disputes and picket lines. These unions are also politically left-wing on issues like refugee rights, women's rights, and the environment, and the textile and footwear union is bravely internationalist and anti-protectionist.
Seventeen organisers and members of the Victorian AMWU have been put on charges arising from an industrial dispute last year at Johnson Tiles in Melbourne. It is claimed that they smashed up computers at Skilled Engineering, a labour-hire firm that was supplying scab labour during the dispute.
Doug Cameron, national secretary of the AMWU and supposedly a left-winger, has also been attacking the Victorian AMWU leadership. Probably Cameron's (short-sighted) thought is that lopping off his "ultra-militants" in Victoria is the best way to defend himself against the government moves against the whole AMWU (on grounds of the disruptive effects of its disputes in the car components industry) which the big-business press is publicly predicting.
Cameron has sacked AMWU Victorian branch secretary Craig Johnstone and put in an official from Sydney to run the branch; changed AMWU rules to centralise power in his hands; threatened legal action against newspapers and radio stations which have reported his moves; banned the wearing of t-shirts with the logo of Workers First (the militant faction which leads the Victorian AMWU); and sacked the secretary of the AMWU's Printing Division.
An AMWU employee was pressured by the Cameron faction (so she declared in a later formal affidavit) into bringing charges of sexual assault against Craig Johnstone.
The AMWU Victorian branch's organisation is such that they could get 5000 workers to strike and protest on the streets in Melbourne within one day of Cameron sacking Johnstone. They have been running a picket of the Melbourne AMWU office, forcing the appointed national official to work from the local ACTU (Australian TUC) office instead.
On 2 September the police announced that Johnstone had "no case to answer" on the sexual assault charge. The same day, Johnstone resigned as state secretary and the AMWU state council elected Steve Dargavel to replace him. Dargavel represents the same sort of combative industrial policy as Johnstone, but Cameron has had to recognise him.
Cameron's faction in the AMWU represents the Stalinist-turned-social-democrat tradition of previous AMWU leader Laurie Carmichael, who was also in his day the president of the Communist Party of Australia. Workers First represents the continuation of the militant class-struggle "subtext" in the old CP/ left Labor tradition which used to be strong in Australia's trade unions.