Australasian Spartacist No. 220
Down With Laborite Chauvinism!
Unions Must Defend "Guest Workers"!
In February, about 20 unemployed workers threw up a picket around a sewerage treatment construction project in Werribee in Melbourne’s west. There was no strike at the plant. The picket protested the employment of four Filipino welders on “guest worker” 457 visas. Their banner demanded “Local unemployed tradespeople before visa (457) workers. Stop visa workers. Employ locals and give local unemployment a ‘fair go’.” This reactionary two-week action was not intended to secure more jobs or any gains for the working class as a whole. It was about redividing the existing pool of jobs according to the nationality of the workers.
The Werribee picket came in the context of an increasingly shrill campaign, spearheaded by the maritime (MUA), manufacturing (AMWU) and construction (CFMEU) unions, calling on the government to act against the use of “foreign” products on major projects and against the hiring of overseas workers “at the expense of Australian workers.” Prominent amongst the union tops’ targets are workers employed under the 457 visa program. Set up by the Howard government in 1996, initially 457 visas were mainly used by companies to temporarily employ overseas managerial and professional white collar workers. Now they cover over 100,000 workers a year, from nurses and chefs to construction workers and farm labourers. If these workers engage in trade-union activities, or dare complain about their conditions they can be fired and face deportation.
It is widely recognised amongst unionists that the 457 scheme allows the bosses to create a pool of more easily exploitable labour to use as a wedge to undermine the wages and conditions of all workers. Importantly, some unions, under pressure from their multiracial base and class-conscious members, have occasionally defended and organised 457 visa workers. In April the CFMEU came to the defence of Korean workers on 457 visas in Canberra who were protesting against the deeply exploitative practices of their employer. With union backing the workers won an agreement to be paid the wages they were owed. However the periodic defence of such workers in no way excuses the union officials for the relentless and vile xenophobia they continue to whip up around this question.
The CFMEU campaigns for “Australian workers” to have “a legally enforceable first right” to mining construction jobs (“It’s our work,” www.letsspreaditaround.com.au). Meanwhile, the Western Australian branch of the MUA, in recent enterprise agreement negotiations with offshore oil and gas companies, reportedly included a claim that employers sign a Federal Court deed prohibiting them from using foreign labour. Branch secretary Chris Cain declared, “It’s not about money. It’s about Australian jobs and training. We want local jobs on the docks and at sea” (Australian Financial Review, 1 March). Such chauvinism towards overseas workers is part and parcel of the protectionist and economic nationalist outlook of the union misleaders. Protectionism means protecting the profits of Australian bosses and lining workers up behind the capitalist rulers against “foreign” rivals and against workers overseas.
With the international capitalist system in its deepest economic trough since the 1930s Great Depression, bourgeois rulers around the world, including Australia, are shredding jobs and enforcing savage austerity measures and anti-union attacks to drive down wages and slash social services while scapegoating minorities. The pro-capitalist union tops’ campaign serves to undermine the unity of the working class and is counterposed to the class-struggle fight required to defend workers’ jobs and conditions. What’s needed is a concerted fight to organise overseas workers into the unions, winning them full union wages and conditions. It means opposing deportations and championing full citizenship rights for all who have made it here, including access to social services such as unemployment benefits, as well as healthcare and education.
In opposition to the chauvinism promoted by the union bureaucracy it is necessary to make clear that it is not overseas workers that cause unemployment but the bosses and their irrational capitalist system. A class-struggle leadership of the unions would fight layoffs through using the weapons of the class struggle, such as occupations and mass pickets, while demanding a shorter workweek at no loss in pay to spread the available work around. It would adopt special measures to recruit the most oppressed (including 457 visa workers), recognising that this would strengthen the organised working class as a whole. Bringing new layers of immigrant workers into the unions would crucially forge a living bridge to proletarian struggles overseas.
Such a perspective requires an unflinching political struggle against the sell-out union officials who propagate the nationalist lie that there can be a unity of interests between workers and the Australian capitalist rulers who get rich on the exploitation of workers’ labour power. We Marxists oppose all racist immigration laws, including the indentured servitude that “guest worker” schemes represent. Championing the cause of all the oppressed, we seek to build a multiracial proletarian party capable of mobilising the working class to overthrow this exploitative system through workers revolution.
Gillard Promotes Nationalist Union Campaign
Languishing in the polls, and trawling for support among backward, bigoted elements, Labor prime minister, Julia Gillard, has responded to the unions’ “Australia first” campaign by announcing in early March, during her visit to working-class western Sydney, that her government would “stop foreign workers being at the front of the queue” and put “Aussie workers first.” Her vile statement won the endorsement of fascistic ex-MP Pauline Hanson. Now, with the backing of the bourgeois Greens, the ALP government has introduced a bill into parliament requiring employers to provide evidence they have tried to recruit Australian citizens or residents before hiring overseas workers. While pushing such xenophobia is clearly an act of electoral desperation, in doing so the ALP is also being true to its origins. Maintaining a “White Australia” was historically central to the ALP’s program, and it was always justified by the premise of supposedly preserving the jobs and conditions of the ALP’s then white Australian working-class base.
As for the reactionary Opposition leader Tony Abbott, he has upheld the 457 visa program as a “valuable contribution.” This echoes a recent interview in Darwin with press baron Rupert Murdoch, who backed the scheme saying that he is “a big one for encouraging immigration.” This “encouragement” doesn’t extend to refugees. For years the Murdoch press has run a vicious campaign against boat arrivals, spearheaded by Abbott. As long as the capitalist rulers hold power they will use immigration policies to suit their purpose, which is first and foremost to maximise profit. Thus they embrace the 457 visa scheme because it provides a means to increase the rate of exploitation. At the same time, seeking to undermine potential for united working-class struggle, the bosses whip up racist divisions including by vilifying asylum seekers.
Since Gillard elevated the nationalist protectionist union campaign to the level of government policy, some reformists, who hang from the coattails of the “left” union bureaucrats, have now distanced themselves from their previous enthusiasm for this reactionary scapegoating campaign. Thus the Communist Party of Australia, which last year attacked Gillard for not doing enough to ensure “that local workers should be taken on first” (Guardian, 6 June 2012), recently advised the union tops: “We must take care that campaigns around visa and visa holders are based on sound class principles otherwise we risk leading workers on a potentially racist and jingoistic path.” They should know.
The Socialist Party, affiliates of the misnamed Committee for a Workers’ International, whose supporters in Britain treacherously helped lead reactionary strikes against overseas construction workers in early 2009, now have the chutzpah to counsel union officials here that “the trade unions for the most part have played a poor role and have both echoed and encouraged Gillard’s dog whistling campaign.” Then there is the Cliffite Socialist Alternative (SAlt). SAlt praised a Perth union rally last July that was dominated by Australia-first protectionism and economic nationalism, claiming “Perth workers rally for jobs, reject racism smear,” (www.sa.org.au, 3 July 2012). More recently, reporting on his time on the Werribee picket, SAlt cadre Jerome Small cynically laments the unions’ “mistaken” focus on “jobs for Australians.” This matey advice serves to alibi and cover for the nationalist, pro-capitalist union misleaders.
For its part, Socialist Alliance not only reported favourably on the Werribee picket but enthusiastically trumpeted comments from Filipino leftist Sonny Melencio that served to promote the chauvinist campaign against 457 visa workers. Outrageously, Melencio smeared the four Filipino welders at Werribee as scabs, declaring “We don’t want to be known in the world as scabbing for jobs of local workers” (Green Left Weekly, 18 February).
The union leaders’ appeals to defend “Australian jobs” against temporary overseas workers is an attempt to divert workers’ attention from the bureaucrats’ failure to defend jobs and conditions against the bosses’ attacks. Unions are the basic economic defence organisations of the proletariat against the bosses, but the role of the Laborite misleaders is to act as labour lieutenants for the capitalist class in the workers movement. Their betrayal of class struggle, and fawning reliance on the capitalist state, has seen them repeatedly sell out struggles in the bosses’ courts. Rather than taking up the fight against the destruction of workers’ livelihoods, the union tops are working overtime to get out the vote for the very Labor government that has proven itself to be the enemy of workers and the oppressed.
As we wrote in “No to Nationalist Poison—For Proletarian Internationalism!” (ASp No. 216, Winter 2012):
“A class-struggle opposition in the trade unions would seek to exacerbate the contradictions between the aspirations and objective interests of the working class and the policies and actions of their social-patriotic Laborite misleadership. The ALP is the key obstacle to revolutionary struggle in Australia. It is pro-capitalist in its program and leadership while based on the trade unions. In the course of class struggle, and intransigent political opposition to Laborite treachery, a new leadership will be forged within the trade unions, fighting to transform them into instruments of revolutionary class struggle, not of class collaboration. It is through such struggle that the ALP’s proletarian base will be won from the reformist leadership and a revolutionary Marxist party forged that can lead the proletariat in the overthrow of the capitalist order.”