Review: The Baiada poultry workers’ strike

Allyson Hose from Socialist Alternative has written a new pamphlet called ‘The Baiada poultry workers’ strike – How class struggle unionism can win’. It is an attempt to give an overview of the Baiada strike which took place in the western suburbs of Melbourne in late 2011.

The introduction of the pamphlet claims that its goal is to highlight “important lessons that workers, rank and file unionists, socialists and activists need to learn from the Baiada workers’ victory in order to build back strong, combative unions that can challenge the priorities of Australian capitalism and win.”

Unfortunately this pamphlet falls well short of its stated aim. From the title you would hope that the work was a critique of the industrial strategy put in place by the leaders of the National Union of Workers (NUW). Instead it paints the union leaders as mere bystanders, which in the final analysis, covers over the conservative role that they played and continue to play in relation to this dispute.

As far as giving an insight into some of the basics of the dispute this pamphlet gives a satisfactory background. Hose outlines the massive amounts of wealth accumulated by the owners of Baiada, contrasted with the poverty wages paid to the workers. The horrific health and safety conditions which these workers endure are also detailed.

She highlights the exploitative role played by management and the fact that the company has been responsible for the deaths of two workers. As ‘punishment’ the company received little more than a slap on the wrist from the courts. The strike was both in response to the conditions the workers faced and a result of a year long NUW recruitment campaign.

There is no doubt that the workers themselves were highly courageous and showed extraordinary determination. The Vietnamese women along with other migrant workers were among the most militant sections of the workforce. To leave it at this however tells only one side of the story.

No dispute can be correctly understood without an analysis of the class forces involved, the role of the rank and file workers and the role of the trade union bureaucracy. In Australia today the union bureaucracy is a privileged stratum which is tied closely to the ALP.

The NUW leadership were actively overseeing every stage of this dispute. Many important decisions were made by NUW officials, without properly consulting with the members or even the delegates! Hose chooses to ignore this fact.

The NUW are in fact a right-wing union aligned with some of the most corrupt elements in the ALP. As a result of their politics they went into this dispute without a discernable industrial strategy. This served to unnecessarily prolong the strike.

The weakness of their approach became apparent on the first day of the dispute when a senior NUW official present manoeuvred to allow 15 trucks to break the picket line.

It seems Hose totally misunderstood these events. She suggests that the workers mistakenly made the decision to let the 15 trucks out. After realising their ‘mistake’ they apparently subsequently implemented a “no-one in, no-one out” policy. The real story of what transpired is markedly different.

From the beginning of the picket the workers were blocking the gates and chanting “nothing in, nothing out”. The decision to let the 15 trucks out was undemocratically pushed through by the NUW official to the utter dismay of the bulk of the workers.

At the sight of the trucks leaving, and their efforts being turned to dust, some workers began crying while a number of others left the picket in disgust. Many refused to return stating that it was pointless to stand around on a ‘picket’ that was purely symbolic. Many of these workers never came back to the picket again.

This was a key turning point in the dispute and one that sparked discussion about the industrial strategy. Many of those workers who did stay on the picket berated the NUW official and forced the return of the ‘nothing in, nothing out’ tactic.

Socialist Party members played an important role at this time of the dispute. While accepting that this was a set back, the task was to try to limit the damage. We explained the weaknesses of the NUW leaders’ approach and strove to convince the workers that they would have to fight for a strategy that was capable of winning.

Far from highlighting the role played by the union bureaucrats, Hose actually sows illusions in them. In the entire pamphlet the only real comment she makes about them is that “they had played an important role in supporting and consolidating the picket…”

While Hose states at one point that the dispute “showed up the inherent weaknesses in the strategy of class collaboration and holding back industrial action…” Elsewhere she seems impressed that a community BBQ was attended by the right-wing “ACTU president Ged Kearney, who spoke form the platform, along with several other prominent union officials.”

From reading this pamphlet it seems that Hose has reduced ‘class struggle unionism’ to the ‘community unionism’ model recently championed by the NUW leaders and a number of other conservative union leaderships.

The NUW’s recent adoption of the tactic of ‘community pickets’ resulted from the 2010-11 dispute at the Swift abattoir in Brooklyn, in Melbourne’s western suburbs. After numerous weeks on strike sitting out the front of the factory watching trucks and scabs enter and leave as they pleased, the workers had become extremely demoralised. The NUW leaders’ strategy of negotiating with management whilst production was moving along unabated was a clear failure.

A number of the workers wanted to take more direct action, but were held back by NUW officials. After discussing with the workers, Socialist Party members initiated a picket at the front entrance. Not long after, trucks were backed up as far as the eye could see.

The unbridled enthusiasm shown by the workers when they saw production being halted for the first time in the long, drawn out dispute was electric. Our plan was to demonstrate how quickly management reacts when you attack them where it hurts – at the point of production.

The NUW leaders opportunistically seized on the newly developed mood and invited other ‘community members’ to staff the picket while they continued negotiations with management. While a ‘community picket’ was set up, and production was impacted, the union leaders, and not rank and file members, maintained control.

Real class struggle unionism is based on rank and file control, not bureaucratic manoeuvring. Genuine militancy flows from a world view that is anti-capitalist. It is one thing to point out the advantages of blockades and pickets but this in and of itself does not equate to a return of class struggle unionism.

As we explained in a letter to ex-Socialist Alternative member, and then NUW official Sam Salvidge, at the time of the Baiada dispute “Unfortunately many seem to think that the defensive strategy of ‘community unionism’ is the best that can be done and the main tactic we should base ourselves on.

“For the pro-ALP union leaders ‘community unionism’ means not bothering to mobilise union members to staff pickets, instead just relying on the ‘community’ (usually made up primarily of the hard Left). They think it is their role to decide how and when “solidarity and unity” is conducted. They refuse to challenge their own anti-worker laws in any meaningful way and politics is only to be discussed within the confines of the ALP. Anyone who dares talk politics or outline an alternative strategy is labelled ‘divisive’.

“If and when the pro-ALP union leaders decide that ‘community unionism’ is hampering their work in the ALP they will shut it down, just as they did with Union Solidarity a few years back.”

Rather than obscuring these points socialists should be highlighting them in order to help strengthen the Left within the movement. Ignoring them is nothing but a gift to the pro-ALP forces and helps those ideas remain dominant.

Hose mentions that a feature of this dispute was the return of “no-one in, no-one out” picketing. On a number of occasions she states that it is something that has not happened for “many years”. In reality, there have been a number of disputes of this character in recent years. Visy, Boeing and the Westgate Bridge dispute are but a few examples. Such naïve comments reflect the inexperience of Socialist Alternative and the fact that they have spent their time bunkered down on campus, ignoring industrial struggle.

Nevertheless while the ‘nothing in, nothing out’ policy was a positive aspect of this dispute, taken up with enthusiasm by the most militant sections of the workforce, it was not comprehensive. From the early stages of the strike it became apparent that the company had set up production at other sites in order to undermine the impact of the picket. While the NUW leaders were happy to block the gates of the main factory in which production had halted, they were reluctant to expand the picketing to the alternative sites where production and distribution was taking place.

In fact on at least four occasions they called off planned ‘community pickets’ of the other sites. These actions were supported by the most active workers, though did not eventuate due to the refusal of the NUW officials to support them. Again Hose makes no comment about this manoeuvring. Had the picketing been extended to where production was actually taking place it would have put the negotiators in a much stronger position and led to a better deal.

The outcome of any dispute should not only be judged by the nominal pay rise achieved. Serious activists need to look at whether or not the union has been strengthened or weakened as a result of the battle. Again Hose totally ignores this side of the dispute.

When the strike was called off, the NUW leaders told the workers that an agreement had been reached with management (4% per year for 2 years). The truth came out later that only an ‘in-principle’ agreement was in place. The final deal was actually signed well after the strike ended, lessening the bargaining power of the union.

While the final agreement did win some improvements on the rights of casuals to be made permanent, it did not seek to seriously protect the jobs of those who were involved in the picket. This was a major omission and one that was not openly discussed with the workers.

Not surprisingly, after the strike ended management made a whole number of union activists redundant and cut the shifts of a layer of casuals involved in the strike. While the workers won the dispute on the picket line the union leaders ended up handing it back at the negotiating table.

Given that the final agreement has led to the dismissal of most of the activists on site this dispute can hardly be uncritically held up as a positive example. Rather activists need to learn the lessons in order to make sure that these mistakes are not repeated.

While the employer was forced to sign a union agreement, management has since removed the union framework within the shop. This has weakened the workers ability to keep a day to day regime in place. Winning improvements to wages and working conditions through a collective agreement is just the beginning. Unless workers are organised on the shop floor, these improvements will inevitably be wound back or never implemented in the first place.

One worker told the Socialist Party recently that “the involvement of the union did mean that employees received more money when they were made redundant but what now given that lots of them are unemployed?”

“I’m not sure whether the NUW should claim that the outcome of the strike was a victory when they failed to prevent workers from losing their jobs” she said.

In a few sentences this worker sums up the post dispute mood and the disappointment many of the workers feel about the role the union leaders played. The union organisation within the factory has been severely diminished because of this and it is dishonest of Hose to ignore this reality.

The ongoing situation has demoralised the bulk of the members who are still employed at Baiada and will mean that a lot more work will need to be done before these workers are prepared to struggle at the same intensity again.

All this, as the Socialist Party explained at the time, could have been avoided if a proper industrial strategy was in place from the beginning. This outcome was not inevitable, especially given the bravery of the workers involved. Hose chooses to omit these aspects of the dispute preferring to portray it as a fairytale whereby the workers lived happily ever after.

While we would all prefer a ‘happily-ever-after’ story, unfortunately this bears no resemblance to reality. Socialists need to proceed from a proper assessment of what has taken place. As the German workers leader Ferdinand Lassalle once said “Every great action begins with a statement of what is.”

If our movement is to be strengthened socialists need to ensure first that a genuine analysis has taken place and the correct lessons are drawn at every stage of the struggle. While we need to praise every victory we also need give an honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of every dispute. Hose fails to do this in any way, shape or form.

At the time of this strike the Socialist Party was involved in a number of debates and discussions about the dispute. Much of this material is publicly available yet none of the key issues debated are even touched on by Hose. It is as if she was removed from the dynamics of the strike and the discussions that were taking place on the ground.

Hose talks about the role of socialists but rather than emphasising the need to advance an alternative political and industrial strategy she merely talks about the staffing of pickets, the organising of BBQs and fundraising. The leaders of right-wing unions are more than happy for socialists to carry out these tasks. What they don’t want socialists doing however is offering workers an alternative to the class collaborationist strategy they employ!

A perfect example during the Baiada dispute was when the NUW leaders attempted to get the workers to sign a form to dip into their superannuation funds to cover their wages while they were on strike. They attempted to do this without properly explaining what the paperwork was!

Socialist Party members discussed with the workers while this was happening and suggested that rather than using their retirement money, the NUW should wage a serious fundraising campaign amongst its 90,000 members and amongst other unions. There was potential to raise tens of thousands of dollars if the union had a genuine outward looking approach. Such an approach would have not only raised more money for the workers but it would have helped spread support for the strike and educated a wider layer of workers.

When Socialist Party members suggested this and one of the workers tried to ask a question to the NUW official about other approaches to raising funds, the official undemocratically shut down the discussion. They then attempted to single people out asking them one-on-one to sign paperwork which allowed them to withdraw from their superannuation account.

In response Socialist Party members conducted meetings with the workers – including in Vietnamese – explaining the nature of the forms and urging them not to sign them. It was proposed that they should campaign for a more serious attempt to develop solidarity amongst other workers in the NUW and beyond. If the union leaders refused to organise speaking tours and levies at other shops, the workers should have began the process themselves.

The workers then confronted the union leaders and told them they would not be signing the forms. One suggested that they “stop paying the ALP and use that money to support the strike”. This put pressure on the NUW leaders to back off on the idea of dipping into people’s superannuation accounts and to look for the money elsewhere. On top of staffing pickets and basic solidarity, this is an example of how socialists should operate in order to help workers adopt a strategy to win.

This type of intervention stands in stark contrast to the approach outlined in Hose’s pamphlet. Hose’s pamphlet is really an example of how to operate as a passive observer in the trade union movement. Far from outlining a socialist approach to union work, this pamphlet attempts to tell a feel-good story by ignoring the actual events.

In order to attract the best union militants to a critical analysis of class collaborationist strategies, a much more sophisticated approach is required. Genuine militants will be highly unlikely to join a group that publishes material that does not correspond with their reality.

Rather than acting as uncritical servants of the pro-ALP union bureaucracy, socialists need to highlight the contradictions that exist between the class collaborationist bureaucracy and the members themselves. We need to expose these contradictions and intervene in the struggle with the aim of developing a conscious and active rank and file.

We should be striving to organise this conscious layer into a militant current that can begin to offer a political and industrial alternative to the ALP. This is the approach the Socialist Party has been arguing for and implementing, on a modest scale, for many years. Part and parcel of this approach is opposing rotten compromises from the pro-ALP union bureaucracy and highlighting the real dynamics of every dispute.

This pamphlet not only gives a naïve one sided history of events but it fails to go anywhere near addressing the real issues facing the labour movement. If activists are really trying to understand ‘how class struggle unionism can win’ they will not learn it from this pamphlet.

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