Report of the ‘Get Wise, Organise!’ Queensland branch biennial conference
The threat of massive job losses from automation on the wharves is a worldwide concern addressed at the Queensland MUA international conference.
Professor Raquel Varela from Portugal explained that the decision by owners to introduce robots is both political and economic, and can be contested and beaten. There is not one single fully automated port in the world, robots have not yet achieved the same rate of unloading as worker operated machinery, and they are a very expensive investment that often relies on public subsidies. Her solutions to the threat of loss of jobs to robots include shorter working time hours without reducing salaries, and putting technology under the control of workers, not the dictatorship of the port owner. She challenged casualisation and company power to demand profits, saying “we don’t have kids and houses for 3 months of the year, so why should we only work 3 months of the year? If we have no salary we have no way to live. If the bosses do not have the same profits all the time, this will not question their life, their dignity. The right to have a profit is not the same as the right to have a salary.” Jason Miners, Deputy Branch Secretary, declared Raquel Varela’s presentation to be “the best injection of class politics into a conference that I have ever heard.”
Queensland MUA delegates learned about the vast differences around the world in freedom to organise, working conditions and threats to livelihoods when they heard in person from International Dockworkers Council branch delegates from Belgium, Spain, Argentina, France, USA, and from the Hong Kong Dockers Union, the Confederation of Congress of Indonesian Alliance of Unions (KASBI) and the International Transport Federation.
Members were gob smacked when a Hong Kong dock worker described 24 hour shifts for Hutchison on cranes with a piss pot on board. In both Hong Kong and Argentina, trade unionists have “disappeared”. Terribly low pay in Indonesia and Hong Kong was shocking. The IDC delegate from Le Havre in France was applauded when he said that workers at his port will not allow full automation. The potential for international solidarity was made clear, and commitment to that solidarity visibly grew over the two-day conference.
Danger of serious injury and death at work was another common theme across the world discussed, with reports of recent serious incidents and a national report on what can be achieved through safety committees.
“It’ll be grim under Tim” Nicholls if Labor loses the Queensland election. Peter Ong of the ETU, Ros McLennan of the QCU, David Greene of the MUA and the Qld MUA-backed candidate for the seat of Everton, and Labor Minister Mark Bailey all made the case for a Labor vote. Peter Ong recounted how the ETU had fought both Bligh Labor and Newman LNP governments to stop electricity privatisation, and ended up in hot debate about the value of affiliation to the ALP. ETU members decided to remain affiliates in order to get commitments to ETU policies and pro-union election candidates, as well as continuing public campaigns regardless of Labor election prospects.
Professor David Peetz from Griffith University provided some figures and research on declining union density that suggested the best antidote to declining membership that unions could use right now is to make sure that delegates are part of democratic union decision-making, and effective activists in every workplace. Christy Cain from Western Australia reported some success in forming a young workers’ group within the MUA, and the NSW Branch is also trying this out.
Ged Kearney brought solidarity greetings from Australian Unions, and spoke about the new ‘Change the Rules’ campaign, asking everyone to complete the online survey for it. A major component of Change the Rules is to restore legal rights for unions to organise and strike. Dave Noonan from the CFMEU and barrister Peter Morrissey SC also highlighted the problems of criminalising industrial action and why unions should resist the law and order agenda in electoral politics.
Solidarity collections to support workers locked out for over 132 days at North Oaky by Glencore raised over $2800, to top up donations that had already been made by MUA branches around Australia. And the MUA Queensland Branch is co-ordinating members to drive up to the North Oakey picket line.
Lots more went on at this conference, a great step forward for education, agitation, organisation and working-class solidarity.
The most vital power
In closing the conference Queensland Branch Secretary Bob Carnegie quoted American socialist, Eugene Debs:
“The labor movement is the child of slavery—the offspring of oppression—in revolt against the misery and suffering that gave it birth. Its splendid growth is the marvel of our time, the forerunner of freedom, the hope of mankind.
Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and fallen and bruised itself, and risen again; been seized by the throat and choked and clubbed into insensibility; enjoined by courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, shot down by regulars, traduced by the press, frowned upon by public opinion, deceived by politicians, threatened by priests, repudiated by renegades, preyed upon by grafters, infested by spies, deserted by cowards, betrayed by traitors, bled by leeches, and sold out by leaders, but, notwithstanding all this, and all these, it is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission of emancipating the workers of the world from the thraldom of the ages is as certain of ultimate realization as the setting of the sun.
The most vital thing about this world movement is its educational propaganda-its capacity and power to shed light in the brain of the working class, arouse them from their torpor, develop their faculties for thinking, teach them their economic class interests, effect their solidarity, and imbue them with the spirit of the impending social revolution.”
From WL newsletter 69