An unholy alliance at Australian Workers Union conference

By Terry Cook
24 February 2009

Sometimes an incident occurs that reveals the essential, and most times hidden, relationship between various supposedly diverse forces and their common class interests.

One such incident was the extraordinary decision of the Australian Workers Unions (AWU), one of the country's largest unions, to invite the Vatican's most senior representative in Australia, the Catholic archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell, to address the union's national conference on the Queensland Gold Coast at the beginning of this month.

Workers might ask why would the union extend an invitation to such a figure? Cardinal Pell, an ardent supporter of the former Howard government, which introduced the hated anti-worker industrial relations laws WorkChoices, is certainly not known for his support for unions, or the workers in them.

Indeed, Pell is somewhat notorious for his extreme right-wing views: from virulent opposition to abortion, cell-stem research and gay rights, to his promotion of anti-Muslim xenophobia. The cardinal's public deliberations include a condemnation of "secular democracy", the claim that the Koran is riddled with "invocations to violence" and the assertion that "pagan emptiness" and "Western fears of the uncontrollable forces of nature" had contributed to "hysterical and extreme claims" about global warming.

Pell admitted he had never before been called upon to address a large union gathering. His appearance on the AWU's platform at this particular time, however, was no mystery. Under conditions of a systemic breakdown of the global economic and financial system that is bringing mass unemployment and the destruction of wages and social conditions to millions of ordinary people, all those forces dedicated to containment, mystification and reaction are being brought together. In Australia and internationally their aim is to suppress the development of the class struggle and the turn to a socialist solution.

To this end, Pell reached all the way back to the church's initial response, at the end of the nineteenth century, to the eruption of explosive upheavals by the working class, which had only recently emerged as an independent social force. Pell quoted from the social encyclical of Pope Leo XIII in 1891 that "formally endorsed the rights of workers to organise in unions to better their conditions and obtain a living wage". In case anyone failed to get the message, the cardinal went on to make clear that the purpose of the Vatican's position was to "support moderate forces in the unions and oppose Marxism".

Leo's encyclical was a direct response to the rapid growth of the influence of Marxism in the workers' movement in Europe and North America. It came just two decades after the ruling classes were shaken to their very foundations by the 1871 Paris Commune, the first-ever attempt by the working class to establish state power.

In 1991, 100 years later, Pope John Paul was to note: "When people finally began to realise fully the very grave injustice of social realities in many places and the danger of a revolution fanned by ideals which were then called ‘socialist', Pope Leo XIII intervened....." Referring to the situation as "a conflict between the extremes of mere physical survival on the one side and opulence on the other," he declared: "[T]he Pope's [Leo XIII] intention was certainly to restore peace, and the present-day reader cannot fail to note his severe condemnation, in no uncertain terms, of the class struggle."

In other words, the Catholic Church was aligning itself with the unions to divert the working class from the struggle for its full emancipation from capitalist exploitation. And history shows that the process was anything but peaceful. When workers refused to comply, and rebelled against their exploitation, the bourgeoisie responded with brute force.

Pell made clear that his address to the AWU conference was part of an international campaign to form a new alliance between the church and the unions against the working class. He pointed to the January 31 speech and appeal of the present Pope to the directors of the Italian Confederation of Labour Unions, declaring: "The great challenge and the great opportunity posed by today's worrisome economic crisis is to find a new synthesis between the common good and the market, between capital and labour" proclaiming, "in this regard, union organisations can make a significant contribution".

Echoing the explanation of the current breakdown made by all the various apologists for capitalism, Pell admitted that the crisis was "the deepest indeed since the Great Depression," but stressed that it was not the result of the intrinsic operations of the profit system. Instead, it was caused by "greedy and foolish people and a small minority of rogues". "Social capital is not by definition hostile to the free market," he insisted, "because I am not here talking about the socialisation of capital... the profit motive is acceptable, necessary in our type of economy."

Union promotes economic nationalism

Pell's appeal earned fulsome applause from the rightwing AWU gathering because it dovetailed with the union's own preparations to head off any movement to the left among its members. The main business of the meeting was to spout the twin poisons of economic nationalism and protectionism, in a bid to assist national-based employers in the struggle for markets and profits.

AWU national secretary Paul Howes called on the Rudd Labor government to implement "local content rules" and "Australian-made" procurement policies for new infrastructure projects declaring this was necessary "for this period of crisis" to "give our manufacturing industry a boost". He urged increased government "funding for important infrastructure projects," adding "which have to be built with Australian-made steel and aluminium". Later he told the media: "There was no point "spending money on infrastructure, things like roads and bridges, and use Chinese steel".

Like Pell, Howes felt the need to hark back to the 1890s, reaching into the union's own dark history to dredge up the ideological underpinnings for this campaign: White Australia racism and nationalism.

"It was our union that led the drive for Federation and the formation of Australia as a proud and independent nation." "It was our union... who after the stinging defeat of the great shearers strike of 1891 gathered at the union camp... building a party [Labor] to protect our futures".

According to Howes, these developments laid the basis for "building a working man's paradise"—the inference being that the AWU's current nationalist agenda would do the same. In fact, what workers confronted in the aftermath of the 1890s bore no resemblance to paradise.

Federation, resting on an alliance between business and the Labor and trade union leaders, consolidated a national capitalist economy and developed a regime for the exploitation and containment of the working class. At its heart was economic nationalism—the construction of tariff walls to protect the profits of local businesses--and White Australia, which Howes neatly avoided mentioning.

But White Australia was championed particularly by the AWU and formed the main plank of the newly founded Labor Party. Its aim was to cut Australian workers off from their class brothers and sisters in Asia, securing the rule of capital at home and a base for the establishment of colonial control of the South Pacific.

In 1905, this racist policy, which barred any "coloured" immigrants, was enshrined in the federal Labor party's objectives, which called for: "The elevation of an Australian sentiment based on the maintenance of racial purity and the development in Australia of an enlightened and self-reliant community" This remained official policy for six decades.

Howes's hostility to "Chinese steel" is of a piece with calls by politicians and trade unions for "American jobs" and "British jobs" against foreign workers. As social tensions rise, protectionism becomes the handmaiden of racism in attempting to set workers in one country against those in others, and at the same time corral them behind the interests of their "own" employers. Ultimately, this can only lead to war.

Once again, the profit system is producing a "conflict between the extremes of mere physical survival on the one side and opulence on the other." To advance its own interests, the working class must consciously reject the attempts of the entire official establishment—including the unions and the Catholic Church—to divide it on national or racial lines. This requires the fight for a socialist and internationalist perspective that will unite workers of all colours, nationalities and ethnicities in a common struggle for the abolition of the profit system.

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