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Howes’ carbon tax ultimatum all in a day’s work for union boss

Unions are putting their members first, not the ALP. AAP

Over the last few days, union officials past and present have strafed the Gillard government.

Senator Doug Cameron felt compelled to attack the free trade agreement with the USA that Gillard’s government has continued while Australian Worker’s Union (AWU) chief Paul Howes vowed to oppose the proposed carbon tax if it cost a “single job”.

Public conflict between unions and the ALP is nothing new. But with the besieged Gillard government clinging to office, and unions desperately needing to prove their value to members, the current conflict brings Australia’s oldest relationship closer and closer to the precipice of separation.

Of the two incidents, Senator Doug Cameron’s criticism of the free trade agreement with the USA is fairly inconsequential. Cameron said the agreement, one of the Howard Government’s rewards for its support for George Bush, was a ‘lemon’.

In economic, rather than national security, circles this is pretty much a consensus opinion.

Glasgow-born, and retaining more than a trace of that distinctive accent, Cameron was a long-time national official of the left-wing Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) before entering the Senate a few years ago.

Replacing a previous long-time AMWU official, George Campbell, he is effectively that union’s representative inside caucus. Cameron is known to be one of just a small handful of MPs not intimidated by Rudd’s unprecedented control of caucus.

It’s hardly news that Cameron is critical of free trade agreements. His union has put members’ jobs above free trade for several decades now.

Cameron may just not have caught up with the fact that his leader’s newly minted enthusiasm for everything American extends to the previous government’s dubious free trade agreement. Or Cameron might have been affirming that manufacturing industry jobs are still his main priority – and should be the Government’s.

More seriously, the right-wing AWU boss, and media identity, Paul Howes has issued an ultimatum that no reforming government can possibly meet. Howes says that if the carbon tax results in the loss of just one job his union will not support it. It is a move that has the potential to bury the Gillard government.

Howes is close to right-wing faction boss Bill Shorten who he succeeded as AWU National Secretary after Shorten entered federal parliament at the 2007 election. Shorten is now Gillard’s Minister for Financial Services and Superannuation.

Howes shot to prominence on the night Rudd’s leadership was destroyed last year when he announced on television that his union had swung its support behind Gillard. Shorten was one of the key organisers of the challenge to Rudd.

Howes is one of a small group of officials that dominate the ACTU, and his union is also a key part of the right-wing faction in the ALP. Deputy PM Swan is part of the Queensland AWU faction. For someone like Howes, there is little difference between the party and the union. At age 30, he likes wielding political power, and he is unlikely to be thinking about a career that doesn’t involve following Shorten into Parliament at some stage.

Union members, however, expect their union leaders to draw a sharp distinction between the union, as defender of their jobs and wages, and the fate of ALP Governments. This is relatively easy for unions representing nurses and teachers that are not affiliated to the ALP, and whose leaders rarely win pre-selections but for people like Howes and Cameron it grows ever more complicated.

The success of the ACTU’s anti-Workchoices campaign, and the UnionsNSW campaign against electricity privatisation, was built on a unity ticket of unions acting as a cross-factional group to win public support and influence an ALP ever wary of its economic credentials.

This is an historic shift that has been emerging in recent decades. Hawke, Kelty and Combet all encouraged factional co-operation in their stints at the ACTU, as did John Robertson at UnionsNSW.

The wagons have been circled. Old factional battles matter less to today’s union officials than the future of the union movement. Unions lost a lot of members in the recession of the 1990s. While voters waited on porches with baseball bats for Keating, union members voted with their feet and left a movement they thought was too close to the ALP government. They’ve spent the last 15 years trying to win at least some of them back.

The lesson was learnt. If unions can’t protect jobs and conditions, people won’t keep paying the dues – and they won’t keep voting for Paul Howes to be their National Secretary.

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