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42542Bastard Boys and dialectics

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  • bobgould987
    May 16, 2007
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      Trade unions, war on the waterfront, a pretty good time for dialectics

      By Bob Gould

      In their desperation at their failure to make any headway in the
      opinion polls, the ideologues of the Liberal-National Coalition are
      getting wackier by the second, as are the hysterical pundits of the
      ruling class in the media. Peter Costello even redbaited Kevin Rudd
      the other day in an extremely eccentric way, asserting that Rudd's use
      of the word dialectic had a Marxist flavour.

      The right-wing commentariat have also gone ballistic, attacking the
      ABC's docu-drama about the waterfront dispute, Bastard Boys, which
      they say is labour movement propaganda.

      From another corner, the DSP leadership and a couple of their
      hangers-on have also lashed out at the ABC drama. Peter Boyle, in
      particular, has made a kind of papal pronouncement from his post of
      general secretary, and his hanger-on, the ferocious and irascible
      Ratbag Radio Riley, sounds off about how he had difficulty watching
      the show because he hated all the personalities so much. Gee whiz.

      Lenin repeatedly described such inane, moralising sectarianism as
      "scolding scoundrels" and pointed out what a dangerous practice it was
      to use this as an alternative to real analysis.

      In fact, as docu-dramas go, Bastard Boys was pretty good, unless you
      require popular culture to be a type of prolet-cult, with only
      positive heroes, which as Trotsky constantly pointed out is idiocy
      when it comes to literature and art.

      The political core of the DSP's attack on the ABC drama is the
      implication that the waterfront struggle was a defeat, and certainly a
      betrayal. This standpoint is buttressed by inane moralising about the
      fairly obvious fact that it included a bit of a puff for Greg Combet,
      who is rapidly emerging as a serious figure in current circumstances,
      pushing the trade union movement to the right. For the DSP leaders,
      the current circumstances are extrapolated back to the waterfront dispute.

      From a Marxist point of view, this approach to the waterfront dispute
      is false. The dispute ended in an awkward, qualified victory for the
      working class and the trade union movement in the sense that serious
      trade union organisation was preserved on the waterfront, which is in
      marked contrast to the British waterfront, where trade union
      organisation was effectively destroyed.

      The DSP leaders' inane, ostensibly leftist, attack on the waterfront
      dispute takes that dispute out of space and time. The dispute was
      forced on the workers' movement by the ruling class and the waterfront
      employers by way of a lockout, with the intention of destroying the
      union. It took place at a time of relative trade union weakness and a
      certain working class demobilisation.

      In retrospect, the tactics adopted by the Maritime Union leadership
      weren't too bad. What was the practical alternative?

      The ultraleft criticism of the dispute generally implies that there
      should have been a general strike. The problem with that proposition
      was that in the concrete conditions of that time the possibility of a
      general strike was nil.

      The tactic adopted early in the dispute, of community mobilisation and
      picketing as an alternative to a general strike, or even to a
      sympathetic strike by the other sections of the maritime union, turned
      out to be very effective.

      The community picket virtually stopped the waterfront in every city.
      Just about every labour movement activist, left and right, joined in
      the picket, as well as many other people, and it was a high point of
      defensive struggle.

      The DSP critics of Bastard Boys seem to object to the unions having
      taken legal action in the courts. That's totally nuts. The lawyers
      behind the legal action didn't act in a vacuum, but in a climate
      shaped by the community pickets, and the courts made their ultimately
      favourable decisions for the union in the context of the problem
      created for the ruling class by the community pickets.

      The courts were a kind of circuit breaker. It's fantastic ultraleft
      bullshit to object to effective court action by a union in sync with
      community action.

      There were many human tragedies associated with the struggle. One
      rather conservative federal official of the union, with a Communist
      Party background, had been a political opponent of rank and file
      militants in the MUA that I had been associated with for 10 or 15 years.

      Nevertheless, this overweight, workaholic, rather conservative union
      official was up to his ears in the picketing during the dispute and
      had a devastating heart attack, which brought his trade union
      activities to an end. He was a casualty of the dispute. He was a
      political opponent from one point of view, but also a bloke who
      struggled hard for the union. Such are the real contradictions that
      exist in situations like this.

      The ultimate settlement was a brutal compromise. A large number of the
      Patricks stevedores were eventually persuaded to accept a substantial
      redundancy settlement. That wasn't a good result from a trade union
      point of view, but it was close to inevitable in the circumstances.
      It's worth noting that quite a number of the workers were rather happy
      to take a redundancy package and get out.

      In the previous 10 years many waterfront workers had been accepting
      fairly substantial redundancy packages under what was called the
      Robinson Formula, including a large number of the traditional
      militants. I'm proud to have been associated with quite a few of those
      militants in their dogged struggle in the 1980s to defeat earlier
      attacks on conditions on the waterfront, but eventually they were worn
      down by events.

      Despite the loss of some conditions during the ruling class offensive,
      work on the trade-union-organised Australian waterfront still remains
      among the better blue-collar jobs available. There are a fair number
      of workers trying to get jobs on the waterfront in a unionised framework.

      In Bastard Boys the lionising of Combet and the generalisation of
      necessary defensive tactics at the time into a whole theory of trade
      unionism grated on me. I was a bit amused by the fictional Bill Kelty
      character making noises about a general strike, which I'm pretty
      certain he would never have done.

      Nevertheless, it was effective drama. The tracing of the high and low
      points in the dispute and the negotiations were credible, most of the
      casting was good, and the hysteria of the ruling class about the show
      is a better guide to politics than the pettiness, political
      unsoundness and personal vindictiveness of the Riley-Boyle perspective.

      It's worth noting about the necessary and effective legal action that
      Josh Bornstein has since taken a number of useful cases on the union
      side and the then more or less apolitical QC, Julian Burnside, has
      developed into an important defender of refugees and critic of the
      Tory government on a number of questions.

      People like Riley and Boyle are becoming more and more tiny echoes
      from the ostensible left of the cultural-political wars conducted from
      the right by pretty well the whole of the bourgeois media.

      The polls seem to suggest at the moment that the left side of
      Australia is increasing numerically as we speak, and has stopped
      listening to people like Piers Ackermann ... and Dave Riley.

      PS. The indefatigable Third Period wallah Norm Dixon has taken to more
      and more indiscriminately whacking up every item from the bourgeois
      media suggesting further betrayals by Rudd and the Labor leaders.

      The other day he posted from the bourgeois media a piece of obvious
      ruling class propaganda, aimed at pressing Rudd to shift further
      rightward on industrial relations. The implication was that it was an
      accomplished fact that Rudd would back away further on individual
      contracts (of course, it's possible that might happen eventually,
      given the constant pressure from the ruling class). Nevertheless, it
      didn't happen, and the other paper of the ruling class was forced to
      report on the same day that Rudd was reluctant to retreat further
      because Labor's own polling shows that the population is deeply
      hostile to Work Choices.

      That's the dilemma facing Bonapartists like Rudd and Gillard. That's
      where dialectics comes in. Rather than the automatic and idiotic Third
      Period reaction of Dixon and co, implying that further Labor
      leadership betrayals are inevitable, it would be considerably more
      useful to focus on the contradictions as they proceed.

      But Dixon, in his implacable hostility to all the official
      institutions of the workers movement, posted the propaganda item from
      the press trying to push Rudd to the right, but not the item that
      appeared the same day suggesting that Rudd and Gillard were for the
      moment resisting that pressure.

      If anyone forms their view of the world in Australia from the
      selections from the bourgeois press posted by Dixon, they won't have a
      clue about what's happening in the world.
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