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Issue 576, 7 December 2007 - Union Campaign Smashed Howard

Preparing for new challenges under Rudd

Howard's dramatic defeat has given heart to all of us who want to see a better society. It was victory for the left, and the union movement in particular.

As well as Howard's defeat, there were two important steps forward for the left to come out of the election campaign.

One was the Green vote, which not only held up but increased slightly. The represents one million people who were prepared to challenge Kevin Rudd's conservatism.

The existence of an established left electoral alternative before Labor comes to power federally is important, and something that was absent under the last Labor government. The Greens' senators could play an important role in helping popularise and give strength to resistance outside parliament under the new government.

If Rudd betrays those who voted for him, the Greens are in a good position to make sure the resulting anger finds a left-wing expression, and does not benefit right-wing populists who pretend to offer an alternative.

The other step forward was the formation of Rights at Work local groups around the country.

The Rights at Work campaign has laid the basis for rejuvenating the union movement, involving many thousands of people in political activity, many of whom were drawn into the campaign by the mass union demonstrations and delegates' meetings. In some places local groups have been able to bring together unionists, Greens and Labor supporters in common activity.

Sadly, Kevin Rudd is not going to undo the damage of eleven and a half years of Howard. During the campaign he raised expectations that over a range of issues he would bring significant change. But the detail of his policies indicates that this is not the case.

WorkChoices is the clearest example. The election result was a clear rejection of the laws - even key Liberals such as outgoing workplace relations minister Joe Hockey has concluded "Labor has an undeniable, overwhelming mandate to abolish Work Choices."

But Rudd plans to maintain most of the key anti-union measures Howard introduced, like the ban on pattern bargaining, the construction commission, the ban on union right of entry and anti-strike laws.

There has been considerable disquiet from some union leaders about this. For instance John Robertson, the head of Unions NSW, told the Sydney Morning Herald that "the difference between this guy [Kevin Rudd] and the last mob is that this guy doesn't want to kill us".

Since the election Robertson has urged Labor to move quickly to abolish WorkChoices. He also argued that Labor should legislate to allow workers to opt out of AWAs signed under Howard, instead of having to wait up to five years until their expiry as Labor advocates.

These are the sort of demands that need to be put on Kevin Rudd by the unions.

They need to be backed up by continuing the Rights at Work campaign.

This means both that the Rights at Work local groups need to be sustained and that there should be union national days of protest.

Kevin Rudd is deeply committed to neo-liberal economic policies - what he has called 'economic conservatism'.

In all likelihood not only will he leave intact much of WorkChoices, he will launch yet further attacks on public services and the unions.

For instance he has talked of taking a 'meat axe' to public service jobs to reverse the expansion of the public service under Howard.

On foreign policy Rudd is also extremely committed to the US alliance.

While he is set to pull combat troops out of Iraq, he intends to balance this by committing further troops to Afghanistan.

As the deaths of three Australian soldiers there in the last two months indicates, further Australian troop commitments could lead to greater casualties than Australia has yet experienced in George Bush�s �war on terror�.

The US adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have destabilised that whole region.

There are any number of potential flashpoints that could explode into new wars. And there is still the danger that the Bush administration will attempt an attack on Iran before it leaves office in twelve months time.

Kevin Rudd is bound to back up the US in any future conflict, and this will put him at odds with the majority of the Australian population.

This means that sustaining the anti-war movement remains important.

Kevin Rudd will end up radically disappointing the people who voted for him. Labor's commitment to managing capitalism means that it often forces through attacks on working class living standards in order to serve the interests of business. The records of both the state Labor governments and the last federal Labor government provide plenty of evidence for that.

But these attacks also hold the prospect of uniting Greens, unions and Labor supporters in a new mass movement and of forging a united left alternative to neo-liberalism and war.