ILWU officials travelled to Australia in early April to witness the historic merger of two militant labor unions – both longtime allies of the ILWU –who joined forces at a weeklong conference held in Fremantle, Western Australia.
The Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) has deep roots dating to the late 1800’s – once claiming a union member named Harry Bridges who went to sea before settling in the U.S. where he helped organize the ILWU.
Australia’s Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) brought together a wide range of building trades, mining, timber and paper unions into a single group in 1998 that recently decided to join forces with the MUA.
Both ILWU allies
“We’ve been allies with both these union for many years,” said ILWU International President Bob McEllrath, “Seeing them come together makes an important contribution to the cause of labor unity – while also sending a powerful message to employers.”
McEllrath led an ILWU delegation that included Secretary-Treasurer Willie Adams, Vice Presidents Ray Familathe (Mainland) and Wesley Furtado (Hawaii). Others attending at the invitation of the Aussie unions included Local 23 President Dean McGrath and members Brian Skiffington, Theresa Samalisto and Todd Iverson; Local 13 members Mike Dimon, Sunshine Garcia and Vivian Malauulu; ILWU Canada’s 3rd Vice President Romeo Bordignon and Local 502’s Dan Kask.
Both unions chose the first day of the conference to explain their respective histories; each noting that they share a common “fighting culture” when it comes to worker advocacy. They also agreed to open their conference with a special emphasis on youth, women and aboriginal members – all of whom who are important to both unions.
A panel of speakers on International Solidarity featured keynote talks by ILWU President McEllrath, Joe Fleetwood of New Zealand’s Maritime Union (MUNZ) and MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin who also serves as President of the International Transport Workers Federation. They joined Joe McDonald of the CFMEU to explain how the merger will benefit workers in Australia and abroad.
A second keynote panel included ILWU Secretary-Treasurer Willie Adams and Steve Todd who serves as National Secretary for Britain’s Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union (RMT). Local 23 President Dean McGrath served on a third panel, delivering a speech with other international guests.
Speakers opened the third day of the conference with an impassioned call to improve safety standards in the extremely hazardous occupations of construction mining, forestry, and maritime.
“We have the right to go home the same way we go to work,” said the Conference’s official bulletin. “Too many workers are being lost, and one death is too many. What we see in construction and maritime is hundreds of deaths and thousands of serious injuries every year that destroy families and livelihoods.”
Before the day was done, delegates left the speeches behind and marched into the streets of Fremantle to protest in front of the governments “Worksafe” office – the nation’s health and safety agency that has grown weak and ineffective under years of Conservative, anti-worker control that favor business interests.
The tone of the Conference was energized by a recent, dramatic political upheaval in Western Australia last month. The MUA, CFMEU, other unions and their allies ousted anti-worker Conservative politicians – and replaced them with pro-union legislators and a new political network called “Progressive Labor.”
Hard work & winning formula
“It’s taken years of working within the Labor Party processes, engaging with other unions, workers and community groups to deliver the winning election platform,” declared the MUA’s official newspaper. “Labor has finally rediscovered the winning formula – put people before profit of greedy multi-national corporations. It’s clear that working people have woken up and will punish politicians who look after their corporate masters and ignore the interests of the people.”
More work ahead
Despite the recent election victory in the state of Western Australia, workers throughout the nation are still suffering from years of Conservative, anti-union politicians who control the national government.
True to their roots, both unions were undertaking protests and acts of resistance across Australia while the conference in Fremantle was underway, and both plan to keep protesting in the future.
“These unions understand that the working class has to fight in order to make progress,” said ILWU President McEllrath. “The election victory in Western Australia is a good example of what it takes for working people to win.”