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Jacobin whitewashes union sell-out at Australian General Mills factory

On June 28, Jacobin published an article by John Falzon entitled “Workers in Australia Launched a Strike Against General Mills. They Just Won.” This followed just five days after an earlier piece, purportedly written by an anonymous General Mills worker, “General Mills Workers Speak Out: ‘Be Strong, Fight for Your Rights, and Fight for a Decent Pay Raise’.”

Workers, along with UWU officials and Labor MP Ed Husic outside General Mills (Credit: Facebook/Ed Husic)

The central thrust of both articles was to whitewash the role of the United Workers Union (UWU) in isolating and ultimately selling out more than 80 workers at the General Mills food production plant in Rooty Hill.

It is significant that Jacobin, a US-based pseudo-left website and magazine closely affiliated with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), would devote two articles to a small dispute in western Sydney which was almost entirely ignored by the corporate media in Australia.

Jacobin’s coverage of the General Mills dispute is designed to prevent what the upper-middle-class layers it represents fear most—any outbreak of the class struggle that threatens the grip of the trade union bureaucracy in the US or internationally.

While Falzon characterises the General Mills dispute as a “remarkable victory” and a model for workers to follow, it was, in reality, a significant betrayal by the union bureaucracy.

After three weeks on strike, the UWU rammed through a sell-out deal that fell short of the union’s meagre demand for a 3 percent per annum pay rise, and did nothing to address the other key issues in the dispute, job security and rampant casualisation.

Falzon falsely claims that the deal accepted by the UWU includes “a wage rise of 9 percent over three years,” but in fact workers will receive a mere 8.25 percent pay rise over that period. This is unlikely to even cover the rising cost of living, let alone reverse the years of wage stagnation that Falzon points to as a major concern for the Australian working class.

On the contrary, the miserly pay increases hailed as victories in recent disputes including at General Mills, McCormick Foods and Smeaton Grange demonstrate that workers cannot fight wage suppression or any other attacks on their jobs and conditions within the framework of the unions.

Pointing to the “inequality and hardship” faced by casual workers, Falzon states: “Insecure workers are less likely to take the kind of strike action that the General Mills staff took, because they feel atomised, vulnerable, and in no position to demand better wages and conditions.”

In the Rooty Hill dispute, the UWU played a leading role in this atomisation. Although the wages of casual workers at the plant are determined by the enterprise agreement, they are excluded from the bargaining process because they are not directly employed by General Mills. This is a product of Australia’s draconian industrial relations laws, rooted in the Hawke-Keating Labor governments of the 1980s and 90s and enforced by the unions.

Far from objecting to these anti-democratic restrictions, codified in the last federal Labor government’s Fair Work legislation, the UWU embraced them, promoting hostility between the striking permanent workers and the casuals, who had no legal option but to continue working.

The union itself is responsible for the fact that around half of the plant’s workforce is “vulnerable” in this way. The UWU and its predecessor, the National Union of Workers, have, in successive enterprise agreements since at least 2004, allowed General Mills to employ an unlimited number of casuals through labour hire firms, with no obligation to offer them permanent jobs.

While “improved job security” was a key concern for workers in the dispute, the union’s proclamation that all conditions from the previous enterprise agreement have been retained, indicates that the UWU has again allowed this to continue.

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