What are the lessons of the Craig Johnston jailing?

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Yesterday the Victorian Court of Appeal sentenced ex-AMWU State Secretary Craig Johnston to two years and nine months jail. Nine months is to be served immediately with the remainder suspended for 2 and 1/2 years. The Court ruled the original sentence in the County Court (a wholly suspended sentence) was “manifestly inadequate”.

As the current AMWU metal division Victorian State Secretary, Steve Dargavel, put it: “This is a rich man’s law, it’s a rich man’s court.”

The full wrath of the ruling class always comes down on militant workers’ leaders. When was the last time a boss responsible for the death or serious injury of a worker was jailed?

The Socialist Party condemns the State Labor Government who – under orders from the bosses and the pro-ALP National leadership of the AMWU – ordered the Director of Public Prosecution to appeal the original sentence. This is just another example of the bourgeois character of that party, and the need for the trade union movement to break from it and create a new workers’ party.

Craig Johnston’s Workers First faction of the AMWU won power in Victoria in 1998 as a reaction to the previous sellout leadership of the branch, which loyally supported the national leadership of Doug Cameron.

Workers First took a more militant approach in Enterprise Bargaining negotiations, and was outside the direct control of the ACTU and ALP. Craig himself joined the Socialist Alliance.

However, at no time, did Workers First outline a clear alternative to the left Keynesian economic policies of the national leadership of the AMWU. Workers First never articulated an alternative to either accepting closures and seeing the role of the union as a mechanism to ensure decent redundancy packages (as does the AWU) or arguing that capitalism could run better if only the bosses would accept the friendly advice of the union (Doug Cameron and his faction).

Militant tactics in industrial action was never going to be enough to save jobs and bring offsite workers to the level of metal workers onsite.

Closures needed to be fought with occupations, a class appeal to other workers, and the creation of a new workers party fighting for an alternative to the neo-liberal agenda of the main parties.

Enterprise Bargaining Agreements won by the Workers First AMWU in Victoria were superior to previous deals but maintained big divisions amongst members. Cameron cleverly accused Workers First being a job agency for its members and this helped sow division amongst the ranks of AMWU members.

Unlike Workers First who made a half-hearted attempted to spread their politics nationwide, when Cameron decided to counter-attack he was wily and ruthless. Using the support of the bosses, the mass media, the State Labor Government, and the full power of Federal intelligence agencies, he systematically isolated and attacked Workers First inside the union and in society as a whole.

Stunts like the ‘run through’ at Skilled Engineering and Johnson Tiles in 2001 only played into the hands of the bosses and Cameron.

Such is the vacuum of leadership in the workers’ movement at the present time, that any leader standing strong against the elite who run this country will win massive support. Despite everything thousands of workers took to the streets at Craig’s trial, as they did at the trials of CFMEU State Secretary Martin Kingham and CFMEU organiser John Sedka.

However, unless backed up by industrial action these rallies were never going to stop the ruling class, unlike the general strike movement 35 years ago which freed Tramways union leader Clarrie O’Shea.

The lesson of this defeat for young workers is that union militancy alone is not enough to take forward the struggle of the working class. This also requires a political programme. The lack of strong socialist politics in even our most militant unions (unlike the past where Norm Gallagher, Jack Munday, and John Cummins all had communist training) is a weakness we must counter. That is the role of the Socialist Party in our trade union movement today.