Australia: resisting anti-union laws

Submitted by cathy n on 8 September, 2006 - 3:24

Graph: figures for striker-days in Australia, to June 2006.
On Tuesday 29 August, thousands of Australian trade unionists held rallies in major cities in solidarity with 107 construction workers on the Perth-to-Mandurah rail project, in Western Australia.
The 107 are the first workers to face prosecution under the new anti-union laws put on the books last year by the right-wing Howard government. They face fines of up to $28,000 (ÂŁ11,000) each.
The new laws aim to shift Australia from its long-embedded “award” system (agreements made under union influence which then become legally binding on employers throughout an entire industry) to individual contracts for all individual workers.
The new legislation also aims more specifically to crush union militancy in the construction industry, the most combative sector of the Australian working class.
The 107 are being prosecuted because in February they struck for 12 days to protest the sacking of their shop steward, Peter Ballard, by a building contractor. 29 August was their first court appearance.
Just a day before the court appearance, the official Australian Competition and Consumer Commission started legal action against Dave Noonan, the Assistant National Secretary of the Construction Division of the CFMEU, Australia’s powerful construction and mining union.
Noonan could face fines of up to $2.5 million. The action against him is not under the new laws, but under the provisions barring “secondary” (solidarity") boycotts in the older Trades Practices Act. There may be legal action against the union too.
Noonan is charged with “collusion” with Bovis Lend Lease in terminating a Canberra sub-contractor’s contract for employing non-union contractors in 2003.
The ACTU (Australian equivalent of the TUC) and the Australian Labor Party have been vocal about supporting the 107. But all their campaigning is more or less explicitly geared not to defeating the new laws, but to making them unpopular, discrediting the Howard government, and in due course getting a federal Labor government which will only partially repeal those laws.
In 2005, Workers’ Liberty Australia argued for the Australian unions to fight to force Australia’s eight state and territory governments — all Labor, and all committed, for example, to a High Court action trying to prove the new laws unconstitutional — to defy and sabotage the new laws. The unions did not do that.
In the meantime, the new laws have already had a drastic effect. Strikes were down to 213,000 worker-days in the year to March 2006, compared to 344,000 in the year to March 2005.
The old culture in the construction industry — where all disputes, on a well-organised site, could and would be resolved by an immediate walk-out — has been shattered, and not yet replaced by a new strategic overview.
Australian trade-unionists now need to generate a movement independent of the ACTU and Australian Labor Party leaders, committed to active solidarity with those penalised by Howard's anti-union drive such as the 107 and Dave Noonan.
A first important step towards that will be taken in Brisbane on 14 September with the public launch of the Workers’ and Civil Rights Coalition, at a meeting addressed by Noonan and by Australia’s best-known civil-rights lawyer, Julian Burnside.
Contact: WCRC, P O Box 377, Alderley, Qld 4051.

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