More action needed to beat anti-union laws

Submitted by AWL on 5 December, 2006 - 5:28

The Australian labour movement mobilised nearly 300,000 people on 30 November for more than 300 rallies and protests, across the continent, against John Howard's anti-union laws.
There was strong pressure from employers not to turn out for the protest, during work time. As the ACTU points out: "Under the new IR laws workers can be docked four hours pay for any unauthorised work stoppage... In businesses with less than 100 employees, workers have no protection from being sacked unfairly and can be sacked without warning".
Federal government employee "Greg McCarron was forced to appeal to a Full Bench of the Federal Court just for the right to use his leave entitlements to attend the protest".
The Melbourne rally, transmitted on big screens to all the other rallies across Australia, featured examples of industrial resistance:
* the 107 construction workers on the Perth-to-Mandurah railway who face fines of up to $28,600 for striking against the sacking of their health and safety rep;
* the workers at Heinemann Electric in Melbourne who started an overtime ban, and were then paid $0 for an ordinary full week's work because, so the employer said, the new WorkChoices law prohibits paying wages to workers taking industrial action. The workers struck and eventually forced the employer to pay a "bonus" equivalent to the deducted wages.
But there was no hint from the platform that industrial resistance must play a vital role in defeating the laws. There was no mention of the "community pickets" at various disputes in Western Australia, Melbourne, and Sydney which, with tacit official-union approval, have helped workers push at the edges of the law.
The ACTU message was, instead, that after the failure of the High Court challenge to the constitutionality of the anti-union laws, the only action possible is to vote Labor in the federal election due for 2007.
Not only was the focus exclusively on voting Labor. There was no hint that trade-union activity - both through the channels of the unions' representation within Labor Party structures, and industrially - will be needed to force the Labor leaders to do the right thing.
On the contrary, the speech from ACTU secretary Greg Combet to the Melbourne rally praised Labor's stand without stint, and summarised the ACTU's own demands for union rights in a way that watered them down hugely.
"Our goal is not just to repeal these unfair industrial relations laws, but to replace them with decent rights for working people... A decent safety net of minimum pay and employment conditions... A right for people to collectively bargain...If a majority of workers want to collectively bargain with their employer, we believe that the law should require the employer to negotiate". End of summary.
Actually, the ACTU congress in October laid down a series of demands including:
* union recognition as a right for every individual worker, even if all his or her fellow-workers are too scared to claim it;
* the right to strike, and repeal of Sections 45D and E from 1977, which ban solidarity action;
* a right of union access to workplaces.
Those vital demands, which the ALP leaders have pointedly failed to endorse, were left unvoiced.
There was no discussion about what workers can do if Labor loses the 2007 federal election, or wins the House of Representatives but fails to win a majority in the Senate (where only half the seats will be up for contest).
Only on the edges of the rallies were the sharper elements of ALP policy voiced, or the fact mentioned that the ALP leaders can't be trusted and will legislate for a full measure of union rights only under strong union pressure. In Brisbane, for example, the ETU held a separate rally before marching to the main event, and ETU state secretary Dick Williams spoke there about those issues. But even Dick Williams said nothing about the role of industrial defiance in defeating the laws.
Leaflets from Workers' Liberty and other left groups raised those issues, and got a friendly reception. But generally the rallies were "flat" - the applause dutiful, the attendance somewhat down on the last big effort, in June.
Activist groups exist in some cities, usually with tacit approval from the union officials (or some of them), which try to push the envelope a bit in the campaign, with activities such as community pickets. But even they were low-key politically on 30 November. "Union Solidarity" in Melbourne, for example, busied itself mainly with selling t-shirts carrying no more than ACTU-type slogans: "Your rights at work - worth fighting for. Vote Howard out".
There is no mystery or plot about the fact that working-class confidence to smash the laws is low, a fact which can also be seen from the drastic fall in strike activity since the laws came in. The Australian union movement, though it still has areas of strength and combativity perhaps unequalled in the world's richer countries, had its life-force sapped seriously under the Labor governments of 1983-96. The ACTU's running of the campaign against the Howard government's legislation has been such as to leave working-class self-confidence low rather than raise it.
To chair the 30 November rally, the ACTU chose not a trade-unionist but the comedian Corinne Grant. All credit to Grant for doing the job (and competently); but the ACTU's choice shows that it wanted the event to be a "show" for "public opinion" rather than a rally to stimulate working-class action.
Much worse, the whole event was drenched with nationalism. The laws were repeatedly called "un-Australian" (as if all the restrictions on workers' rights would be fine, just so long as they were in another country), and the rally started with singing the national anthem.
At the Brisbane rally, Queensland premier Peter Beattie added insult to nationalist idiocy by declaring that the issue is that "we" don't want to be treated as convicts as "we" were when "we first arrived in this country 200 years ago". So "we" are - all Australians, except those of Aboriginal descent, who in no sense at all "first arrived" 200 years ago! And Beattie made his speech just after veteran Aboriginal and union activist Bob Anderson had given the rally a "welcome to country"!
It looks as if ACTU officials have spent too much time listening to US union leaders. Advance Australia Fair gets a very sceptical response when played to students in high school assemblies, and probably the main message conveyed to the workers in the rallies by the playing of the anthem was that our union leaders are the same sort of pompous devotees of respectability as high-school principals.
Even more off-beam, at the end of the Brisbane rally John Battams asked the assembled workers to give a cheer for "the leadership of the Australian labour movement - Greg Combet and Sharan Burrow. We are privileged to have such fine, intelligent leaders". Battams is no fool. He wouldn't have done that without some signal "from above". So the top union leaders are not only like school principals, but also like the sort of school principal who lines up the school captain on awards day to ask for applause for the principal's "inspirational leadership"!
Time to rally the union rank-and-file to start generating a new leadership!

Union Solidarity, Melbourne
Worker Solidarity, Sydney
WCRC, Brisbane: 0411 727765
Worklife, Brisbane.

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