A confidential ACTU review of the Change the Rules campaign was obtained by The Australian newspaper. The ACTU should release the report so that trade unionists, especially the activists who put so much effort into the campaign, can have a say in how unions can campaign for union rights, pay and conditions.
Change the Rules like previous Australian Union campaigns, Rights@Work and to a lesser extent Build a Better Future, organised thousands of trade union activists into local campaigning groups, leafleting, door-knocking in the suburbs to talk about union issues, with an immediate aim of preventing the Coalition from winning an election and attacking union rights.
And despite high hopes of Sally McManus’s more energetic and forthright leadership of the ACTU during the Change the Rules campaign, it also seems that the local networks that lent energy to Change the Rules, are to wither. Not only that, the Morrison government is trying to get a fresh round of anti-union legislation through the Senate, and measures to further cut earnings for low-paid workers are back on the agenda.
The Change the Rules campaign was inherently limited, even if its central goal of a Labor government had been won. Putting all its hopes in that was folly.
Unions cannot win industrial claims by relying on parliaments, or tribunals. Ultimately the decisions in those forums reflect a calculation of the balance of power in workplaces between capital and labour, the concessions that employers accept that they must make, and the demands that workers will withdraw labour to win.
Not only was the Change the Rules campaign reliant on electing a Labor government, its demands were unfocussed, and more about the operation of government tribunals and regulations, rather than about concrete demands that would clearly and directly benefit workers.
Union bureaucracy vs clear politics
Even though Sally McManus spoke boldly, the actual campaign was hamstrung by the nature of ACTU as bureaucratic coalition of union officials chained to a lowest common denominator.
The ACTU cannot mobilise industrial action without commitment from at least some constituent unions.
Union officials and members who want more effective campaigns and policies need to speak out to all workers, and be willing to organise politically for those policies, cop the flak from conservative officials, and unite with both grassroots members and other officials who agree.
Without a grouping of union leaders and activists who are committed to taking on employers industrially, and challenging anti-union legislation, official positions in the ACTU are bureaucratic rather than offering mobilising leadership.
Breaking the Rules
The most effective action to claim union rights is defiance of anti-union laws, breaking the rules to change the rules.
Breaking the rules is most likely to happen when the membership of one or more unions, in the pursuit of demands on their employers or government, is sufficiently committed to their claims, to defy anti-union laws in their fight to win. A continuing campaign for union rights can play a role in building confidence of some workers to defy the law, if it has already produced commitments from a range of unionists to provide solidarity where any other union is prosecuted for breaking the law.
This is precisely where Sally McManus failed to lead when the issue arose – the RTBU in NSW was ordered to suspend a legally called strike. The ACTU complained but only lamented, without any hint of encouraging defiance, that the laws needed changing.
The right to strike
Where the ACTU fails to lead on this, then other unionists should unite and campaign around a platform for union rights.
A draft platform needs to address the following points. The right to organise and strike means it should be legal to strike:
• on any issue, no limited list of “permitted matters”
• without restricted bargaining periods
• in solidarity, with other unions and other demands, including for climate action
• based on democratic decision of members as decided by members. No state supervised strike ballots.
Right of association allows meeting on work premises, and of entry to workplaces for union reps, officials and invited guests.
Education and mobilisation to prepare for solidarity with unionists who defy anti-strike laws or orders.