All unions must protest Howard's attacks
Sue Bolton, Melbourne
Since the re-election of Prime Minister John Howard's Coalition government there has been a debate in the union movement about how best to respond to Howard's plan to crack down on the right of workers to organise in unions.
Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) officials have been disparaging of calls from some unions for mass protests against the government. The ACTU has instead advocated that unions focus on strengthening union structures in the workplace and conducting a media campaign to win public support.
The first unions to take a decision to call a stoppage and protest were the Victorian unions at their mass delegates' meeting on March 23. The delegates' meeting voted for a stop-work and mass rally on June 30 and called on unions in other states to join them. They also voted to take protest action in late August or early September when the anti-union legislation is introduced to parliament, and to take solidarity action if a unionist is prosecuted under the Workplace Relations Act.
The union movement outside of Victoria has largely been unenthusiastic about joining Victorian unions in stoppages and rallies on June 30, yet some unions are pushing for such action interstate. This resulted in the April 12 Unions WA executive meeting voting to call a mass delegates' meeting to discuss further action.
Maritime Union of Australia Western Australian secretary Chris Cain and National Tertiary Education Union NSW secretary Chris Game are two of the union secretaries who are campaigning for the June 30 stoppage and mass protest to be a national action. They spoke to Green Left Weekly about this.
Game said that the April 8 meeting of the NSW NTEU division executive passed a motion supporting the Victorian unions and requesting that the NTEU encourage Unions NSW to participate on June 30. She said that the NTEU resolution will go to the April 28 meeting of Unions NSW.
Game said that Unions NSW had initially intended to run its own statewide campaign, but to her knowledge had not ruled out participating in the national stoppage on June 30 as well. According to Game, "mass protests can be both a positive and negative form of action. They can be positive in that they provide individual unionists with the reassurance that the union movement as a whole is committed to preventing the draconian industrial relations legislation that is being flagged by the government. And in giving them hope, it gives them the confidence to take a stand within their individual workplaces."
Game said "it also has a positive effect in that it's a really good way of bringing the message to the community at large as to what are the implications of the [Coalition's] industrial relations agenda. I don't believe that the average Australian fully appreciates what the implications and outcomes are likely to be of such draconian legislation."
However, Game argued that "mass protests can also be negative. It depends upon how the mass action is staged as to whether or not it has a counter effect of turning the community off supporting the unions. The union movement has a responsibility to be very careful about how it stages that mass action so that it doesn't create a feeling within the community that this is just the unions out there winging against the conservative government."
Game regards the education campaigns that are being developed by the ACTU on a national level and by labour councils at a statewide level as absolutely critical. But she added that while "individual education or targeted education programs are important, I think the mobilisation of community groups that are either directly or indirectly going to be affected by the outcomes of the legislative changes ... in mass action is critical. And here I'm talking about things like non-government organisations, where protection by awards is absolutely critical to maintaining some form of standard or quality of workplace terms and conditions and salary rates."
Game said: "One of the most critical and successful strategies of the Howard government has been the capacity to generate fear amongst the electorate on things like rising interest rates, terrorism and refugees. The success of the Howard government in selling that fear message is the reason why people who traditionally have supported Labor or the more left and progressive parties, actually voted for Howard this time around.
"I think that the only way in which you'll be able to discredit that strategy is to have some form of successful mass action campaign so that people cannot avoid listening to the counter argument."
Cain also argues that mass protests are important. He said: "The importance of a national stoppage of the union movement on June 30 is to let Howard know in no uncertain terms that working-class people in this country are not going to allow Howard and the Liberal Party government to set the trade union movement and working-class people back one hundred years.
"Unless we take this type of action, come July when Howard gets control of the Senate, he'll think that he can do whatever he wants. I believe that there's a big backlash against what Howard's doing, and we have to get on the streets to show Howard that we mean business."
Cain said that there are plenty of examples in the union movement that demonstrate how mass protest action by unions across the board has resulted in victory for workers, or else the limiting of defeats.
Cain pointed to the example of the waterside workers' dispute with Patrick Stevedores in 1998, a dispute that he was personally involved in. He said that the "mass mobilisation of the troops in the union movement, community groups, mass protesting against what Howard was doing in Patricks, meant that the wharfies kept their jobs. Without those mass protest actions on the picket lines around the country, there wouldn't be any wharfies there today."
Another example that Cain referred to was the dispute at the BHP-owned Worsley Alumina plant near Bunbury earlier this year. Mass action by several unions resulted in a good outcome for the Worsley workers' wages, conditions and job security.
Cain said, "It's a well-known fact that if unions get out and have a go" governments can be forced to put legislation on the back-burner. "Howard thinks he's got the legislation to put in power to get rid of unions full-stop. To me — penalty rates of pay, your award wages and conditions, unions' right of entry, disputes against Australian Workplace Agreements and individual contracts — if you don't fight over those issues, there'll be no trade union movement.
"If Howard wants to knock anything off, he should be knocking off the executive rates of pay and people like the HIH executives. Let's put them in jail instead of people like [former Australian Manufacturing Workers Union Victorian Secretary] Craig Johnston, who's fought for wages and conditions for workers.
"I believe May Day is the right place to start. We should be mobilising well before June. We shouldn't just have the June protest but have ongoing protests over the next three or four years.
"The ACTU should start by looking for trade union support and address the issue of why union members are now down to around 17%. Once they get that right, we need a leadership in the ACTU that is strong, militant and left-wing, and which has the ability to bring the union movement together in a way that hasn't been seen for a long time. That will gather the community support. You can't win over the community just by putting out leaflets without having mass protests."
From Green Left Weekly, April 27, 2005.
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