The campaign that unseated Howard

Worth Fighting For — Inside the Your Rights At Work Campaign

By Kathie Muir

University of New South Wales Press

242 pages, $27 (pb)

Australians' brush with radically conservative industrial legislation occurred very late, compared with much of the world. John Howard's first attempt to annihilate unions came with the 1996 Workplace Relations Act.

Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) gave employees a "take-it-or-leave-it" choice under FIFO: fit in or fuck off!. The 1996 act included an even more hideous and dangerous attack. Human rights of union officials were cruelly severed. The International Labour Organisation took an active interest in Howard's industrial relations laws.

The second attack on unions came with the waterfront dispute of 1998 when Patrick Stevedores trained ex-soldiers to replace the unionised workforce. But the plot was uncovered, leading to a public outcry and a large union campaign.

The High Court ended the whole affair in a fiasco for the government. Meanwhile, Howard's industrial relations minister, Peter Reith, claimed waterfront workers were lazy while he handed out government-paid phone cards to friends of the Liberal Party and family members.

When it was revealed he soon left parliament for a six-figure salary job in London.

The AWA and waterfront failures enraged Howard. But his popularity kept rising, largely by his manipulation of fears of terrorism. Supported by the corporate mass-media, Howard's last election victory in 2004 gave him control of the Senate.

Industrial relations law was up for a substantial change. The Workplace Relations Act amendment bill of November 2005 gave Australia Work Choices (Worst Choices!). Conservative media owners and the conservative government worked hand in hand allowing Howard to challenge the union movement once again.

Work Choices presented trade unions with a stark future. They had to consider a response to the most brutal assault by Howard and his friends in the media. Unions had to "meet the communication challenge".

Here lies the strength of Kathie Muir's book. It presents a detailed account of the unions' anti-Work Choices campaign. The book is also about what unions can learn from this successful fight.

Unions need to be aware of the difficulties they confront when faced with two strong enemies: conservative governments and the might of the corporate media.

The only access to the public on a large scale is through the corporate media. With most of the world's media being privately owned, unions faced three choices.

Muir describes the three things unions did, but remains short on what the ACTU leadership did not want to do.

First, they did not organise strikes. Generalised stoppages were organised to coincide with mass rallies. But, despite significant pressure from sections of the left of the union movement, the campaign was never converted into an industrial struggle. The impact that such a concerted assault on profits might have had on employers' willingness to continue to back Howard can only be imagined.

Second, unions organised mass rallies against Work Choices, but also offered something positive in their campaign. They offered "Your Rights at Work!" People understood this.

The unions' TV, radio, internet, and newspaper campaign prevented what former US- ice President Al Gore called The Assault on Reason. Muir's chapters four and five on "Mobilising to Win" and "Winning Them Over One By One" outline this.

The union campaign cornered Howard. But Howard retaliated as outlined in "Campaigning on the Other Side: Selling Work Choices". Howard's counterattack was financed through the misuse of tax money for a political public-relations machine.

But unions successfully countered it as described in "Staying on Message Despite the Difference". The final chapter on "Doing Politics Differently" outlines the core lessons that Muir feels have to be learned.

By following the implicit advice of Muir's book, unions can use the media's power against conservative governments, change governments, unseat prime ministers, and abolish toxic and inhuman IR laws. Worth Fighting For presents a case for short-term success.

On the downside, the ACTU decided to go down the bureaucratic-organisational route rather than the movement route.

We know that in the long run it is the movement that counts and not large union bureaucracies and media campaigns. Muir fails to address this point.

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