Forum discusses (re)winning the right to strike

NTEU banner from the Sydney May Day rally, 2018.

The Sydney University branch of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) held a forum on campus on June 13 to discuss how to organise to rewin the right to strike.

Professor John Buchanan, from the University of Sydney Business School, told the forum: "The current Fair Work Act (FWA), introduced by the previous Labor government, is the second worst industrial relations legislation in Australian history, after John Howard's Work Choices.

"The FWA cannot be reformed; it needs to be totally replaced. The heart of the issue is that our current labour laws are structured to demobilise solidarity between different sections of workers and their unions.

"Despite being weakened over recent decades, the Australian labour movement is still strong. It is still capable of acting as a unified force with a considerable tradition of solidarity, as shown during the 1998 Patrick waterfront dispute.

"As part of the ACTU's Change the Rules campaign, we need to focus on two key claims: the right to engage in industry-wide industrial action (pattern-bargaining); and the right to take sympathy action (so-called secondary boycotts).

"In order to win, the union movement needs an active workplace delegate structure, and we need to get behind and radicalise the Change the Rules campaign. Our strategy must be based on building cross-union organisation and solidarity."

Erima Dall, from the Maritime Union of Australia, called for mass industrial action to win the right to strike. "We need to intervene in the Change the Rules campaign, urging strike action in order to really bring about real change in the industrial situation."

Dall recounted the experience of maritime workers at the Hutchison terminal at Port Botany, fighting for occupational safety after a recent serious accident at the terminal. "In practice, we often need to take industrial action, even if it is supposedly unlawful,” she said.

"In NSW, the union movement needs to follow the example of Victoria in organising mass delegates' meetings, leading to general stoppages to demand our rights. While the demand for the right to strike is in the platform of the Change the Rules campaign, we need to put it right up front."

President of the Sydney University NTEU, Kurt Iveson, told the forum: "We need the right to take industrial action outside an official bargaining period, and in solidarity with other workers.

"The right to strike was essential to previous industrial struggles, including the Clarrie O'Shea penal powers dispute of 1969, and the NSW Builders Labourers Federation's Green Bans movement of the early 1970s.

"We need to learn from the history of the union movement, and re-win our right to strike today. These lessons are important for us in the NTEU in a university context, as well as the broader union movement.”