Australian unionists have a wealth of experiences to draw on in the fight against the Howard government's Work Choices legislation. Lessons can be drawn not just from the historic victories and defeats of the union movement in this country, but also from the experiences of working-class struggles in other countries.
In 2005 and 2006, French workers and students waged a series of magnificent fights against their government. At a trade union workshop in Geelong in late October, French academic Stephane Lequeux captivated participants with his account of French workers' struggle and drew some important lessons relevant to Australian unions' fight to defend the right to organise.
Lequeux pointed out that the right to organise wasn't something that was "awarded" to workers — "we got it through struggle". "So if you think you are going to take it back — we are going to fight", he added.
The events in France came after a 10-year revitalisation in the trade union movement, workers' confidence having been rebuilt on the back of a succession of victories. Lequeux said that although union membership density is very low in France — only 5% in the private sector — combativity has led to union victories.
In early 2006, the French government introduced the "First Employment Contract" (CPE) law, which would have allowed workers under the age of 26 to be sacked without reason in their first two years of employment. Massive youth protests greeted the law. "So when there was a massive protest against the new laws on youth wages, the trade unions supported it", Lequeux explained.
"Imagine this — every Tuesday there are 3 or 4 million people in the street with 78 universities on strike! That's how they won.
"This was weeks of protests — every week. And what people were saying was that you don't go forward economically by going backward socially ...
"The government told us that the new laws were legal but people said 'We don't care. We aren't contesting these laws on the grounds of legality we are contesting them on the grounds of social justice.'"
Because the movement was so strong, the government tried to bargain with it. "But", said Lequeux, "the answer was 'No. We don't want to bargain and we don't need to bargain.'
"Think about this: you bargain when you want a better deal or you bargain when you don't have a choice. But we don't want this and we have the choice to say 'No'. And the government said 'Well we can make some changes and ...' 'No forget it.'"
The trade unions were careful not to patronise the struggle's young participants. "They would let the young people struggle. They would say 'We are with you, go for it — learn to struggle. Learn that it is not easy to get something.' That's how you learn about democracy. So they left the leadership up to the young people.
Lequeux said the attitude of the protesters was summed up in the French expression, "If you don't have the right, take the left".
Lequeux told workshop participants that Work Choices was not just a danger to Australian workers, because "so many OECD countries are looking to Australia and thinking that if they can do it in Australia then why not us? ... It is so very important for us to fight here because it is setting a bad example to other governments."