History shows us how to defend Medicare

September 12, 2014
Medicare is an iconic issue for the great majority of ordinary people.

The bust the budget campaign stands at a crossroads right now. Although the federal government has succeeded in ramming some of its harsh austerity measures through parliament, there are large parts of the budget which are still held up in the Senate — largely due to the public hostility to these cutbacks.

There is widespread opposition to the deregulation of university fees, the attack on young jobseekers, the scrapping of the Renewable Energy Target and other climate change legislation, the public asset "recycling" bill and the Medicare co-payment proposal. None of these changes have managed pass, which is a win for the people's movement in opposition to the government's neoliberal offensive.

However, there can be no guarantee that the government will not be able to make deals with the cross-bench senators to force these unpopular measures into law. We need to increase the public pressure against these vicious cutbacks by stepping up the mass campaign against the budget, through united action of the trade union and social movements.

The campaign to defend Medicare against the GP co-payment and other attacks on the national healthcare system has been strong this year. Medicare is an iconic issue for the great majority of ordinary people.

The question is whether the unions and community movement are able to mobilise with enough militant force to seriously challenge Prime Minister Tony Abbott's attacks on Medicare and the welfare system. Industrial action is one essential weapon in any strategy to take on the government.

We can learn from history about the capacity of the labour movement to act decisively, using industrial action to defend the political interests of working people.

General strike

Almost 40 years ago, the union movement organised a national general strike to defend Medibank — the precursor to Medicare — that was under attack by the then Coalition federal government of Malcolm Fraser.

Medibank had been introduced by the Gough Whitlam Labor government in 1974, largely dismantled under Fraser, and finally reintroduced as Medicare in 1984 under the Bob Hawke Labor government.

The following is an account of the lead-up to, and unfolding of, the Medibank general strike, in an article I wrote in July, 1976, published in Direct Action.

"In what was described by a number of union leaders as a historic decision, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has called its first ever 24-hour nationwide general strike for Monday July 12.

"The national strike call, which has never happened before in the 49-year history of the ACTU, came in a resolution from the ACTU executive which was endorsed by more than 200 delegates at the special national unions conference held in Sydney on July 5 and 6. The strike has been called in opposition to the Liberal government's threat to dismantle Medibank.

"The strike decision has extremely far-reaching significance. It is a direct result of the powerful groundswell of opposition among working people to the Fraser government's economic policies, and especially to the threat to destroy Medibank.

"The build-up to July 12 has proceeded over a period of months, with a series of stoppages, rallies, marches and meetings all over the country. Chief among these were stoppages in Sydney, Brisbane, Newcastle and the NSW South Coast, and a number of shop stewards' and delegates' meetings in Victoria leading up to a state-wide four-hour stoppage on June 16 and the day-long strike called by the Victorian Trades Hall Council last June 30.

"All these, together with countless job meetings in many states, have set the scene for the biggest national strike in the history of the Australian labour movement.

"The strike is a reflection of a deepening polarisation of class forces as the government steps up its drive against welfare, jobs and wages. The intransigence of the Liberals in the face of intense criticism of its Medibank-wrecking proposals, (including some muted criticism even from usually conservative press sources), has shown their determination to throw back the major social gains made by workers during the period of the Labor government."

An article in the next issue of Direct Action described how the strike brought industry to a halt.

"Australia's first, nation-wide 24-hour strike around Medibank was a resounding success. This is the essential message of July 12.

"Around the country basic industry was brought to an almost total standstill. Transport, both in the public commuter sector and in the industrial and commercial area, was almost non-existent in most major cities. In the two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, there was hardly a bus or truck on the road. No trains ran anywhere in the country.

"Warehouses were largely shut down, the waterfront was silent, and all scheduled flights from airports were cancelled. A considerable number of pubs were closed, as well as all other bars relying on members of the Liquor and Allied Trades Union, which called its members out.

"The strike seems to have been most effective in NSW and Victoria. The July 12 Sydney Sun reported: 'Of Victoria's workforce of about 500,000, about three-quarters were on strike, had been laid off or could not get to work, union sources estimated.'

"Victorian powerworkers severely restricted output, resulting in heavy power cuts to industry. According to the July 13 Australian, the deputy national director of the Metal Trades Industry Association, Ian Little, said there was a 'substantial shutdown' of Victorian plants.

"Keith Martin reported in the July 13 Sydney Morning Herald: 'Heavy industry in Sydney, Newcastle and Port Kembla was particularly hard hit. The steelworks at Newcastle and Port Kembla were closed, except for continuous process plants.

"'In a 100-kilometre survey of key industrial centres in the Sydney suburbs, I found most major metal, engineering, building materials, chemical and other manufacturing industries closed.'

Strike ‘effective plus’

"In the view of Frank Bollins, an official of the NSW branch of the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union, the strike was 'effective plus'. He said that despite a massive effort by the employers to cut down the strength of the stoppage, they could not point to 'one major factory that was working', in Sydney.

“Max Taylor, the general secretary of the NSW Teachers Federation which backed the strike, described it as 'very successful', and as 'an important first step, so long as the ACTU continues with the Medibank campaign'. A considerable number of NSW schools were closed or had reduced attendance of staff and students on July 12.

"The July 13 Australian also reported: 'The steelworks and most of the shops were closed in Wollongong, and a spokesman said, "The city is paralysed."'

"And: 'In South Australia, about 150,000 workers struck at a cost of $100 million to industry. The state's three largest manufacturers, BHP, GM-H and Chrysler, were paralysed when 25,000 workers walked off. Work on all major building sites stopped as 12,000 building workers supported the strike.'

"The paper also reported that: 'More than 250,000 Queensland unionists took part in the strike.' The strike appears to have been effective throughout most of Western Australia.

"The whole experience of July 12 has been invaluable for Australian workers, and quite unprecedented in this country. Not even the [anti-penal powers] upsurge around [the jailing of tramways union official] Clarrie O'Shea in 1969 involved so many unionists in action at once."

"Victory on the Medibank issue, especially if the government can be forced to drop all plans to introduce a Medibank levy, will be a vital first step in the defence of living standards overall. It would open the way to a new confidence in the face of Fraser's horror budget and the Liberals' wage-cutting schemes."

In the end, the great Medibank general strike of July 12, 1976 was not enough to force Fraser to drop his plans to undermine it as a universal national health scheme. The ACTU leadership under then-president Bob Hawke refused to follow up the 24-hour strike with further industrial action to defend Medibank.

However, the strike was a large show of force by the labour movement, which began the process of weakening the Fraser government, eventually leading to its defeat in the March 1983 federal election. The legacy of July 1976 was the campaign which led to the Hawke Labor government reintroducing a new, universal national health scheme in the form of Medicare in 1984.

Today, despite the changed conditions, we can learn much from the experience of 1976. If the union movement, together with the community campaigns against the Abbott government's attack on Medicare and the public sector in general, can gather momentum with a combination of industrial and political action, the government's offensive can be defeated.

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Hi Jim. I really enjoyed this article, and your concise laying out of the history. See you on Saturday. Regards, Betty

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