How can we Change the Rules?

May 18, 2018
120,000 workers march in Melbourne on May 9 to change the rules.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions' new Change the Rules campaign is well underway.

In conjunction with a professional advertising and social media strategy, the campaign was launched on April 7, building up to the 12 Days of Action in early May around the May Day rallies. Thousands of people attended these rallies across the country, culminating in 120,000 workers marching in Melbourne on May 9.

That's a good start, but there is a real risk that some unions will think that if Labor is polling well and likely to win government then that would be enough. In that case, they may think it would be better not to go too hard and wait to “get a seat at the table” after the election. 

The number of workers who have mobilised already has shown the campaign does have the potential to go beyond just a re-elect Labor campaign. But if the success of the campaign is defined by 1) Labor winning power; 2) it actually putting forward the changes; and 3) getting them passed in the Senate, then the risk is the outcome of the campaign will be decided by lobbyists, rather than rank and file workers.

Even if Labor does get elected, do we want to take a seat at the table with our caps in our hands or come in swinging a sledge hammer?

History shows that all great campaigns and demands were won after industrial action where the bosses finally conceded and were forced to make compromises that end up as awards or law and flowed on to most workers — workers rights' are not just handed out to us by the bosses. I cannot think of a major concession that the bosses have given up without a genuine struggle on our part.

The opposition is already starting to organise. The Business Council of Australia has set up a war chest and will use social media marketing tactics to counter the Change the Rules campaign. It will undoubtedly be lobbying the Senate just as hard, if not harder, than the ACTU. They will certainly have more money and resources at their disposal.

Like many workers, I already have a lot personally invested in this campaign: I’ve forgone 6 hours’ pay to attend the mass delegates meeting in Melbourne on April 7 for the launch, a meeting where there were not enough seats or information kits for all the delegates attending. I’ve done the workplace photo for social media holding up “Ready to Change the Rules" placards and happily lost another 8 hours’ pay to attend the best union rally in Melbourne for years — but now what?

What is needed now is regional rallies for the workers who couldn't attend or didn’t know about the 12 Days of Action. We need the other states to plan stop-work rallies on a work day, that is, workers need to take industrial action, not just attend a weekend rally. So far only Melbourne has taken industrial action.

We also need more mass delegates meetings, where all delegates can attend and actually fit into the venue, to have their say and contribute ideas and strategies to the campaign. This is essential to involving workers and making the campaign democratic.

We need to use the tactics that were most successful during the 2005–07 anti-WorkChoices campaign, such as travelling to workplaces to build the campaign. In that campaign, activists would turn up to a big workplace in the morning with mobile billboards and sound systems mounted on utes to attract attention. The local union would ask workers to join us outside the factory gate and all the workers would down tools and come out to hear then-ACTU president Sharan Burrow's speech about the campaign and the next rally.

Workplaces next to or near politicians’ offices could be targeted for snap pickets to highlight the wage theft and unlawful behaviour of employers. I bet most, if not all, politicians have electorate offices that are next to an employer that is ripping off workers.

Advertising, social media campaigns, road shows, street stalls, mobile soap boxes, public town meetings and discussions with community groups are all good tactics that can help build awareness and the campaign's momentum. But in the absence of industrial action will have a limited effect.

While they can certainly be another pressure point, we also cannot afford to wait for or get sidetracked into election campaigns. It is clear by the numbers that turned up to the Melbourne rally that workers want to fight. What the anti-WorkChoices or any well-run industrial campaign shows is that even workers who aren't in a union will join and get involved in their thousands if they can see a campaign that is run by workers and fighting for their interests.

While the demands of the campaign are generally good and have been well received by delegates and officials alike, there is a still a long way to go before the rest of the working class is aware of the campaign and gets behind it. That's what is needed if we're going to win the demands and change the rules.

[Tim Gooden is a former secretary of the Geelong Trades Hall, a CFMEU member, the Victorian Trade Unionist of the Year and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]

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