How unions struck against destruction of Medibank
By Sue Boland
July 12, 1976, was a historic date for Australian labour movement. It was the date of the first nationwide 24-hour strike called by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).
The strike was the culmination of months of industrial action, rallies, meetings and work bans to prevent Malcolm Fraser's Liberal government from dismantling the universal, free health care system, Medibank.
The big business press denounced the trade unions for organising a "political strike". An editorial in the Australian declared: "Union leaders should leave politics to the politicians and concern themselves with industrial issues".
Despite the bosses' propaganda, the strike was enormously successful, bringing industry to a halt around the country. By supporting the stoppage enthusiastically, workers showed they believed it was just as important to organise around political issues vital to working people as it is to organise around on-the-job issues.
Like Howard and his GST, the Fraser government did not have a "mandate" to dismantle Medibank. In the 1975 election campaign, Fraser had promised to retain Medibank.
Breaking that election promise resulted in an explosion of anger, especially as it was less than a year since the Labor government had been undemocratically thrown out of office.
Initially, the ACTU, under the leadership of Bob Hawke, refused to call industrial action to defend Medibank. Hawke even condemned unions that had begun to take action. His strategy was to do a deal with Fraser.
Hawke's plans were foiled because thousands of workers around the country were already engaged in strike action to defend Medibank, and Fraser refused to offer any concessions.
The left unions played a crucial role in the campaign. Most, spurred on by their ranks, argued that the union movement had to campaign to save Medibank or the Fraser government would attempt to destroy the whole welfare system. The unions knew that Fraser was planning a horror budget.
Hawke's lack of commitment to the Medibank campaign led to it fizzling out after the July 12 strike. Hawke and the right-wing unions saw the strike simply as a mass lobbying exercise to win concessions from the government, rather than a campaign to save Medibank.
Rather than pursuing victory by following the strike with a campaign, the ACTU and state trades and labour councils refused to endorse further industrial action. They had already undermined the momentum of the campaign by refusing to organise rallies to coincide with the national strike, and with an earlier Victorian strike.
While the Medibank campaign did not result in a victory, the resistance of workers to the dismantling of Medibank, and to other attempts by the government and the bosses to cut workers' living standards, meant that big business began to see the Fraser government as a lame duck government. While the government did attempt to roll back workers' rights, it wasn't as successful as the Hawke Labor government later proved to be.
Eventually, the Fraser government was thrown out of government in the 1983 elections, shortly after big industrial campaigns in the transport, telecommunications and vehicle industries.
If unions are serious about defending workers' rights, it is not possible to draw a line between "industrial" issues and "political" issues that affect workers' health (Medibank), income (GST) and ability to survive when they can't work (unemployment and sickness benefits, pensions).
To defend their living standards, workers and their unions have to concern themselves with politics. They cannot leave politics to professional politicians. The alternative is to remain passive and watch as these professional politicians, in cahoots with big business, reduce workers' living standards.
Each time this anti-worker cabal manages to reduce our living standards without encountering resistance, it gains more confidence to launch deeper and more vicious attacks.
If the Fraser government had not met resistance from workers, it would have implemented increasingly severe policies. The Medibank strike slowed it down.
A similar situation exists today. We have a federal government, elected with a minority of votes, attempting to implement a 10% GST — equivalent to an across-the-board pay cut.
A union-initiated and -led campaign involving national 24-hour strikes, combined with state-wide actions, could defeat the GST and put the Howard government on notice that workers are not prepared to passively permit the government to slash living standards.
The fact that workers mobilised in such large numbers to defend Medibank is an example of what workers can do to stop the GST — if the union movement, particularly the left unions, is prepared to provide the necessary leadership.