Hundreds of thousands mobilise against Work Choices

December 2, 2006

Across Australia on November 30, hundreds of thousands of workers answered the Australian Council of Trade Unions' call to protest against Work Choices. The ACTU estimated that around 270,000 people took part, the majority hooked up to the Sky Channel broadcasts from the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).

While rallies remained sizeable in most cities — the largest component an estimated 116,000 across NSW — with the exception of Adelaide, numbers were down on previous ACTU protests. A massive 600,000 people protested on November 15, 2005. It also fell short of the target of 500,000, with the ACTU blaming "intimidation from the federal government and strong pressure to stay at work from many employers".

The ACTU used the day to articulate its new strategy, with secretary Greg Combet telling the MCG crowd: "Your rights at work are not just worth fighting for — they are worth voting for". As he did so, the word "fighting" was replaced by "voting" in the centrefield.

Citing the failure of the state governments' High Court challenge against Work Choices, Combet argued that the only practical strategy left now was electoral. "John Howard is not prepared to repeal the laws, so we must elect a government that will", Combet said. His message was backed up by the ALP's Kim Beazley who said, "The only way to get rid of these extreme laws is to throw Howard out".

In Sydney, Unions NSW secretary John Robertson told protesters the campaign had to take account of bosses' attempts to stop workers attending rallies, later saying a protest planned for April 2007 would take place on a weekend to allow more workers "to freely attend".

The clear message from ALP and state labour council leaders on November 30 was that the only way to defeat Howard's IR laws was to vote Labor in at the next election.

Unions believe that the smaller turnout was because of the impact of the new IR laws, which have made the task of organising workers more difficult.

Individual workers can be fined $6000 for taking industrial action outside of protected action, while unions can be fined up to $33,000. Workers in businesses of less than 100 employees can also be sacked for no reason, with 90% of workers in private industry not covered by unfair dismissal laws.

A federal public servant, Greg McCarron, was forced to appeal to a full bench of the Federal Court for the right to use his leave entitlements to attend the rally. In Wollongong, Blue Scope steelworkers were forced to attend one-on-one meetings with managers and warned off attending the rally.

Many workplaces experienced this sort of intimidation, although the results were mixed: in some cases it made workers more determined to attend. For example, when Amcor Flexibles in Melbourne threatened the work force with $6000 fines, they shut the plant down for 24 hours to attend the rally. The same workers already face $6000 fines for industrial action earlier this year.

Because unions are so worried about the consequences of illegal industrial action, none were prepared to openly call for a strike. This makes individual workers far more cautious.

While most unions in Melbourne put in a lot of work to build November 30, including some of the less active unions, most leaderships left it to members to work out whether to take annual leave, flex time, sick leave, or strike. Other unions left it to individual workplaces to work out whether to shut down completely, or send a delegation.

The November 30 Herald Sun's online report quoted Combet as saying unions had tried to minimise the protest's disruptive effect on businesses and schools. Asked why the rally wasn't held on a Saturday, Combet replied: "One of the factors we took into account … was the availability of the MCG, which was pretty tight."

Geelong Trades Hall secretary Tim Gooden believes that the ACTU is demobilising the campaign with its vote Labor message. "Why would you brave threats from your boss to attend a rally if you're being told by the ACTU that rallies don't achieve anything, only voting does? It reinforces a feeling of powerlessness", he told Green Left Weekly. He also disagreed with the argument that disrupting business with industrial action doesn't have a role in this campaign.

The ACTU isn't attempting to build the sort of campaign that could force Howard's hand on these laws, he said. "We all want Howard out, but a 'Vote Labor' campaign will leave workers feeling used, and given levels of cynicism about the two-party game, less interested in organising for next protest", Gooden said. "What if Labor isn't elected? Does that mean the campaign to protect our rights at work is over? Of course not."

The union movement will pay a price for turning the anti-Work Choices campaign into a Labor Party election campaign. A serious campaign to defeat Howard and his reactionary IR laws would require another round of mass protests early in 2007, in which unions call on their members to take strike action to attend the rally. The rally platforms should also include Green and socialist as well as Labor unionists. Importantly too, the campaign has to switch from its narrow election focus to rebuilding workers' confidence that it is possible to build a mass campaign against the anti-worker laws that is powerful enough to force the Howard government to back down from the laws or pay a big political price. The rallies also need to demand that Labor commit to repealing every single piece of anti-union law. To date, it hasn't done this.

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