Marking the right squares will not defeat Work Choices


Voting Howard out on November 24 will not be enough to defeat Work Choices. However, on the choice of alternative governments, it is important that we preference Labor ahead of the Coalition, to elect a Labor government. And if we vote for the Socialist Alliance first and the Greens second, we send the most powerful message that any vote can, that we want all of Howard's IR laws abolished, not just tinkered with. But even the election of a Labor government will not be the end of it. If we are to finally bury Work Choices once and for all, we will have to continue the struggle.

Labor's IR policy — Forward with Fairness — promises only to modify Howard's IR laws. Labor intends to keep the ban on strikes outside a bargaining period, the insistence on secret ballots before strikes and the restrictions on union officials' right to enter the workplace. Labor has agreed to reinstate unfair dismissal laws (in part), to abolish individual contracts (AWAs — but only by 2013) and to abolish the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), but only in 2010 — then to replace it with a different "tough cop on the beat", according to Labor IR spokesperson, Julia Gillard.

Nevertheless, it is important to vote to elect a Labor government on November 24, not least of all because Labor's policy is not yet law. Between the election of a Labor government and the framing of its IR legislation, there will be a window of opportunity to pressure the government to carry through on its promise to really "tear up" Work Choices.

This doesn't mean that we can simply leave it to union officials who also happen to be members of the ALP. Back room manoeuvring and trade-offs brought us the Prices and Incomes Accord the last time the Labor Party was elected from opposition in 1983. Under that policy, between 1983 to 1996, real wages fell between 17-28%, while unionisation declined 12% to 39% of the work force (it now stands at around 20%). What's needed is a public campaign, democratically controlled by union members, aimed at forcing Labor to come good on its promises.

Such a sustained campaign is not without precedent. The Your Rights at Work (YRAW) campaign, led by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) began on such a campaigning footing. Large public demonstrations involving widespread stop-works were crucial to placing the campaign to overturn Work Choices squarely on the Labor Party's agenda in 2005. The nationally coordinated November 15 rallies — involving over 500,000 people — were the largest demonstrations for workers' rights in Australia's history. At the November 15 2005 rally in Melbourne, then-ACTU national secretary Greg Combet offered defiance to Howard's laws, saying "Unions must continue to stand up for people. As a union leader let me make this clear. I will not pay a $33,000 fine for asking for people to be treated fairly. Because the government has gone too far. On such a fundamental issue, we must look the government in the eye and stare them down. I will be asking other union leaders to do the same." Had the ACTU led such a campaign of militant defiance to Work Choices, the laws may have been rendered inoperative sooner. However a change of government gives the perfect opportunity to relaunch such a campaign in earnest.

The reality is that the ACTU demobilised the YRAW campaign throughout 2006. Following the proclamation of Work Choices laws in March 2006, the size of mass rallies opposing the legislation declined in size, and this year no nationally coordinated rallies were called, although some states (notably Victoria on September 26) did organise mass demonstrations in opposition to the laws.

The other side to such a campaign must be defiance in the workplace. In France, transport workers launched an indefinite strike against the Sarkozy administration's attempt to reduce their pension entitlements on November 13. This follows the successful campaign by French workers and students to overturn the CPE (First Employment Contract law) in March and April 2006. Over 3 million people rallied and struck against this law in France on March 28 and again on April 4. The French workers and students continued to mobilise against the law, with the unwavering demand that it be repealed, until they were victorious. But France does not have the union density in the work force that Australia has — in fact it has half the proportion of unionisation of Australia at less than 10%!

Levels of industrial action in Australia are at their lowest levels since 1913. The response to Work Choices by the Australian union movement has been cautious. The building unions rushed through collective agreements covering most large worksites in the months before Work Choices became law, avoiding any direct confrontation with the laws and preferring to bank on the election of a Labor government overturning the laws. With those collective agreements approaching their end date, unions face a choice, whichever party forms government after November 24. Either they submit to the Coalition laws (that the Labor Party will largely retain) and negotiate with employers from a position of extreme weakness, or they defy the laws and seek to win gains for their members using their industrial strength.

In 1998, faced with the attempt by the federal Coalition government backed by Patrick Stevedores to smash the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), the union movement — notably the building and construction unions in Victoria and Western Australia — defied the Workplace Relations Act and police intimidation and staged extensive pickets, preventing containers from leaving the wharves. The failure of the government and the employer to break these pickets led to a resolution of the dispute, which while not an unqualified victory, preserved unionisation in the industry.

Concerted action and solidarity with unions under attack will be required if the union movement is to win its demands under a Rudd Labor government. The alternative is to sit by while long-won rights are lost forever.

Of course, the election of a Labor government is no certainty. Howard is a master trickster and has won elections from behind in the past — even while failing to secure a majority of the popular vote nationally. After November 24, workers in Australia may face a re-elected Coalition government, poised to go on the offensive.

In Britain, the Thatcher government introduced draconian anti-union legislation in its first term (1979-83). However it was only once the Conservatives had secured re-election that they unleashed their industrial war against the National Union of Miners, culminating in the protracted miners' strike of 1984-85, in which the miners were decisively beaten. Howard has avoided head-on confrontations with the union movement in the first term of Work Choices, being satisfied with taking gains among the unorganised sectors, who have been the most likely to fall victim to individual contracts (AWAs) to date. Re-election of the Howard government will likely open the floodgates. Frontal assaults on the union movement like the 1998 MUA dispute are likely to become the norm.

Whichever party forms government after November 24, the union movement will have to face a challenge. Whether the challenge is to go on the offensive under a Labor government (to force it to come good on its promise to "tear-up" Work Choices), or to go on the defensive under a Coalition government (to defend fundamental rights and make the laws unworkable), the only way forward for the union movement after November 24 is to rejoin the struggle.