National union congress talks Right To Strike

About 100 unionists packed the Unions NSW Atrium on May 14 to discuss the right to strike campaign, at a fringe event of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Congress that began the same day.

Titled “Advance Australia Fair? Australian jobs and the right to strike”, the forum was sponsored by the Victorian Trades Hall Council. VTHC secretary Brian Boyd said it had not generally sponsored or organised ACTU fringe events, but this campaign warranted it.

The VTHC launched the Right to Strike campaign after it was first raised at the December 2010 Union and Community Summer School.

The forum was opened by Unions NSW secretary Mark Lennon, who said that in NSW “there is no right to strike ... and with Barry O'Farrell's new laws, there is no right for unions to even affiliate to a political party of their choice any longer in NSW”.

Victorian Electrical Trades Union secretary Dean Mighell discussed what was happening to jobs of his members while their ability to take industrial action was restricted. “Jobs are being offshored to Mexico, where capital can get cheaper labour costs ... Free trade is cut-throat.” He said the current mining boom was concerning: “We need to think beyond the quarry.”

ACTU president Ged Kearney discussed the union movement's campaign around insecure work, and said the right to strike is a fundamental right.

Len Cooper, Victorian secretary of the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union said: “We live in a country that is described as democratic – yet the basics of international labour laws are excluding both federal and state law.

“This is not a small issue - this affects 11 million workers. This is about the right to strike, the right to picket, the right to take solidarity action.”

Cooper said that in the capitalist crisis, many militant unionists were being sacked or seeing their jobs outsourced or offshored.

We need to defend the right to strike. And the right to strike will only be won by striking," he said to cheers from the crowd.

Chris White, former secretary of the South Australian Trades and Labour Council and a union activist for 30 years, told the meeting that all penal powers needed to be repealed, including “all restrictions in Fair Work Australia that were adopted word-for-word from Work Choices”.

“The right to strike should not mean having to go to a commission, giving three days notice so that employers get forewarning to make contingencies to undermine workers' industrial action. It should just be about a meeting of workers making a decision collectively.”

White also called for the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission completely, not just in name.

White said the importance of striking should not be limited to economic interests: "Unions should be able to take solidarity strikes. In the past, when Indonesia was committing genocide in East Timor, we used to be able to strike to support the people of East Timor."

He also said the question of workers' control and self-management needs to be on the agenda. "Workers can control our own economy without capitalists."

In discussion, South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris spoke strongly in favour of the campaign, saying it shouldn't be a fringe event, and "the right to strike is the main game. Capital can strike, and we should be able to as well. If you don't have the right to withdraw labour, you are a slave.”

Geelong Trades Hall Secretary Tim Gooden said the campaign needed to spread. He said unions should not be allowed to be picked off, but build a fighting alliance together to push the right to strike.

Gooden said the experience of unions in the Clarrie OShea case in 1969 showed that the battle to free O'Shea, who was jailed for striking, was not a short one, but a campaign built over years.

Susan Price, branch secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union at the University of NSW, said attendees should sign on to a joint statement in support of the right to strike campaign that was initiated in NSW. Many rank-and-file and union leaders had pledged support.

Initial NSW signatories to the statement include veteran trade unionist Fred Moore; assistant national secretary of the MUA Warren Smith, deputy branch secretary of the MUA in Sydney Paul Keating, NSW state secretary of the CFMEU Brian Parker, University of NSW branch secretary of the NTEU Susan Price, Sydney University branch secretary of the NTEU Michael Thomson, and state councillor of NSW Teachers Federation John Gauci.

The ACTU Congress voted on a 釘etter Bargaining Policy・ that included "restoring an effective right to strike". This policy notes that the International Labour Organisation has described Fair Work Australia's regulation of industrial action as 兎xcessive・ and calls for industrial action to be available without a secret ballot. The policy also calls for bosses to have to give three days notice for lockouts and not be able to use replacement labour during industrial action. It also demands an end to the outlawing of pattern bargaining, and for an end to workers or their unions facing coercive or punitive court orders from industrial action, unless Fair Work Australia has ordered an end to the industrial action.

[To sign the right to strike statement or for more information, contact Susan Price on 0400 320 602 or pricesusan9@gmail.com.]