OUR COMMON CAUSE: An appeal for solidarity


Dear fellow trade unionists and social activists,

On October 2, the national council of my union, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), joined other unions in protesting the jailing of former Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) Victorian secretary Craig Johnston. The national council resolved to support the campaign to have Craig released from prison.

Craig was jailed for nine months by the Victorian Supreme Court on August 27 for taking part in brief occupations of the premises of Skilled Engineering and Johnson Tiles during an industrial dispute over job cuts in 2001.

All social protest movements — the student movement, the environment movement, the anti-racism movement, the women's movement and others — as well as the trade union movement, have at times occupied or "walked through" premises. Sometimes this has resulted in minor damage to property. But I have not heard of anyone else being jailed in recent times for such action.

No trade unionist or political activist should be jailed for taking part in such a protest.

This nine-month jail sentence is totally disproportionate. For all the workplace deaths and injuries suffered by Australian workers every year — including thousands of deaths caused by James Hardie asbestos products — you won't find one single employer behind bars.

Despite 17 others being arrested during the industrial dispute at Johnson Tiles in Melbourne in 2001, only Craig Johnston has been jailed. The others either had their charges dismissed or received good behaviour bonds.

Some of the Johnson Tiles workers haven't worked since the dispute. Johnson Tiles has not been prosecuted for stripping away the livelihoods of the 29 workers, and yet one of the unionists who defended their jobs is in jail.

The national councillors of my union recognised that the jailing of a trade unionist for his or her role in an industrial dispute is a matter of serious concern to all union members. If we allow governments and the bosses to victimise one unionist, they will not stop there. More of our comrades will face jail for standing up for our members' rights and this will weaken our unions.

It will also be a blow to democratic rights. Already we see the federal government conspiring to silence Greenpeace through the courts. Who knows what other community organisations will be next?

In 2003, my union was targeted by the Coalition government, through the Higher Education Reform Bill. With PM John Howard's re-election and control of the Senate, more than ever we need to defend militants like Craig. Craig is a model for all of us who believe that unjust industrial laws must be challenged. We know that Howard will soon launch all-out industrial attacks on working people and the unions to which we belong.

While the Australian Council of Trade Unions goes weak at the knees and launches its "PR campaign" aimed at lobbying the bosses to defend collective bargaining on our behalf, the government will use the Workplace Relations Act to try to stifle a fightback by progressive, militant unions. To defeat this government's attacks, we need to have the best union militants beside us to wage a determined struggle — militants like Craig.

A petition seeking Craig's release was launched at a 250-strong public meeting of unionists from Melbourne and Geelong on September 23. Thousands of unionists and their supporters from around Australia will sign this petition calling on Victorian Premier Steve Bracks and his attorney-general, Rob Hulls, to show clemency and release Craig from jail. It needs your support.

The petition will be presented to parliament by a mass union rally on November 25.

When Craig was elected Victorian AMWU metal division secretary in 1998 and Victorian state secretary in 2000, the members in his union — as in many other unions — had suffered serious setbacks. The abolition of awards by former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett and award stripping by the federal Coalition government had resulted in the wholesale loss of conditions in many areas in manufacturing.

Craig and the Workers First team in the AMWU turned this situation around with a more active, more militant style of trade unionism.

This worried the employers. And as the Workers First example inspired others, more militant tickets were elected, not just in the AMWU, but in a number of unions.

The newspapers began to carry the employers' complaints about this militant leadership in the Victorian AMWU. But many workers, myself included, were inspired.

Craig has been singled out and jailed because of his prominent role as a militant trade union official.

An injury to one is an injury to all. Please give your support to the campaign to free Craig Johnston.

Susan Price

[Susan Price is an NTEU national councillor and was the Socialist Alliance candidate for Sydney in the federal election.]

From Green Left Weekly, November 3, 2004.
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