Resisting Howard's anti-worker agenda

February 16, 2005

Industrial relations and welfare "reform" are the two most important goals for the Coalition government's fourth term, Prime Minister John Howard told Sunday program host Laurie Oakes on February 6.

Over the last few weeks there has been a torrent of articles in the corporate media about the significance of industrial relations reform. In one article, federal workplace relations minister Kevin Andrews speculated that the changes could mean the "death" of unions. "If they put their heads in the sand about the changes, then I think they will become increasingly irrelevant. At the moment they're not adapting", Andrews told the February 4 Sydney Morning Herald.

Among the planned "reforms" that the Howard government intends to push through the federal parliament are the exemption of small business from unfair dismissal laws, requirements for secret ballots and "cooling-off" periods before strikes, bans on industrial action during the lifetime of an enterprise agreement, granting third parties the right to ask for strikes to be suspended if they are being affected, and declaring whole industries such as health, education and transport off-limits to industrial action.

According to the February 4 SMH article, "Andrews will report to cabinet next month on how he can push workplace changes as far as possible without alienating voters. He will roll together much of the workplace legislation the Senate blocked over the years, beginning with an exemption from unfair dismissal laws for small businesses and rules to streamline awards."

The article also reported that "Andrews said he would champion Australian Workplace Agreements — the government's preferred individual contracts — and forcefully introduce them to the public sector, a traditional union heartland".

So far, the Australian Council of Trade Unions has not planned any collective action against the government's proposed attacks on unions. ACTU secretary Greg Combet and ACTU president Sharan Burrow have explicitly ruled out industrial action and demonstrations against the Howard government's anti-union agenda. They have stated that unions should instead focus on building up workplace organisation.

Fortunately, there are some union leaders who recognise the need for unions to begin resisting the Howard agenda, and to not just try to sit out the Coalition government's attacks. In Melbourne, a number of unionists have taken the welcome initiative to organise a Defend the Unions Committee in Melbourne to prepare mass protests against the government's attacks.

Mass union protests against Howard's anti-union plans will be important in building the morale of unionists and the working class as a whole. It will be an important step towards giving workers confidence to fight Howard's attacks when the government attempts to pick off their union. If unions are seen to be resisting Howard, more workers are likely to join unions and get actively involved in them.

Alliances of those unionists prepared to take militant action to defend each other, coupled with serious community mobilisations, will be vital to defeating the Howard government's agenda.

To facilitate the formation of such alliances, Socialist Alliance unionists have taken the initiative to organise a national fightback conference of union militants in Melbourne on June 11. The Socialist Alliance unionists hope to work with other militant unionists to make this one-day conference effective.

Green Left Weekly recognises that this conference could be an important step in building the nationwide campaign of mass actions that are needed to resist and defeat Howard's anti-worker agenda, and will commit its resources to helping build it.

From Green Left Weekly, February 16, 2005.
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