Union activists urge industrial action to beat the budget

Susan Price:n 'This budget is ideological: but it's only class war if we fight back'.

A glaring omission from the strategy debate over how to fight the budget has been any solid discussion from most union leaders about how and when to deploy industrial action.

At the packed out mass delegates' meeting in Sydney on June 12, National Tertiary Education Union activist Susan Price moved two amendments to the official motion that, judging from the room, had they been put would have committed Unions NSW to do just that.

“Back in 1976, in response to the attacks on Medibank, workers across the country took coordinated industrial action. That is the kind of response we need today,” Price said.

“This budget is ideological: but it's only class war if we fight back,” Price added to roaring applause from the packed room.

The amendments requested that Unions NSW plan for a NSW-wide strike, and that Unions NSW call on the Australian Council of Trade Unions to organise a national day of action against the budget.

The room was largely in support on Price's amendments, but officials refused to allow the amendments to be put and hastily brought the meeting to a close.

An open letter to Unions NSW calling for industrial action has being signed by delegates and union members across the state.

Price told Green Left Weekly there's a clear precedent for defeating draconian laws. “The Your Rights at Work campaign, which was central to defeating the John Howard government, not only had workplace and local campaign groups, most importantly it also organised mass national days of action and strikes.

“More than 600,000 people rallied around the country in 2005 in the largest worker-led protests in Australian history. Many workers risked fines or dismissal to participate.

“Those strikes and rallies of hundreds of thousands were built out of mass delegates meetings of thousands. This is the sort of action we need now, even though the appropriation bills have disappointingly been waived through by the ALP and Greens.

“We still have to mount a struggle to defeat the worst of the bills — the attacks on Medicare, education, welfare and the environment.

“Unions — which have to stand up for their members, as well as the oppressed and marginalised — still have a critical role to play in shaping an inclusive and ecologically sustainable society.”

A RADICAL BUDGET

Joanne Faulkner, a branch committee member of the NTEU, signed the letter calling for industrial action because, she said, “I believe we need to show this government, and reassure the community, that unions are strong and we are willing to flex our collective muscle to stand for a fair go.

“This is a radical, ideological budget. Its aim is to 'keep people in their place’, to consolidate poverty by tipping anyone who could do okay, with a little support, into poverty.

“It’s also an attack on unionised labour: if the unemployed are starving, then workers are expendable too, and bosses are emboldened to cut pay and conditions.

“A national day of action is the only way workers can unite against it.”

Shane Bentley, a member of the Maritime Union of Australia, told GLW he supports unions taking industrial action for two reasons.

“The first is because concerted campaigns of industrial action can defeat the attacks of conservative governments. The examples include the campaign to free union leader Clarrie O'Shea in 1969 or the struggle against the Fraser Liberal government's attacks on Medibank in 1976.

“The amendments moved by Price at the Unions NSW meeting clearly chimed in with majority sentiment. The way that [Unions NSW secretary] Mark Lennon simply ignored the amendments and steamrolled the official resolution through reeked of petty bureaucratic highhandedness.

“What should have been an example of union democracy in action was instead turned into a farce.”

CAN'T RELY ON ALP TO PROTECT US

NSW Teachers Federation member John Gauci told GLW that he supported industrial action because “the Abbott government has stolen more than two thirds of our urgently needed education funding.

“These desperately needed funds were meant to support our most disadvantaged students, the overwhelming majority of whom attend public schools — including our Aboriginal students, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, students with special learning or behavioural needs, students in regional or remote areas and students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

“The Your Rights At Work campaign taught us that we cannot rely an ALP electoral victory to protect us. Rather than scrapping Work Choices, the ALP gave us 'Work Choices lite'.

“There is nothing that Abbott and the big end of fear more than a unified industrial response from working people. United industrial action from all unions is absolutely essential if we are to protect our communities from Abbott’s savage cuts.”

Sharlene Leroy-Dyer, a Wiradjuri woman, university student and lecturer, told GLW that she was encouraged by the response from the NSW delegates meeting.

“We need to mount this sort of industrial and community support now more than ever.”

This was the strategy that defeated the attacks on Medibank, she said, and “this budget is far more insidious”.

Leroy-Dyer, who is the NSW Division Indigenous Representative on the Indigenous Policy Committee of the NTEU, also said the budget contained a number of “insidious surprises” which have alarmed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

“Cuts were expected, even pre-empted, however when the news broke that $500 million had been cut from essential Indigenous services, the community was in shock.

“The increased costs and deregulation of education will mean that students will no longer go to university to experience university life or become critical thinkers.

“With the ever increasing debt, they will do their degree and leave. Students will be less likely to take on PhDs then move into the sector as academic staff.

“The Abbott government has no commitment to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; things just seem to be going backwards.

“This is also why I support unions taking industrial action to defend our basic rights.”

[Susan Price is a national co-convener of the Socialist Alliance. She will speak at a forum in Sydney on July 8 called "Horror budget: How can we stop it?" hosted by Green Left Weekly. Details are in the Activist Calendar on page 23.]