Union leaders discuss how to stop Howard and Work Choices

March 16, 2007

The AC Neilson poll published in the March 12 Sydney Morning Herald had the federal Labor opposition in a commanding lead over the Coalition, with 61% of the two party-preferred vote. ALP leader Kevin Rudd was the preferred prime minister of 53% of respondents. Green Left Weekly asked a number of trade unionists how much of Labor's rise in the polls can be attributed to the union movement's campaign against Work Choices and how they believe these unjust laws can be defeated.

"All of it, the overwhelming majority", Derek Belan, NSW state secretary of the National Union of Workers, told GLW. Dean Mighell, Victorian secretary of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) agreed. "One of the best things the union movement's done in a long time is to run the Your Rights at Work campaign", he said. "The change of leadership in the ALP has given people hope."

Unionists agreed that, while the poll results, showing a growing opposition to a range of Howard's policies, were welcome, it is still important to intensify the campaign against Work Choices. Labor also enjoyed good polling in the early months of 2001 and 2004, only to go on to lose the election.

"The unions have been the opposition to the Howard government over the last two years or so", said Dick Williams, Queensland state secretary of the ETU. While he welcomed the change of ALP leader, he warned that, "regardless of where the ALP goes, our campaign has to stand alone and has to be [about] what the unions are prepared to put in".

"The campaign against Work Choices needs to go full steam ahead", Mighell said, stressing the need for ongoing mass action. "Any union that gets complacent now is letting the side down.

"The Howard government says it supports democracy, yet it does everything to stifle it with bad laws that stop workers leaving the workplace. We've got to defy those laws: they're bad laws that should be defied. We should protest our hearts out in the lead-up to the next [federal election] campaign. I'd love to see another national day of protest, a big one, and one that engages the community as a whole."

Belan agreed: "Mobilisation is critical this year to hit home a point. We're just relying on cutting off the head of the snake in this campaign, and if we're unsuccessful we have to be prepared for the battle after it. So mobilisations will allow us to be prepared for that if necessary."

Williams said that the ETU agrees that mass protests have a "very significant role to play in the overall direction of the campaign". The Queensland branch of the ETU will be marking the first anniversary of the proclamation of Work Choices on March 27 with a mass rally at the premises of SJ Electrics in Brisbane and is calling on supporters to join them.

"The only way to make sure a future ALP government abolishes Work Choices, including AWAs [individual contracts] and all anti-worker laws, is to maintain the pressure from below", Susan Price, branch president of the National Tertiary Education Union at the University of NSW, told GLW. "Right now, the momentum has to be stepped up. That way, working people will gain the confidence that we can keep up the fight regardless of which party gets into government."

Work Choices has bitten hard into unions' ability to organise their members. "Australia Post keeps a monitoring system on me", Joan Doyle, Victorian state secretary of the Communication Workers Union, told GLW. "They make up lists of reported breaches wherever I go. They've changed tea breaks and done everything they can to try to de-unionise workplaces by denying us access. It's very hard, and that's only the right of entry stuff!"

Employers in the NSW manufacturing and warehousing sector "have become a lot more cocky since the laws have come in", Belan said. But, he added, "most employers have kept their metal dry because they're not sure exactly what reaction they'd get from their workers, or the trade union movement, if they went too hard. A major industrial campaign would assist us even with these smaller cocky ones.

"The good news is that we've not lost one site to AWAs or Work Choices. We've also achieved union growth over the last 12 months, considerable growth."

Williams also reported strong union membership growth: "We're actually up 4% on this time last year." While this is partly the result of state-wide industry growth, it is also the result of "our being a progressive and active union", Williams said.

While the union leaders welcomed the anti-Howard surge in opinion polls, they were unwilling to give carte blanche to a future Labor government.

Doyle said: "I'm sure that the Labor government will be more benign, but a lot of people believe that the union movement is in the difficulty it is because of the [Prices and Incomes] Accord years. I'm somebody who subscribes to that theory.

"So if Labor gets in and it does rip up individual contracts, which would be a blessing, that doesn't make the union movement any stronger or people any better protected unless you've got a good operation on the ground.

"I can guarantee that if Work Choices remains in place, the union movement will be wiped out and that will mean the ALP will be wiped out, and we'll be living in a one-party state of Toryism. At the end of the day, it's always the lesser of two evils."

"We need to know exactly what [Labor's] position is and we need to be campaigning on it", Mighell said. "Rudd and [deputy ALP leader Julia] Gillard have been sucked in trying to pacify big business and we know that [business] would like to take these changes further.

"The current ALP IR policy is good, but it's not as good as the Greens'. Any watering down of [Labor's policy] and workers will say, 'Where's the clear choice?'. Labor's got to front the next federal election with a very clear choice about which side they're on. It's a big-business agenda we're fighting now."

Williams said that the ETU would do "all in its power to ensure that Rudd does keep his IR promises". Belan went further, arguing that if a future Labor government doesn't deliver on IR he would "actively promote" a new party for workers. But, he added, Labor "had been given the message" by the unions and he was confident that it would "make the changes expected of it".

"Our only guarantee is our willingness to fight, including taking industrial action if needed", Price argued. "The Labor Party has to be held to account: only the full repeal of all anti-worker laws, including Work Choices, will be enough."

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