By Chris Slee
MELBOURNE — About 70 people filled Comrades Bar on July 28 to discuss opposing industrial relations minister Peter Reith's "second wave" anti-union legislation. At the monthly Politics in the Pub, organised by Green Left Weekly, four speakers provided legal, industrial and political perspectives on the fight.
Industrial lawyer Adam Bandt noted that Australian workers have never had the legal right to strike, except in very limited circumstances. Reith's proposed amendments make "protected" (legal) industrial action virtually impossible.
Bandt pointed out, however, that employers' willingness and ability to use this anti-union legislation will depend on the balance of power in the workplace. "Unions can win despite the law."
Michelle O'Neil, Victorian branch assistant secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia, agreed on the need to "defy an unjust law". She argued that while rallies are important, they will not be sufficient to defeat the law. Both industrial pressure and community pressure are needed.
Chris Spindler, an activist in the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and a member of the Democratic Socialist Party, noted that Reith's legislation is an attack on collectivity, leaving the individual worker to face the employer alone. He said the Australian Democrats share the individualist ideology behind Reith's legislation, and are likely to support some of his specific measures.
Spindler argued that the only way to defeat the legislation is to make the political cost too great. He called for a national strike by the whole union movement, as well as actions by specific unions targeting key industries and government revenue collection. Such a campaign should be run through delegates' meetings.
Spindler also called for alliances of all those fighting the government (workers, students, campaigners against the Jabiluka mine and others), and a mass education campaign aimed at winning broad public support for union rights.
Spindler warned that we cannot rely on a future Labor government to defend workers' interests. The previous Labor government weakened the union movement, particularly through the Accord.
"What is essential is not who wins government but the activity of workers and ordinary people". He called for a break from the Labor Party and the creation of an "active, campaigning party".
John Cleary, an organiser with the Electrical Trades Union, noted: "We can't rely on the Democrats. We have to assume that a large part of this legislation will be passed."
Unions need to be ready to "openly defy the legislation", Cleary said. Community support will be essential in doing this. All unions and other activists need to be ready to respond immediately when any group of workers comes under attack.