More than 100 unionists and supporters crowded into the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) Sydney meeting hall for a "Fight for the Right to Strike" public meeting on April 14.
Following the recent public exposure gained by the Change the Rules campaign, speakers emphasised the need to overturn anti-worker and anti-union legislation.
The meeting was welcomed by MUA branch officials Joe Deakin and Paul Keating, who declared: "The right to strike is a fundamental right for workers, along with the demand for the abolition of the anti-union ABCC [Australian Building and Construction Commission]."
Rita Mallia, state president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union Construction Division, said there has never been a legislated right to strike in Australia, despite it being a human right under international law.
"We can't just play by their rules,” she said. “During the historic Clarrie O'Shea penal powers fight of 1969, it took massive strike action to bring about real change.
"Today, our union is having to struggle against the so-called Building Code, on the job safety and the ban on union insignia (including the Eureka flag) in unionised workplaces.”
She said a union's willingness to take a brave public stand is good for recruitment and can strongly influence public opinion in favour of the union movement.
She said anti-union intimidation, led by the ABCC, can be fatal on a worksite, when profits are prioritised over workers' safety. She called for a strong mobilisation at the Sydney May Day rally and said workers "shouldn't stop fighting on the ground and in the streets for the kind of world and society we want to see".
Chris White, former secretary of the United Trades and Labour Council of South Australia, spoke of the need to repeal all penal measures currently used to threaten workers taking strike action without official permission. These penal measures contravene the position of the International Labour Organisation, which upholds the right for workers to withdraw their labour.
He said: "One key demand in the Change the Rules campaign is for the right to strike. We campaign for parliament to repeal all the penal powers against industrial action from Work Choices and those still in the Fair Work Act, and then to enact the lawful right to strike. Full stop.”
He proposed a new Industrial Relations Act, which would allow both enterprise and whole-sector industrial bargaining for pay and conditions. Such an act would abolish the law that allows employers to sue unions for lost profits, allow secondary boycotts and solidarity strikes with other striking workers, ban employers' lockouts and the right to strike for political matters and to attend rallies.
Giovanna Bonelli, a train driver and delegate in the Rail Tram and Bus Union, spoke forcefully about the recent Sydney train dispute, during which the Fair Work Commission ordered the suspension of the workers' democratic decision for a 24-hour strike, on the alleged grounds that the action would "cause significant damage to the economy".
She said: "We won't win if we follow their rules. We're so used to the crumbs they throw us that we fight among ourselves, because we think the crumbs are all there is. We forget that they're taking the whole cake! And WE made it!”
The meeting unanimously passed a resolution supporting the campaign for the right to strike as a key demand for the union movement.
A model motion was circulated, to be used as a basis for motions to union branches and executives, which read in part: "This meeting calls on [union name] to agitate for the ACTU and UnionsNSW to organise an industrial campaign against these unfair laws, including a campaign for the right to strike, beginning with combined delegates' meetings, stop work meetings, and national rallies."