Geelong Trades Hall was packed with unionists on October 28 exchanging ideas and experiences about surviving and fighting Work Choices. Some 130 unionists travelled from Victorian country centres such as Port Campbell, Portland, Hamilton and the Latrobe Valley to join unionists from across the country.
Sizeable contingents came from the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union; National Tertiary Education Union; Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union; Australian Education Union; Maritime Union of Australia; Community and Public Sector Union; and the Communication Workers Union postal and telecommunications branch. Some had been involved in industrial disputes in Melbourne and Port Campbell, where Union Solidarity activists have organised community pickets.
In his welcome, Tim Gooden, Geelong Trades Hall secretary, explained that the reason for holding such a workshop was that many unionists are increasingly frustrated with the ACTU's strategy to fight Work Choices. "Everyone knows that we need to get rid of the Howard government and, of course, a Labor government would be a step forward. But that's not the end of the story", he said.
"The problem is that the ACTU hasn't got a 'plan B' if the Howard government is re-elected, or if the Labor Party is elected then betrays the movement. There's also the problem that the ACTU has only ever had an electoral strategy for fighting Howard's anti-worker laws. They haven't had an industrial strategy", Gooden said.
French activist and academic Stephane Le Queux opened the session with an animated account of the victorious struggle by French students and workers this year to defeat a regressive law aimed at young workers. He put the victory down to consistent mass protests, some civil disobedience and no deal-making.
Interstate activists were keen to learn more about the community picket lines in Victoria. It was explained that Union Solidarity, a union-community organisation supporting workers under attack regardless of their union affiliation, operated on the principle that, in the end, the workers would decide how to run the dispute.
Activists reported that Union Solidarity had been set up in Perth, and Workers Solidarity in Sydney, the latter doing important solidarity work with a sacked delegate at Botany Cranes.
Gippsland Trades and Labour Council secretary John Parker talked about the need for "community unionism", saying that the TLC would support community groups, and encourage the community to support workers' picket lines and the campaign against Work Choices. This was important, he said, because militant unions had become separated from the community. Militant unions had won rights and conditions while millions of workers, whose unions were not prepared to fight, had been left behind.
One participant criticised union leaders who tell their members that the movement will be totally defeated if the Howard government was to be re-elected. "This is a very dangerous line", he said, "because it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Of course we want to defeat the Howard government, but the union leadership has to build the confidence of its members to fight any government that implements anti-worker laws."
Various ideas were raised for regional stop-work rallies, and civil disobedience and non-compliance with some of the most draconian laws. Other issues discussed included how to involve more young workers in unions, how to fight the exploitation of guest workers and the need for the union movement to oppose the Welfare to Work legislation.
It was pointed out that union officials often didn't get information about victories, or new attacks, fast enough. Many expressed interest in another workshop next year and in being kept better informed through an email network. For more information, or to join this network, email firstname.lastname@example.org.