Unions should fight for right to strike, workers’ control

Union activist Chris White has worked for several unions and for 17 years was assistant secretary, and then secretary, of the United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia. The article below is based on a speech he gave at a fringe event during the recent Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Congress.

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Unionists need to organise for the right to strike, for the effective strike and for workers’ control.

The unions’ right to strike campaign aims to repeal all Fair Work Act penal powers and for a “firewall” protection for workers in their unions taking industrial action.

International Labour Organisation (ILO) principles can prevail: “The right to strike is one of the essential means available to workers and their organisations for the promotion and protection of their economic and social interests. These interests not only have to do with obtaining better working conditions and pursuing collective demands of an occupational nature but also with seeking solutions to economic and social policy questions and to labour problems of any kind which are of direct concern to the workers.”

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) argued these ILO principles with the 1993 Keating reforms for the first enterprise bargaining protected action regime, but we did not achieve all our the aims.

Reith’s 1996 Workplace Relations Act weakened this protected action limited right to strike. “Repressive tolerance” of strikes came under corporate legal attack and moved to repression of strikes under John Howard’s Work Choices laws — the most severely regulated anti-strike regime in the developed world.

But as we know, Work Choices was not abolished as the Fair Work Act kept the repression of strikes.

Howard’s Work Choices spin said “we are not taking away the right to strike”. But in practice unionists are not free to strike and the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments have flouted such a right to strike. Still no one argues against the principles.

ALP MPs, and Rudd in 2005, criticised Work Choices and supported the ILO right to strike.

In ACTU policies there remains scope for the endorsement at this congress of these ILO principles based on an appreciation of the right to strike as a civil, political and socio-economic right.

In 2012, right to strike amendments can go through this parliament. Minister Bill Shorten can first delete all of the legal anti-strike provisions and insert the above ILO principles. Then he could insert a section to ensure no one can take a legal case against any industrial action, full stop.

Employer legal sanctions to stop strikes and fine striking workers and union officials would not be available. Corporate law firms would be removed from the industrial relations practice of stopping strikes with penal powers. The right to withdraw our labour power would be “firewalled” and legally paramount over all corporate law.

What would this “firewall” protection for the strike mean? Such a new Fair Work Australia right would guarantee freedom for workers in unions to collectively bargain with strikes.

Unionists would be free to determine the strike processes, the timing, the negotiations, the notices and the tactics. They would be free to determine how to take industrial action, democratically decided in paid workers’ meetings.

Workers would be free to pursue any demands — not in any way legally constrained, whether by the old legal restrictions of “matters pertaining to employment” or so-called not permitted matters.

Workers would be free to bargain with industrial pressure for claims not only for wages and conditions in collective agreements, but over so-called management prerogative decisions, industry development strategies, for job protection provisions and environmental demands.

They would be free to respond with strike action to the worst of management’s workplace rules. The right to strike on occupational health and safety grounds would be absolute. The employer right to lockout would be repealed, with Qantas-style lockout tactics made unlawful. The workplace relations minister would not have the discretion to stop industrial action.

Industry and pattern bargaining industrial action would be lawful, and the industrial parties would be free to determine at what level to bargain.

The anti-worker building and construction regime and the anti-strike powers now in FWA would be abolished. Restrictions in trade-related industries, such as the waterfront, would be repealed. The right to lawful strike extends internationally — it is essential for unions to organise globally in response to powerful multinational corporate interests.

This right to strike on political grounds would be a last resort response to bad government policy affecting workers’ interests.

Workers, as citizens in a democracy, would have legal protection for political protest assemblies, would face no penalties for taking time to attend “no war” rallies or to protest against dictatorships or fascist acts overseas, such as in Fiji or the Indonesian army’s genocide against the East Timorese.

The right to lawful strike would support human rights struggles. Provisions in the Crimes Act and anti-terror laws would be repealed, with no exceptions made for things such as “for damage to persons or property”.

Union officials organising strikes would have legal protection against ancient British master and servant common law actions in tort, contract and in equity. Industrial disputes would be settled by the parties or in the Fair Work Australia system, not by the courts.

Picketing would be protected industrial action not subject to injunctions. Employers would be unable to employ “replacement” labour to break a strike, as this violates workers’ freedom of association.

Competition law outlawing solidarity strikes and secondary boycotts would be removed.

The individual on strike would be protected: there would be no return to work orders, no threats of dismissal, no victimisation and no fines.

Only under these conditions would there be an opportunity for workers to freely bargain with powerful corporate or government employers.

The question before us is how to revive the strike so working people can regain power and transform Australia. Unions know the strike is essential to win our demands for secure jobs.

How workers organise a winning strike is a priority. In the past, strikes have been essential to respond to capitalist and environment crises, and to respond to political attacks on workers’ rights. Democratic control by unionised workers over their industrial action is central to defeat the employers’ decisions, defeat the corporate attacks and defeat right-wing “austerity” cuts.

Effective strikes are now very difficult because of our repressive regime and corporate or government lawyers taking legal actions against unions. Unionised workers in enterprise bargaining have to win “protected” strikes as best we can. There have been recent stirring struggles that workers have won.

Union recruitment succeeds when it is integrated into successful strike action. We can criticise past union leaders who have shifted resources to organise the un–unionised sectors, as this has failed to revive unions. Unions cannot resolve our crisis simply by adding new members — without a powerful strike movement in place.

Planned, lengthy strikes are necessary to organise. Australian unions are good at the one-day protest publicity strike. But this gives the illusion of struggle, distracting from our real problem, which is the lack of an effective traditional lengthy strike.

Secondary bans, boycotts and solidarity strikes are a powerful means of union strength. They also need to be brought back if unions are to succeed.

Mass general strikes in many countries are being organised as the global capitalist order enters another chronic crisis period with corporate and state austerity attacks on workers.

Occupy activists in the US called for a general strike on May Day. But if you look back through history about how general strikes have happened it’s clear they are organised in the workplace by union delegates and officials, organising step by step all their co-workers across all unions. This can be done again.

The Your Rights at Work campaign against Work Choices proves our capacity to win politically decisive debates in civil society and the community. Unions defeated Howard, but we have failed under the Rudd and Gillard governments to secure key rights at work, such as the right to strike. Such a campaign has to be recreated.

Some unions organise outstanding “social unionism” struggles with community support. But to win requires the power of collective strike action. Social unionism is not a replacement for direct struggle against employers. Social unionism, where the strike is abandoned, loses the central role of workers at work, at the point of production.

Coordinated strikes against the repressive anti-strike regime requires union members organising across industries, a mass strategy to defeat the penal powers, learning from the 1960s anti-penal powers organising model that led to mass national strikes to free union leader Clarrie O’Shea.

Working class principles justify the refusal to follow unjust and illegitimate restrictions and for the principled defiance of judicial orders to win the right to strike.

After a successful strike, we return to work but then workers’ struggles need to develop more collective power at work. Workers’ control over our work is the challenge. We can develop democratic self-management agendas.

Tactics used in the past include sit-ins and occupations when workers facing redundancies took over factories and ran them cooperatively. We can learn about workers' self-management cooperatives. We can study workers control developments.

As unionists we can listen to the history of militant workers who acted believing we can control our work and the economy without capitalist rulers.

[For more articles by Chris White visit chriswhiteonline.org.]

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