What will it take to change the rules for workers?

October 11, 2018
A Change the Rules protest in Melbourne.

There are very few workers in Australia today who feel confident that they have a job for life, are well paid or have the safest working conditions possible.

That’s why we all welcomed the Australian Council of Trade Union’s (ACTU) Change the Rules campaign. 

It is definitely time to stop the attacks on workers and build a fight back that can win. We need to get rid of legislation that stops unions from organising effectively for their members.

But is a union fightback really going to win if the centrepiece of the campaign is yet another marginal seats campaign designed to get Labor elected?

At the Melbourne mass union delegates meeting on September 25, delegates and shop stewards were asked to endorse and build the October 23 mass rally. They also voted to “do whatever it takes to stop anti-worker Liberal governments… ”.

Some 800 delegates — about 50% or more of those present — raised their hands to be part of doorknocking, phone calling or leafleting campaigns to make this happen.

All this is part of a marginal seats campaign, which as we know from the 2007 Your Rights as Work campaign, is a euphemism for getting Labor into power.

No self-respecting worker wants to see another anti-worker Coalition government re-elected federally. Nor do they want to see more snivelling, bellicose state Liberal governments that kick teachers, nurses and public servants.

But if we go all out to get Labor elected, does this mean that we will automatically win better wages and conditions?

History shows this is not the case.

Reality of Labor governments

Think back to the Prices and Incomes Accord of the 1980-90s under the Bob Hawke/Paul Keating Labor governments. Workers’ wages were held back while bosses’ profits rose.

Any union that did not agree with this course of action was smashed, such as the Builders Labourers’ Federation and the pilots’ union.

ACTU president Sally McManus has said about that era: “The Keating years created vast wealth for Australia, but it has not been shared, and too much has ended up in offshore bank accounts or in CEO’s back pockets.”

Or do you remember the paltry achievements of the Kevin Rudd/Julia Gillard/Kevin Rudd governments more recently?

Rudd won government in 2007 on a promise to abolish Work Choices after unions funded his campaign to the tune of $10 million.

What we got in return was most of the Work Choices legislation rebadged as the Fair Work Act — or what many of us have dubbed “Work Choices Lite”.

Abbott didn’t even try to overturn the Fair Work Act — that’s how inoffensive it was.

After Rudd was dumped in 2010 and replaced by Gillard, from Labor’s Socialist Left faction, it was not until near the end of her term in 2012 that the vicious anti-construction worker legislation of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) was repealed.

And this was only after huge mobilisations by construction unions and the near jailing of two CFMEU members.

Today, we have the spectacle of the Bill Shorten-led Labor opposition caving in on the Trans-Pacific Partnership corporate trade deal, after promising unions that he would do the opposite.

We all need to remember that friendly Labor governments did not give us four week’s holiday pay, sick leave or long service leave, among many other things.

Industrial action

Workers won these entitlements through concerted industrial action that wrung concessions from the bosses. Only then did awards and legislation begin to reflect these changes. 

None of these things were won by just lobbying Labor governments, with the occasional mass walk-out.

It’s this concerted industrial campaign that is missing from the Change the Rules campaign.

The bosses are not under pressure. They don’t like losing our labour for a day, but it’s nothing compared to losing it for a week, a month or longer.

If the bosses are not put under pressure and forced to make concessions, they will fight back against any Labor government and try to smash them, as we saw with Rudd’s relatively innocuous mining tax proposal.

A campaign that focuses on electing or lobbying a Labor government only presents a small part of the picture. It relies on a parliamentary fix when there are too many variables.

What if Labor doesn’t win the numbers in the Senate? All promises to the union movement are then out the window or, at the very least, dependent on the vagaries of Senate deals.

Frankly, Labor needs to be forced to reveal their industrial policy now, before the election. This would mean they can say to wavering independents that they have a mandate to bring in pro-worker and pro-union legislation.

But what the ACTU really needs to present to delegates and workers is a planned industrial campaign that involves diverse industrial strategies aimed at winning pay rises and key industrial rights and working conditions.

The ACTU also needs to consider other electoral alternatives that will actually fight for worker’s rights if Labor is not prepared to stand by their promises.

Rebuilding unions

However, the ACTU does not want to do this because it is worried that the union movement is at such a low ebb that it could not sustain a concerted, drawn out campaign.  

What they are really saying is: “Let’s find a short cut and hope that Labor will do it for us.”

But, again, history shows that won’t work.

On the other hand, struggle can help to rebuild union consciousness and recruitment to unions. Nothing helps rebuild the union movement better than the promises of a wage rise and improved working conditions.

It’s fine to lobby governments or extract promises from Labor, but these tactics do not work on their own.

There are no shortcuts to changing the rules. Only good, old fashioned leadership, workplace organising and re-winning members to a fightback mentality will do this.

[Tim Gooden a Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union delegate and a Victorian Socialists candidate for the Western Region upper house electorate. Jacqui Kriz is an Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation delegate. Mary Merkenich is an Australian Education Union delegate. All three are members of the Socialist Alliance.]

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