John Howard's new industrial laws contain a raft of penalties for workers and unions taking "unlawful" industrial action. Workers can face individual fines of $6600 ($22,000 for those in the building industry), and unions face $33,000 or more. One result has been a decline in industrial disputes since Work Choices was enacted in March.
In response, union-community solidarity groups have been set up across Australia to organise solidarity actions at workplaces where workers have been sacked, or forced to sign individual agreements (Australian Workplace Agreements — AWAs). The popularity and impact of these groups is growing.
A dispute between Alcoa in Western Australia and the Australian Workers Union (AWU) erupted when the company attempted to force workers onto AWAs on October 31. When they refused, the workers found themselves out of a job. Alcoa refused to negotiate, prompting a community protest involving Community Solidarity Peel (CSP), at the site.
"It just happened to be on the road that led to their mine", Coral Richards, a working mother and member of CSP told Green Left Weekly. "Alcoa was ringing the union guys to ask who organised the protest. 'It's just the community organising it', they said." Richards said a highlight was that "all the unions were able to stand on the road together. It gave workers at Alcoa a real feeling that they weren't alone."
The action forced Alcoa to negotiate with the AWU; the workers got their jobs back and they were not forced to sign AWAs.
In Port Campbell, Victoria, Woodside Petroleum is constructing a new gas works. The company has employed renown anti-unionist Colin Milne as its industrial relations consultant. Pablo Dorado, convener of the South West Community Solidarity Group (SWCSG) told GLW about how their group formed. Milne "went in and started sacking something like 40-50 electricians. He also sacked a shop steward from the CFMEU [Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union], and that prompted the community protest."
On October 20, 300 members and supporters of SWCSG took part in a community assembly that stopped all traffic from entering or leaving the site. "We set up a picket on the Friday morning and we virtually closed it down for the whole weekend", Dorado explained.
"Four hundred blokes work there, but when we started the picket at 6am, there were about 20 already in their crib huts. They were told if they came out, they would be getting the $28,000 fine, so they were really scared. But, to their credit, they did come out and nothing has come of it."
Dorado continued: "We got a really good response in Port Campbell too. At a little town nearby, called Timboon, as soon as the local butcher heard about the picket, he brought down a heap of sausages and started making the rissoles. And the baker brought us down the bread — all of it was donated.
"When someone like Colin Milne comes in and starts sacking people, he's indiscriminate: he goes after anyone with a union background, including locals. So we were received very well."
"As bad as the laws are, they're starting to unite a lot of people", Dorado said. "We have a church minister interested in our group. He's come to speak a couple of times because he's seen the effects of the laws on people. We have a lot of the older people who are very concerned. We've got schoolteachers, tradespeople, as well as a couple of teenagers, a lot of whom are women. We started in Portland, and we've now started a group in Warrnambool."
In Sydney, Workers Solidarity has begun to organise support for sacked workers and those being forced to sign AWAs. It has organised several pickets of Botany Cranes and is calling for the reinstatement of sacked CFMEU delegate Barry Hemsworth.
Dave Kerin, convener of Union Solidarity in Victoria, told GLW that the network of affiliated community and welfare organisations and unions "have declared that we are not prepared to live next door to workplaces where Howard's IR laws are being used against democratic organisations such as unions". The aim is to build a people's movement to beat back attacks on workers, unions and communities.
"We get involved and provide another vehicle for workers involved in a dispute to continue the struggle. The employers and government can use other laws against us, but not the current Workplace Relations Act", Kerin said.
Union Solidarity has been involved with a range of disputes across Victoria since March, many of which have ended in victories for the workers. Kerin feels that since Work Choices became law, unions and the community will have to adopt campaigning strategies similar to those of the 1998 Maritime Union of Australia dispute; in other words, more community assemblies.
Kerin said that Union Solidarity was mobilising people from many occupational areas. "People are coming out [to local pickets] near where they live, not where they work. They are coming out regardless of which award or enterprise bargain they're covered by. Retired workers and younger workers, who in some cases aren't even in a union, are joining in."
People are so keen to get involved, Kerin said, Union Solidarity is having trouble "keeping up with the demand". "People do want to have a go, and with every passing dispute, it shows that the strategy does work, prompting more people to want to have a go."
Kerin said it was critical that workers retain control of their own disputes. "We've made it clear from the start that the community organisations affiliated to Union Solidarity determine what gets done in their own area, and the workers who ask for assistance from their communities are in turn in control of the dispute. They will determine if we are asked to assist, and they will determine when we are to leave."