Brian Boyd: 'Maintain the independent voice of unions'

August 31, 2007

Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Brian Boyd spoke to Green Left Weekly's Sue Bolton on August 20 about some Victorian unions' plans for another mass mobilisation against the Work Choices legislation.

Boyd said it is "very important that the union movement have an opportunity to hit the streets again in 2007". He believes that the major national mobilisations in 2005-06, including the record turnout of 230,000 people in Melbourne in November 2005, were instrumental in the Labor Party's lead in opinion polls against the Howard government.

According to Boyd, the Australian Council of Trade Unions' strategy has three elements: the TV ads, which are costing millions of dollars; the marginal seats campaign in about 18-20 seats that is costing hundreds of thousands of dollars of trade union money; and the mass mobilisations.

Boyd described debate in the ACTU executive as being centred around "some senior union officials saying the campaign will be won or lost on the TV ads and the marginal seats campaign", while "there are others who say the mass mobilisations have inspired a lot of working people to really think about how important this next federal election is for their future. I'm on the side that says the mass mobilisations are crucial in the political campaign to get rid of John Howard. I think the marginal seats campaigns and the TV ads are incidental or supportive of the mobilisations rather than the other way around."

Independent voice

"The ACTU saw fit not to have another national mobilisation in 2007", Boyd explained. "So for the key industrial unions in Victoria to call a big demonstration on September 26 in Melbourne is to their credit. They know that there are a lot of ordinary working people out there who want to march right up into the federal election and show Howard that they want to see him off.

"Workers are entitled to have that … mobilisation expression out in the streets rather than just watching TV ads or just having a few people handing out leaflets in marginal seats."

Boyd argued that "the union movement needs to maintain its independent industrial and political voice from the mainstream parties". He added that "the main party we identify with is the ALP. And I've got nothing wrong with [supporting Labor] because the only way we're going to defeat Howard is through an ALP victory. And I support that victory.

"But elections come and go and parties win and lose elections. If the union movement and working people just hung their hats on every federal election, then you'd give up the ghost as soon as the conservatives won power. And even if the ALP wins power, my argument is that we must maintain a very strong independent trade union voice in the current climate.

"There's no secret that there are some people in the union movement concerned about some of the utterances coming out of [Labor leader Kevin] Rudd and [deputy leader Julia] Gillard's mouths about industrial relations. We will need that strong independent voice to make sure that our message continues to be heard. Unionists and workers cannot rely on those political parties to carry out their needs and their desires and their aspirations."

Right to strike

The ALP's industrial relations policy clearly states that workers will only be able to take strike action during the bargaining period for a new agreement. Boyd disagrees with this stance. "The right to strike is a fundamental trade union and workers' right that you have to demand and have to take. I can't see any government ever putting the right to strike in legislation the way I would like to see it as a general right to strike. Governments will put qualifications on it. Even the [Paul] Keating [Labor] government's right to strike from 1993-96 had qualifications on it.

"Working people have to assert that they have the right to strike and really go for it and use it whenever they can. We've got to break down this myth that the right to strike is just about enterprise bargaining and it ends once you strike a bargain. What if we want to strike about the Iraq war or another war, or we want to strike to back up workers in another country, or we want to back up our mates who haven't won an agreement? The right to strike is going to become an even more crucial issue for the working class and for trade unionists regardless of who wins power.

"Having said that, I'm also on record as saying that I want the Howard government defeated at all costs, and if that means getting Gillard and Rudd in, well so be it. I want them to win the election. But if they win, we don't give up lobbying and fighting with them over all the issues that we spent a lot of time fighting Howard about.

"I believe that we'll be in full campaign mode after the federal election. Assuming Rudd wins, I think there'll be a fight in a number of key industries for industry-wide bargaining, and I think the construction industry would probably be one of those. I'm not supportive of just getting rid of Work Choices but wearing the bulk of the Workplace Relations Act that came in in 1996 after Howard got in.

"I think the union movement has lost a lot of our ability to mobilise more widely and collectively as unions have traditionally done in Australia, and we should get back to that era. We'll find opposition from the new Labor government on that front. But that doesn't mean that the union movement gives up."

Boyd reaffirmed that "The independent voice of the union movement must be maintained at all costs, regardless of the electoral process. Some people get that confused, especially within the union movement. Some people who are paid by workers to be union officials want to concede that the union movement's independent voice is surrendered. That makes it extremely difficult. So we've got a long way to go."

"I have no illusions", Boyd said, about the fact that "we're going to have ongoing arguments and debates and struggles about the Australian Building and Construction Commission and whatever form it takes after the federal election".

Boyd explained that he became active in the union movement around the period when Clarrie O'Shea was jailed for defying anti-union laws in 1969 and the "industrial inspectorate under the Arbitration Act was taken head on. Then I remember the Industrial Relations Bureau under [Malcolm] Fraser, then the Office of the Employment Advocate being set up in the late '90s. These things come and go, but what has to be consistent is trade union opposition to them and to not accept that they have a rational or a legitimate purpose in trade union or workplace activity."

Boyd explained that "The union movement is always in a stronger position if it's mobilising its membership. But the union movement itself has differences within it about the validity and the value of mobilisation. I'm of the school that believes that mobilising the rank and file always puts us in a better bargaining position. There are some in the union movement who think that if the union movement stays a bit quiet and stays behind the ALP machine, that's the best way forward. I disagree with that position."


According to Boyd, it was difficult to get agreement at the beginning of this year for a mobilisation. "The unionists who supported a mobilisation were in the minority at the ACTU national level.

"Now some of the more progressive, forward-thinking unions in Victoria who feel that the rank and file want to have a say in the election year have broken out and called this rally on September 26." Now that the building industry group of unions "has bitten the bullet and decided to organise a big protest, a number of other unions have come out in support of the protest".

Boyd added that "the community groups that had dropped off since the 2005-06 mobilisations have had a breath of life put back into them". This illustrated the point made by the building unions, Boyd said, when they were debating whether or not to call a protest, "that there was a groundswell of frustration that no mobilisation had been called for 2007".

"It's a natural inclination, especially in the face of such a conservative attack from the Howard government, that workers want to show that they're not scared, that they want to fight back.

"Within a week of the September 26 protest being announced, hundreds of people have volunteered to leaflet at least 53 railway stations and are organising to leaflet shopping centres around Melbourne."

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