The ALP and the right to strike


Having ridden to power largely on the back of Australian people's concern and anger over attacks on their rights and conditions at work, Labor have – a mere twelve months later – at last unveiled their shiny new proposed industrial relations legislation. So, what are we to make of it?

The most fundamental power any working person has is their ability to withhold or withdraw their labour, the ability to take industrial action.

The true test of any government's commitment to the well-being of workers is not their rhetoric, but whether they allow workers to organise themselves unhindered and, if necessary, to strike.

Labor's industrial relations policy – with its continuation of measures that aim to inhibit union activity and to prevent or outlaw collective action – clearly shows them to be false friends to the majority of Australians. This bill gives the lie - if any further evidence were needed - to Labor's concern for "working families", and allies them squarely with the leaders of big business.

For decades, Labor and Liberal governments at all levels have championed the rights and efficacy of the private sector and an unfettered market. Yet surely, legislation that prohibits workers ability to organise in their own interests against their employers amounts to the government taking sides. It amounts to interfering in the market.

However, both Labor and Liberal have never displayed the slightest compunction in acting this way. Clearly the guarantee of rights flows only in one direction.

For the ACTU or any union official to champion this legislation would be a severe mistake, and an abrogation of their responsibilities to represent present and future workers.

The strong grass roots support for the Your Rights At Work campaign represented not simply a hatred of John Howard. It was also a reaction against the political imperative behind his legislation – the taming of unions and disempowerment of workers.

The ALP's bill, and the Opposition's easy initial acceptance of it, show that Howard's political agenda is alive and well in the parliament and embraced wholeheartedly by the this country's ruling elite. They've thrown some sops to the unions, and dressed everything up in pastel-shaded Ruddspeak, but at its heart lives the spirit of Workchoices.

The Australian Building and Construction Commission continues its merry inquisition unhindered; the already tame Industrial Relations Commission will lose what remaining rotting teeth it still has; anaemic right of entry provisions leave control of the process effectively in the hands of the employer; and nestled among the technical niceties of the brave new regimen of "approved" industrial action is the fact that the right to strike — a right won with blood — will no longer belong to us.

The right to strike is our right to declare and demand our humanity. It is our weapon against oppression that allows us to fight not just for our own rights, but for all. It is an expression of unity and power that strikes true fear into governments and bosses.

Any party that would refuse us that right, that would seek to undermine it, implicitly condones exploitation and inequality and does not deserve the support of workers. The only "right" the major parties truly believe in is that of their own — and of their well-heeled mates — self-conferred right to unchallenged power. The rest of us simply don't figure in their world view.

Workers must look to parties and organisations that truly support them, but above all, we must look to each other and outside of the parliamentary process to win back and safeguard the freedom and dignity won for us over the last two hundred years by the bravery of working people who would not "behave".