Building the fight against the budget

July 11, 2014
There is still great potential in the anti-budget cuts campaign.

More than 45,000 people rallied against the federal budget in cities around the country on July 6, with sizeable crowds in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

The “Bust the Budget” Sydney rally was organised by Unions NSW. Union flags were prominent in the crowd, which reached more than 10,000, making it one of the bigger union mobilisations in recent times.

There were large contingents from the Electrical Trades Union, the Maritime Union of Australia, National Tertiary Education Union, firefighters union, nurses, construction, Public Sector Association and the NSW Teachers Federation. Missing, however, were the colourful, home-made signs, theatrical costumes and numbers of young protesters drawn to the March Australia protests.

In Melbourne, crowd estimates ranged from 15,000 to 30,000. The rally was organised by the Victorian Trades Hall Council in conjunction with GetUp!, welfare, church, environment and women's groups and the local March Australia committee. The rally was organised under the banner "Our Community Counts — March for a Fair Australia.” Initial publicity had no mention of the budget cuts, but this was rectified closer to the event.

Adelaide’s rally drew about 5000 people. In Newcastle 1800 rallied. In Brisbane 800 attended, Canberra and Lismore had about 500, and Perth and Darwin had 200 each. These mobilisations follow the 25,000-strong “Bust the Budget” rally in Melbourne on June 12, and the huge “March in May” and “March in March” protests that mobilised hundreds of thousands across the country.

There is still great potential in the anti-budget cuts campaign. The Tony Abbott government is on the back foot, and the new Senate is proving to be no picnic for them.

The decision to delay the release of the Productivity Commission’s report until the second half of the year to avoid “reviving the spectre of Work Choices” is a sign that the government can see this potential too.

Students have been mobilising in larger numbers, and hounding politicians who dare to set foot on campus. Classes resume in late July, so further mobilisations by students against the budget should occur, including at the education National Day of Action on August 20.

In the face of such resistance, and such a strong anti-government and anti-budget feeling it is shameful that the budget supply bills were passed by Labor and the Greens late last month, with only Andrew Wilkie and Clive Palmer voting against. These bills legislated the cuts to the ABC, SBS and the CSIRO, weakened the indexation of pensions, cut legal aid funding, cut funding to foreign aid programs and to Aboriginal health services.

It is certainly not the time to wind down the campaign, but to ramp it up, as we have so much to lose. Abbott has targeted the majority with his horror budget, and generated opposition and anger. We need to turn this anger into action to make it impossible for Abbott to get these measures through and throw out this rotten government.

At Sydney’s Bust the Budget rally, while there was tough talk from union officials on the podium, the only “ask” was for us all to get involved in an SMS campaign targeting local MPs to oppose the budget cuts.

But people want more — and the situation demands more — than just a “feel good” rally, a chance to “let off steam” while the pollies do the serious work.

This approach by sections of the trade union leadership, still strongly aligned to the ALP, should be of concern to all those serious about fighting these cuts. It reveals a limited strategy of putting on an encouraging show of numbers, and ultimately diffusing anger via parliamentary manoeuvres or channelling it into an ALP electoral campaign strategy.

At the Unions NSW cross-union delegates meeting on June 12, attended by 600 people, I moved an amendment to the official motion to call for a campaign to block the budget and call on the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to coordinate nationwide industrial and community action. It was not hostile to the official motion being considered, but those at the front refused to put the amendment. The meeting erupted when others got up to speak in favour of the amendment and demand that it be put to the meeting.

This incident illustrates the challenges faced in the union movement (and not just in NSW), confronting the gap between the interests of the leaders and the rank-and-file, and the lack of democracy. To that end, rank-and-file unionists in NSW and Victoria are agitating for further cross-union delegates meetings and for the ACTU to mount a serious campaign including nationally coordinated industrial and community action against the budget.

Such a campaign requires nationwide action now (just look at the success of the March Australia mobilisations), but the ACTU has been found wanting so far in this. It decided months ago to delay any nationwide action until October — conveniently timed a month before the Victorian state election.

But Melbourne's Bust the Budget rally on June 12, a weekday, shows what can be possible when industrial action is combined with community protest. On the day, Melbourne was filled with union flags, political banners and home-made placards asabout 25,000 protesters marched through the streets.

Victorians Trades Hall Council had built the rally through leafleting, posters, social media and phone banks — drawing on its substantial network of activists organised under the “We Are Union” banner.

The challenge now for unionists is to argue for similar mobilisations nationally, and to resist the attempts to channel that organising power into a narrow marginal seats campaign focused on the re-election of the ALP.

Looking back at the Your Rights At Work campaign, which was created to defeat John Howard’s Work Choices laws, it took pressure from left unions and progressive rank-and-file activists from the start to force the ACTU and trades and labour councils to take serious action.

Unionists successfully argued for motions in their workplaces and union meetings, which then helped put pressure on several labour councils and the ACTU for mass action.

It was pressure from the ranks of the union movement that led to the large June 30-July 1 and November 15 protests in 2005. The first organised expression of this was in March 2005, when the Victorian Trades Hall Council held a 1200-strong mass delegates meeting that voted for a June 30 half-day strike and rally.

This then gave impetus for other states to follow and 300,000 people mobilised across the country during the week of action around June 30, 2005.

By November 15, 2005, more than 600,000 people rallied around the country. Some of the rallies were the biggest workers protests in living memory.

The Your Rights At Work campaign showed what is possible when the union movement and the broader community join forces. Many meetings and rallies on November 15 passed resolutions for further action.

In Geelong, for example, a huge rally of 30,000 adopted a motion that called on the ACTU and Victorian Trades Hall Council to organise national stoppages and protests early in the new year as the next step in the campaign against Howard’s IR legislation; strongly encouraged individual unions to organise their own mass meetings and actions as part of the overall campaign; and pledged to offer full support to the first unionist, union or worksite targeted under the laws.

But a campaign also had to be fought to stop it being wound down and channelled into a re-elect Labor campaign. In the face of the huge mobilisations and the growing campaign during 2005, there was debate within the ACTU about whether to organise further mass protests. The ACTU strategy was to only organise activities to keep the opinion polls pointing in the right direction for the ALP, but not try to defeat the industrial relations legislation.

The culmination of this dynamic was revealed in December 2006. Tens of thousands gathered at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for a mass meeting, which was broadcast around the country to hundreds of thousands of people at rallies in other cities and towns.

While ACTU Secretary Greg Combet addressed the crowd, the popular slogan “Your Rights at Work: Worth Fighting For” was transformed into “Your Rights at Work: Worth voting For” — complete with a banner unfurling the word “voting” to replace the word “fighting” on the centre field for all the cameras. Many hearts sank and many unionists were rightly angry that day.

When the Kevin Rudd ALP government was elected in 2007, the campaign was demobilised. Rudd and Julia Gillard got away with holding onto Howard’s anti-union laws, including the Australian Building Construction Commission, leaving it up to individual unions (such as the Electrical Trade Union and Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union in Victoria) to campaign against them.

We now have almost wall-to-wall Coalition state governments. This means there is even more pressure this time to adopt an electoralist focus by local trades and labour councils (particularly those dominated by ALP interests).

But it also means there is even more need by progressive unionists to keep the pressure up and not allow the campaign to be wound down.

Pressure needs to be kept us for a serious campaign in unions and trades and labour councils, through motions in workplaces, delegates meetings, state committees, and state and national conferences.

It is crucial that unions prepare and educate their members for action and give them a guarantee of political and industrial backup in the face of harassment and action by employers. The government and the employers will try to scare workers off, or pick them off one by one, as happened recently in Western Australia, where 25 workers faced the threat of having their homes and possessions seized. “Touch One Touch All” should be the catch-cry of this movement, as it was during the Howard era.

On August 20, students around the country will take to the streets against the budget cuts. On August 31, March Australia will hold protests around the country against the government.

Unions must throw their weight behind these days of action. If they do, the turnouts will be even bigger around the country, and we can start to see the combined strength of the March Australia mobilisations, unions and students growing into the kind of mass movement we need to defeat this government.

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