Unionists discuss the Right to Strike campaign

May 10, 2018
Unionists at Sydney's May Day rally marching for the Right to Strike on May 6.

More than 60 unionists and supporters of the labour movement met after the Sydney May Day march on May 6 to discuss the next steps of the Right to Strike campaign.

The meeting, which built on the success of a previous meeting held on April 14, called for the critical addition of the right to strike as a core demand of the Australian Council of Trade Unions' (ACTU) Change the Rules campaign.

Recent events, such as the Rail, Tram and Bus Union's Sydney train strike, which was ordered to be called off despite having been approved by the Fair Work Commission, have clearly demonstrated the need for an unlimited right to strike.

The meeting was chaired by Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, who opened the meeting with a discussion of the history of May Day and the need for international workers' solidarity. The meeting was then addressed by former secretary of the Australian Nursing Federation Irene Bolger; former international manager of Union Aid Abroad Ken Davis; and Greens MLC David Shoebridge.

Bolger discussed her experiences during the 1986 nurses' strike, including the resistance to the strike from the ACTU and Victorian Trades Hall Council, whose anti-strike policy formed part of the Bob Hawke Labor government's Prices and Incomes Accord.

She criticised the demobilisation and subsequent decline of the union movement in Australia. She called on unionists to campaign within their unions to elect socially conscious unionists to leadership positions, encourage unions to challenge the Labor bureaucracy and broaden the Change the Rules campaign into a stronger pro-worker platform, with the unconditional right to strike as a guarantee of workers' rights.

Davis recounted his experiences as a trade unionist and gay activist campaigning for workers' power and gay and lesbian rights since the 1970s. He helped found the Gay Trade Union Group, which worked with other union caucuses to fight for social issues, such as women's rights, environmental protection and nuclear disarmament, demonstrating that the strength of unions is broader than the narrow economic scope of wage rises and enterprise bargaining.

He cited the success of the Builders' Labourers' Federation in NSW, which imposed “green bans” on environmentally destructive projects and was the first union in the world to take solidarity strike action to defend the rights of a gay man who was not a member of the union. He said these successes were only possible because the unions took strike action in support of a political cause and called for the unconditional right to strike in solidarity with political and social concerns.

Shoebridge spoke of the need for a shift from a defensive stance to a campaigning union movement, citing the leadership of ACTU secretary Sally McManus and the development of a progressive union base as causes for optimism. He drew a parallel with the successes of United States teachers unions, which, following successful strike actions, won both political and pay demands.

He affirmed the need for a Right to Strike campaign and called for solidarity with striking workers. He also called for the abolition of the anti-worker Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and to return all fines and penalties to the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union in the form of reparations for the ABCC's anti-union campaigns.

He said: "The coalition should have no place on the benches of power of any state or territory in this country ... and if a new government doesn't support us, then we have to strike and throw them out too".

Audience members presented strong critical points, including one who called on Unions NSW to hold large-scale delegates' meetings to build relationships between unionists and strengthen the campaign on the ground, similar to the meeting of more than 2000 delegates of Victorian unions held at Victorian Trades Hall Council on April 17.

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