1989 pilots dispute: Defend the right to strike


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The recent court decision against the Pilots Federation, with the threat of $10 million fines has profound implications for every worker in Australia. It has effectively confirmed that it is illegal for workers not only to strike, but to take any form of industrial action whatsoever!

As the editorial in the Weekend Australian pointed out, “…a sword of Damocles now hangs over the head of every union, and official who takes serious actions – against any employer. All unions and officials in such circumstances face the prospect of being successfully sued.”

Whilst the decision is only a reaffirmation of law that has been on the books for 84 years, it has, in the current climate, been regarded as a major turning point by the bosses. The Australian said, “Employer organisations described the court decision as a “milestone” and said it would encourage their members to take common law action against workers who took industrial action.”

But so blatantly repressive has the law been shown to be, that even the most rabidly right-wing media commentators have felt it necessary to step back from it. “No one is arguing that all strikes should be illegal,” wrote former Malcolm Fraser speech writer and radio “personality” Alan Jones, but then went on to say, “Now… we must decide… in what circumstances strikes are to be legal… there is surely a strong case for denying the right to strike to teachers, doctors, nurses and suppliers of essential services… And if it is the pilots last week, what of the wharfies, for example, in the future.”

Ray Taylor, a Sydeny radio announcer, said, “…let’s get stuck into the Storeman and Packers.” Meanwhile in Victoria the Weekend Australian reported that meat exporters, “buoyed by the success of the airlines in their writs against the Pilots”, are considering common law action against the meat workers union.

Once again, citing as a precedent the Pilot’s case, Mobil has lodged common law writs against officials of eight unions in connection with a safety dispute at Victoria’s largest oil refinery, over asbestos!

Thus this precedent is not something that the bosses may follow up in the dim and distant future – the ramifications of the court decision are being felt immediately. If one cent of the Pilots Federation funds, or the funds of any other union are touched, an immediate 24-hour general strike must be called- with action to be escalated until the bosses back down.

It was in similar fashion that workers laid the Penal Powers to rest in 1969 following the jailing of union leader Clarrie O’Shea, and it is in this fashion that the struggle must be taken up again. All the wheeling and dealing and manoeuvring in the world will ultimately come to nought.

The use of High Court appeals must not be seen as a substitute for independent working class action. The bankruptcy of that tactic was shown clearly in the SEQEB dispute. In addition the union movement and ALP rank and file must demand that the Labor government immediately repeal anti-trade union laws currently on the books.

John Halfpenny was quite correct in blaming the court decision on the lack of support for the pilots by the trade union leaders which, as he points out, has been “preoccupied with criticising the Federation”. Their actions have been a logical flow on from from their support for the Accord. Rather than acting as bosses’ policemen the Labor and trade union leaders should rally the movement behind the pilots to defend the right to strike and tell the bosses – HANDS OFF OUR FUNDS!

By Paul True

Originally published in the December 1989/January 1990 edition of Militant, predecessor of The Socialist

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