Since becoming prime minister Scott Morrison has indicated that he will take a more confrontational approach towards the trade union movement.
In his first weeks in the job, Morrison threatened to deregister the CFMEU because of a tweet by a CFMEU leader that he claims was offensive. As outlandish as the threat was, he backed it up by launching a renewed campaign to pass the ‘Ensuring Integrity Bill’ through the senate.
This bill is a draconian piece of legislation that lowers the threshold for courts to deregister unions and allows for union officials to be disqualified for committing civil law breaches. At the moment, the government is canvassing support among crossbenchers in an attempt to get the bill passed.
Australia’s industrial laws are so restrictive that no effective action can be taken legally. If we are to defend our gains we will need to break these anti-democratic laws. As far as union officials are concerned, committing civil law breaches should be seen as a mere occupational hazard!
We should oppose state interference in our unions. No big business government or bosses’ court should have the right to decide who is “fit and proper” to be a union official. That should be the right of union members themselves.
The truth is that breaches of the law have actually been few and far between. In the past 12 months, only 41,000 – out of a total 12.5 million – workers in Australia engaged in some form of industrial action. Even then, most of it was legal.
This is only the second time ever that fewer than 50,000 workers have engaged in strike action in a year. But the government aren’t ones to let facts get in the way of a good story.
They hope to use the unions as scapegoats during the upcoming election campaign, claiming that a new Shorten government would be hostage to the union movement. If only!
Even before coming to power, Shorten has stooged the union movement by agreeing to wave through the anti-worker Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. If he’s betraying the movement now, why would we have any faith in him to change the rules after the election?
Shorten has not even committed to endorsing the modest demands the union leaders have proposed. Last week he said that his job was to govern for ‘all’ Australians. This presumably includes the big business elite who profit at the expense of the rest of us.
Despite all this, the ACTU has been out trying to swing votes for Labor in marginal seats. Instead of giving Labor a free kick, the unions should be working to pressure them.
We know that’s what big business are doing. They are preparing for a recession and they are demanding that Labor pledge to protect their profits if they are thrown into power.
The union movement needs to build up its own campaign of pressure. A new round of protests has been called for October, which is very positive, but much more needs to be done.
We have not yet even replicated what happened in the lead up to the 2007 election when a series of national stop-work actions were organised.
Small glimpses of what is possible were seen with the 5000-strong rally of construction workers in Sydney last month, along with the walk-off of 7000 early childhood educators who are fighting for equal pay.
At the same time, we have the Alcoa dispute in Western Australia, where a major firm threatened to use the business-friendly laws to slash wages and undermine job security. This comes on the back of similar tactics being used by Esso at Longford in Victoria.
Disputes like these should be used as beachhead for the whole union movement to rally around.
The issues facing the Esso and Alcoa workers, the early childhood educators, the construction workers and others are linked. They are all fighting for decent pay and job security, and against laws that benefit corporations. Rather than fighting separate battles we should fight as one.
If the October protests were brought together in a national day of action, that included strike activity, we could have a much bigger impact.
Rogue employers like Esso or Alcoa should be made an example of. Their sites and offices around the country could be targeted by protests. We should demand that these anti-union employers back off, and that the major parties move to change the rules immediately.
If they refuse, we should escalate the industrial campaign and organise more days of national stop-work action. This is the type of strategy the union movement needs to adopt, rather than putting false hope in Labor.
By Anthony Main