Large mobilisations in May for the Australian Council of Trade Union’s (ACTU) Change the Rules rallies were a much-needed boost to unions. The protests exposed employer weaknesses and gave a glimpse of what a full-fledged, fighting strategy could achieve.
For workers – many attending their first ever union rally – the mobilisations demonstrated our power. They highlighted the widespread anger at declining wages and conditions and strong opposition to the pro-business policies of successive governments.
The huge Melbourne rally dwarfed all the others. This was not simply due to Melbourne’s size – the rally in Sydney was roughly a tenth the size of Melbourne’s. Instead, two factors unique to Melbourne were crucial and should be replicated nationally to grow the campaign.
Firstly, a mass meeting of workplace delegates had been held in Melbourne. This brought a multiplying effect with over 1500 individual workplace activists returning to their jobs to convince their workmates to join the rally.
Secondly, construction, maritime and electrical workers, and even some university academics, stopped work for the Melbourne rally. Not only did this take aim right where it hurts – employers’ profits – but practically it meant more workers could attend.
Striking workers marched alongside thousands of workers from other industries and surrounded the court where construction union officials John Setka and Shaun Reardon were facing trumped up blackmail charges. These charges were dropped days later.
Complaining about the Turnbull government’s reluctance to publicly condemn the stop work, the head of the Australian Mines and Metals Association – representing bosses in the resources industry – complained this “will surely embolden union activists”.
Clearly unions should not fear fighting for our demands on the industrial battlefront, even if it is technically illegal. The bosses are afraid of this and their political system is currently so weak, concerted mass action could easily defeat any future attempts to use their courts and legal system to retaliate.
More widespread stop work action could even begin forcing industrial concessions from employers and governments – if it were linked to specific demands.
Sadly, this is not the ACTU’s current approach. While they’ve said these rallies are ‘just the beginning’ union members have yet to be informed of any plans to take the campaign forward, and the demands are still open to interpretation.
The closest union leaders got to proposing further strategy at these rallies was to suggest workers vote the Liberals out at the next election. Socialists are not opposed to using elections as a supplement to the industrial battlefront. But this requires clear demands to hold political parties to account.
Under the ACTU’s current approach, Labor are escaping criticism and so far, promise only to reverse penalty rate cuts and ‘consider’ one ACTU proposal to legalise industry-wide bargaining if they win the next federal election.
Likewise, the Greens say they ‘support’ the Change the Rules campaign but their only meaningful policy commitment so far is to call for basic workplace rights for ‘gig economy’ workers. These timid moves are miles from the sweeping change the ACTU is pointing towards.
Rather than give Labor and the Greens such an easy pass, unions need to pressure the entire political establishment for change now. Should the fight drag on to the election, unions should consider standing independent candidates to pressure all unsupportive politicians and parties.
Employers currently lack confidence to wage a strong counter-campaign against Change the Rules. But holding off on cementing our log of claims and launching a new phase of action only gives the bosses time to regroup and develop their counter-strategy.
Rather than risk that, the ACTU should immediately begin staging mass delegates meetings on a national basis. These should finalise a list of concrete demands and set a date for a national stop-work and mass rally.
In workplaces with a union presence, meetings should be held to endorse the log of claims, sign up non-members and commit to stop work. Unions should also undertake mass leafleting at major transit and workplace hubs to draw in non-members.
In industries where full-blown stop work may not be ideal, tactical decisions should be made to boost rally turnout. For example, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union might choose to keep sufficient trains and trams running but offer free travel days. Such an approach was taken with the campaign against Work Choices and would make it easier for thousands of workers travelling from the suburbs to city centres for the rallies.
A massive national stop-work with clear demands, signalling a preparedness to take further action, irrespective of who wins the next election, is the direction this campaign must head in if it is to succeed.
By an RTBU delegate