Change the Rules: Industrial action needed to get results

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Tens of thousands of workers rallied on April 10 for the third time in less than a year. The rally was the latest action in the Change the Rules campaign led by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU).

It was positive that a diverse range of unions came out once again, including NUW members fresh from their strike victory against Chemist Warehouse. However, despite being billed as “the big one” before the federal election in May, it has to be noted that this rally was somewhat smaller than the previous two that were held in October and May last year.

A year ago, when the Change the Rules campaign was launched, it was met with a lot of enthusiasm. The campaign saw the return of mass delegates meetings, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the anti-WorkChoices campaign in the lead up to the 2007 election that saw John Howard defeated.

Change the Rules looked like a promising campaign, especially coming on the back of Sally McManus becoming secretary of the ACTU and her now famous comment about the need to break unjust laws. It looked like the unions were firing up in a real way for the first time in a long time, and workers were receptive to this.

Working class people are increasingly frustrated with the rising cost of living and stagnant wage growth. The enthusiasm for a real fight, with industrial action, was evident in the massive turnout at the first two rallies. However, this enthusiasm fizzled when the speeches from the union leaders increasingly turned towards a sole focus on electing Labor at the federal election.

What could be a strong industrial movement was instead used to launch a marginal seats election campaign. Workers must have been asking themselves the question: why am I being asked to give up another day’s pay just to be told to vote for Labor at the election? It’s clear that many workers have given up on the campaign and were not inspired to come out in the big numbers that we saw last year.

We must remember that the very rules that need to be changed were introduced by Labor themselves, and they cannot be trusted if they win the election. Despite Bill Shorten being a thoroughly uninspiring right-wing leader, workers will likely hold their nose and vote for Labor just to get rid of the hated Liberals. This wariness toward Labor was reflected in the mood at the rally, where there was a “we’ll see” attitude about what Shorten will actually deliver.

Listening to the speeches given by the union leaders at the rally, you could be forgiven for thinking that Labor have committed to all the demands of the Change the Rules campaign. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It is of course positive that Bill Shorten has promised to abolish the anti-union ABCC and to reverse cuts to penalty rates within 100 days. However, this is not enough. We should be relying on the collective strength of the union movement to put pressure on employers and all the political parties, not just handing Labor a blank cheque.

It is still possible to put this campaign on a better track. It will be necessary to do so to force the government to genuinely change the rules, no matter who wins the election. Change the Rules should not be rolled back after the election, but instead expanded into a proper industrial campaign. Many workers have seen their collective strength on display at the rallies – some for the first time! This confidence and potential must be built on, with a clear strategy to win.

We need:

– A commitment from the ACTU to keep the campaign going after the election.
– Mass delegates meetings to be called in June to discuss how to keep the pressure up.
– An industrial campaign to win decent pay increases, job security and the right to strike.
– A fight to make big business pay more tax to fund the jobs and services that we need.
– A new party that genuinely represents workers and fights for a democratic socialist alternative to the Liberals and Labor.

By Kat Galea