On one level workers and trade unions can expect a new environment after the election of the Abbott Coalition government. On another level the changes, compared to the industrial relations regime under Labor, will be quantitative not qualitative.
The Abbott government will be more aggressive in its pursuit of the powerful construction unions, especially the construction division of the Construction Forestry, Mining & Energy Union (CFMEU). They correctly see this union as the strongest in Australia. If it is crushed it will be an important counter-revolutionary triumph for capital – in the same way as the defeat of the British National Union of Miners was there in 1985.
For Labor, the CFMEU is an affiliated union and a source of much income. As long as it toed the line of Australia’s industrial relations laws and didn’t use its strength to support worker and communities in broader society, they were happy to let sleeping dogs lie.
The big construction firms see the Liberals as their natural allies so battles in the construction industry will be one important change under the new Coalition government. They will resurrect a version of the quasi-police force commission charged with making construction unions ineffectual under threat of massive fines and criminal prosecutions of workers and union officials.
The Socialist Party will fully back construction workers and their unions in this impending battle, while simultaneously offering a militant strategy for victory. This must include the unions reaching out to all sections of the working class and breaking unjust laws if necessary.
The new government will also be more aggressive in its cuts and sackings in the public sector. Federal departmental workers will face serious cuts, some even before next year’s pivotal first budget.
The public sector unions must not merely seek better redundancy packages but instead fight to defend every job. Public sector unions need to unite in joint industrial action and rallies to increase their chances of victory.
However what is striking is that the general backdrop or the ‘rules of the game’ facing unions and their members will not need to change that much under Abbott. A raft of industrial relations laws that started under the Labor Hawke-Keating governments of the 1980s and 1990s have given Australia some of the most reactionary anti-strike legislation in the advanced capitalist world.
Strikes are only legal during negotiations around enterprise bargaining, which occur every 3-4 years and even then have to pass through many hurdles before there are legitimised by the State. Australia’s laws have been subject to (somewhat utopian) appeals to the United Nations and they make industrial laws in places like Zimbabwe seem positively progressive.
Neither this Coalition government nor the Labor Party wants a dynamic, active trade union movement. They see high wages and good safety conditions as impediments to the market and as eating into the profit margins of the bosses.
Currently most of the unions are hamstrung by the pro-capitalist and ineffective politics of the Labor Party. Workers needs to transform their unions into fighting bodies that are democratic as well as militant in the defence of safety standards, jobs and wages. Side by side with fighting unions we need a new political party that represents the interests of working people.
This necessitates a totally different vision inside our movement. If the vision is getting crumbs off the plate of an increasingly desperate capitalist system, then unions will go backwards whether the government is Coalition or Labor.
Alternatively, if the vision is fighting the cuts of the government and bosses all the way, and building a socialist future, we can put unions and working class people back on the front foot. These are the challenges ahead.
By Stephen Jolly