In Australia today, bosses have an unfettered right to organise across an industry or supply chain. In addition, employers can freely outsource jobs to secondary companies – relieving themselves of many of their legal obligations and responsibilities.
Workers, on the other hand, are shackled by ‘secondary boycott’ laws that outlaw sympathy strikes and ban workers in other parts of the supply chain from taking solidarity action. Workers whose jobs have been outsourced are also unable to legally take action against the principal company.
The right to strike in Australia is severely restricted. The regime currently in place under the misnamed ‘Fair Work Act’ – which was introduced by the Rudd Labor government – does not even meet International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions.
The ILO has called on the Australian government to review these laws but so far, they are refusing to act. The ILO states that “The right to strike is one of the essential means available to workers and their organisations for the promotion and protection of their economic and social interests”.
Professor Andrew Stewart from Adelaide University has said that Australia’s industrial laws “are so restrictive on the right to strike that they are out of step with the laws of just about every other developed country”.
Under the Fair Work Act workers and unions have only very limited rights to take industrial action. This is during a defined bargaining period in pursuit of a new collective agreement. Unions have to apply to the Fair Work Commission for a protected action order and a secret ballot has to be conducted and won in advance of any action taken.
Even then the bosses are given notice of the so-called protected action, and they can apply to have the action quashed at the last minute. This is what happened recently when the Rail, Tram and Bus Union in New South Wales balloted for a 24-hour strike.
Despite adhering to all of the rules, and going through the long and arduous process, the strike was deemed unlawful by the Fair Work Commission. They cited ‘threats to the economy and people’s welfare’ as their reason for blocking it.
Even bargaining across an industry in Australia has been curtailed. Sympathy strikes where a common claim is pursued across an industry are categorised as unlawful “pattern bargaining” and carry huge penalties and damages claims.
In the case of penalty rates, if the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) called for united strike action to demand that penalty rates are reinstated it would technically be illegal.
This law that prevents unions negotiating across multiple sites is an attack on the fundamental purpose of unions. Unions exist to unite workers and bring them together so that they can bargain in a collective way and therefore mitigate the all-powerful position of the employer. The economic and political power held by bosses is countered with solidarity.
Australia’s draconian laws mean that solidarity between working people is effectively outlawed and the balance of power is tipped even further in favour of the employing class. The lack of a proper right to strike is one factor behind low wage growth and the huge shift in wealth from wages to profits in recent years.
We need to fight for secondary boycott laws to be scrapped and for the right to strike in all circumstances. That the current restrictive regime was implemented by Labor shows they can not be relied upon as allies in this fight. We need to rely on our own collective strength.
No rights are just handed out by the powers that be, especially those that have the potential to eat into profits. Rights need to be fought for and won on the ground. Only then do we have any chance of them being enshrined in law. This has been the experience of the trade union movement since its inception.
To win the right to strike unions will need to defy these bad laws. Mass action and the refusal to pay fines can turn secondary boycott laws into a dead letter. This has to be our goal.
By Michael Naismith