The Australian Council of Trade Unions’ (ACTU) ‘Change the Rules’ campaign was stepped up in April with a mass meeting held at Melbourne Town Hall. The meeting room was packed with more than 1600 workplace delegates and union officials from around Victoria.
ACTU Secretary Sally McManus – among others – outlined the many problems the union movement wants to address, spruiking a plan to “take on the rich and powerful in our country”.
It was refreshing to hear trade union leaders call for action to end the decades-long decline in wages, working conditions, job security and living standards. An all-in fight is the best way to turn the tide and reinvigorate our movement.
One of the most positive aspects of the meeting was the discussion around the right to bargain at an industry-wide level and the right to strike. Delegates reserved some of their loudest applause for when speakers came out clearly in favour of strike action.
It has been at least 10 years since a meeting of this type has been held. Delegates were clearly enthused that the ACTU has put a fight against repressive anti-union laws and regulations on the agenda. However, there were weaknesses in the ACTU’s explanation for our movement’s woes and, flowing from this, in their proposed strategy to turn things around.
Delegates were correctly told low wages and poor conditions today reflect thirty years of anti-worker laws and pro-business policies, sold with lies about trickle-down economics. But while conservative politicians – even Margaret Thatcher – were named and shamed, speakers carefully avoided implicating Labor.
McManus told delegates Labor’s Fair Work Act “rebuilt things a bit” after the Howard government’s Work Choices laws were replaced. Far from rebuilding things, Labor’s laws explicitly outlawed all strikes except when workers are negotiating an enterprise agreement. They also maintained the divisive enterprise bargaining system.
Under Labor’s laws, striking under other circumstances carries huge penalties for individuals and unions. Labor’s laws even allow the Fair Work Commission to ban certain ‘legal’ strikes, as they did to union members at Sydney Trains earlier this year.
Unfavourable laws only partly explain why our movement has fallen behind. The right to strike has never been fully enshrined in law but this didn’t prevent workers in the past from using strikes to achieve all of our major advances.
In the late 1980s, the ACTU consciously adopted a policy of wage restraint and minimising strike action in agreements with Labor that became known as the Accords. Under the Accord, lobbying governments and industry leaders became the preferred method for advancing the standing of workers. It was a dismal failure.
Strike levels are now their lowest in decades, only a small minority of workers are union members and both Liberal and Labor governments have relentlessly pursued cuts to social spending and sold countless public assets with unionised workforces to anti-union companies. All of this has dovetailed with the declining wages and soaring profits the ACTU leaders outlined at the meeting.
The strategy to ‘Change the Rules’ being put forward by the ACTU leaders centres on lobbying Labor and the minor parties. The only concrete actions proposed by the ACTU so far are scattered national protests in May. The ACTU is pinning their hopes on the Liberals losing the next election, and Labor, the Greens, and perhaps even One Nation feeling compelled to pass more worker-friendly laws.
There is no doubt that unions should pressure all political parties and employers to make the changes we need. But to really exert pressure we will need to go much further than the ACTU is currently proposing.
The idea of just relying on Labor was tried and failed with the ‘Your Rights At Work’ campaign in the lead up to the 2007 federal election. At that time the ACTU diverted a burgeoning industrial struggle into a campaign to just vote Labor. Without any firm commitments, Labor were handed a blank cheque, resulting in the Fair Work Act.
Motions were passed at the meeting to build the ‘Change the Rules’ campaign in workplaces and stage a mass rally in Melbourne on May 9. This is a good starting point. Delegates should now call on union officials to hold workplace meetings and where possible use these to build for stop work action on May 9.
Beyond that, mass meetings of this character need to be held in all major cities. We need to develop a nationally-coordinated plan building towards a 24-hour national stop work. Rather than waiting for an election, this approach could begin forcing concessions from employers and governments now.
By an RTBU delegate