A 24-hour strike planned by Sydney rail workers was deemed unlawful by the misnamed Fair Work Commission on Thursday. The Commission disingenuously cited threats to the economy and people’s welfare as the reasoning behind the decision. Overtime bans were also forcefully suspended.
Around 9000 rail workers, organised in the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) have been in dispute with Sydney Trains for months over a new Enterprise Bargaining Agreement.
The workers have been seeking a 6% pay rise per year and improved conditions – a modest ask considering the cost of living in New South Wales (NSW) and the successive cuts that have been made to the transport sector over recent years which has significantly increased staff workloads.
Sydney Trains is controlled by the state government and they have been resisting workers’ demands for decent pay rises, instead responding that transport staff should adhere to the government’s 2.5% pay cap for public servants.
With the government refusing to budge much on their offer, the rail workers went through all the rigmarole applying to take ‘legal’ industrial action. This was originally approved by Fair Work but the decision was overturned after a campaign waged by big business and an appeal by the conservative state government.
Strikes on the NSW rail network are rare, the last one taking place in 1999. Despite this the government was not prepared to let this one go ahead, mostly out of fear that it would set an example for other workers who are suffering from inadequate pay rises, speed ups and longer hours.
The head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Sally McManus, correctly pointed out that the “basic right to strike in Australia is very nearly dead.” This is indeed the case. The right of workers to withdraw their labour is a fundamental one but in Australia most strikes are forbidden.
Unfortunately, this right has been whittled away by both the major parties in recent decades but the legal provision used to cancel this particular strike was a section of the Fair Work Act that was introduced by the Gillard Labor government.
Commenting on the decision Sally McManus added that we “need to change the rules, because Australia needs a pay rise”. This is undoubtable true but how can it be achieved? At the moment the ACTU and the bulk of Australia’s trade union leaders are preparing to campaign for the return of a Labor government – i.e. the same party that introduced the anti-strike laws in the first place! It’s a ridiculous scenario.
Parties should be judged on their actions not just their words. When courting the votes of workers Labor pretend to be the friend of the underdog, but when their policies and laws are put into practice they show that they are designed to assist big business in their drive for profits.
It is clear that no matter what workers do, if they adhere to the legal framework put in place they have no ability to bargain for decent wages and conditions. The rules definitely need changing but we cannot rely on either of the major parties to do that for us. The only way that change will happen is if it is forced upon the powers that be. This will only happen if we break the rules.
Instead of just accepting anti-democratic decisions, the union movement as a whole is going to have to challenge the laws, breaking them en masse in order to turn them into a dead letter. This dispute is as good as any to make an example of.
If the ACTU was serious about getting the rules changed it would respond by announcing that the Fair Work decision to cancel the Sydney rail strike will not be adhered to. And not only will the rail workers be walking off the job as planned but that they will be joined by workers from all sectors who will join at a mass rally in the Sydney CBD.
This type of action would technically be illegal but with thousands of workers participating how would the authorities respond? They could not fine everyone. If fines were levelled at the unions an escalating campaign of ongoing rallies and stop work actions could be called until the fines were withdrawn. This method of struggle has worked in the past and it is exactly what is required if we want the rules changed today.
In addition to a bold industrial campaign aimed at challenging the laws, the union movement needs to regain its political independence and break with the pro-boss Labor Party. Workers need their own party that will fight for laws that advance their interests. The right to strike for starters, but also laws that will break the power that big business has over every aspect of our lives.
By Anthony Main