The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) launched its biggest advertising blitz in more than a decade last month. The ads form part of the ACTU’s ‘Change the Rules’ campaign which calls for an overhaul of Australia’s industrial relations laws.
While thin on detail about the exact changes they would like to see, the ACTU are absolutely correct when they say that “big business has too much power”, and there is no doubt that working people desperately need “more secure jobs and better pay”.
As it stands working people are falling behind in terms of living standards and wealth equality. Despite 26 years of uninterrupted economic growth it has been a boom for the bosses while the rest of us are struggling to make ends meet.
Extending basic rights like the right to strike would help shift the balance, as would putting more restrictions on employers like limiting casual work and increasing the minimum wage. But the question is how will changes like this be achieved?
The bosses have never given up anything without a fight. Almost all of our gains, from the 8-hour work day, to annual leave and paid breaks, were won by unions engaging in strikes. Usually only after the gains were won on the job were they later enshrined in law.
That many of our gains are today being wound back is a result of unions moving away from using their own industrial power and instead begging others to make change for them. It hasn’t worked.
An example of this was in the lead up to the 2007 federal election. The ACTU ran the ‘Your Rights At Work’ campaign. In a similar vein its aim was to change Howard’s draconian Work Choices laws. On the back of several mass rallies, an advertising blitz and a marginal seats campaign Howard was turfed from office and Labor were thrown into power under Kevin Rudd.
Rudd replaced Work Choices with the current Fair Work Act, but far from making any far-reaching changes the Fair Work laws retained most of what Howard had introduced. Divisive enterprise bargaining was still central, the right to strike was still heavily limited and there were still significant restrictions on the ability of unions to organise.
The unions held back from fighting for more and as a result the movement has been pushed back. In other words, Labor – with Bill Shorten himself as Workplace Relations Minister for a time – allowed the employers to retain everything they needed to reduce union influence and increase profits at our expense.
The strategy of relying on Labor to ‘change the rules’ was a monumental failure, yet without any serious reflection the ACTU leaders are attempting to replicate this plan all over again. We can and must change direction or we will be pushed back even further.
The ACTU claim that they are “building a powerful movement to change the rules” but this is far from the case. A really powerful movement would be one that used industrial action like strikes and mass protests as its primary weapons.
Movements that mobilise the collective industrial power of the working class are powerful as they have the potential to significantly impact employers’ profits. In contrast, movements that restrict themselves to the goal of merely replacing one capitalist party with another at elections are much weaker.
The bosses consider that they have two major parties at their disposal. They can happily live with either the Liberals or Labor in power. Both serve their interests well. What they fear the most is an agitated workers movement prepared to stop work.
While the ACTU will no doubt call some protests, the central tenet of their campaign is to mobilise people to vote for Labor. The worst part about this plan is that Labor are yet to propose a single significant reform.
You could understand campaigning for a party that had a pro-worker program and promised to implement it. Labor however do not have any such program and we have the recent experience of the Fair Work laws to judge them on.
While pretending to stand for the interests of working people Labor consistently carry out policies in the interests of big business. Instead of highlighting this duplicity the ACTU have instead handed Labor a blank cheque. It is an extremely weak starting point.
If the union movement is to have any real chance of changing the rules it needs to adopt an entirely different approach. It needs to stop pretending that we can rely on Labor and instead build a campaign based on our strength as workers.
In the first instance mass meetings of delegates should be called to discuss the situation and draw up a log of claims. Instead of waiting for the next election, once agreed, our log of claims should be put to the government and all of the major parties.
We should demand that changes to the laws be implemented immediately. Obviously, the government and their big business backers will resist the proposed changes. They would only be forced to implement reforms if they were put under pressure, so the movement should be mobilised to exert that pressure.
Via workplace meetings strike action coupled with mass protests could be organised. The first step should be the calling of a 24-hour national stoppage. In addition, key workplaces could be targeted and solidarity action could be organised to force certain employers to concede to our demands. This is how we could begin to make the changes a reality even before they were put to parliament.
No doubt such a campaign would breach the current restrictive laws, but if the movement acted as one it would be impossible for the state to implement sanctions. For example, if they attempted to fine one group of workers, wider sections of workers could replicate the action in an act of solidarity. It would be impossible for them to fine us all. United action can turn their draconian laws into a dead letter!
A mass campaign of industrial action would thrust the union movement into the national spotlight, immediately highlighting its relevance as a fighting force. We wouldn’t need gimmicks or movie vouchers to encourage membership. People would see the need to join as it would be clear that it would be in their interests.
Labor for their part would be forced to choose a side. We could demand that Labor pledge to implement our demands in full within their first 100 days of coming to power. If they refused, the movement could break the link with Labor and instead create its own political vehicle.
This might begin with unions deciding to stand their own candidates in elections as an auxiliary to our industrial campaign, or it might take the form of the unions coming together with community groups and forming a new workers party.
Such a development would attract swathes of disillusioned Labor supporters as well as many who are disappointed in the Greens. Most importantly a new fighting political force would be attractive to the millions of disenfranchised youth who hate the current system but are yet to be presented with a viable alternative. It would cut across the support for reactionary right-wing populist forces.
Far from creating any excitement, the current ‘vote Labor’ strategy of the ACTU is a dead end. The time for adopting an alternative strategy is now. We should remember that the Turnbull government is extremely weak. They cling to power by a single seat and the Coalition is riven with divisions. We should take advantage of this weakness, as well as the mass opposition that exists to big business greed.
The lack of a fight being put up by the union movement is only enticing the bosses further. Not content with their megaprofits, they now want more corporate tax cuts and further reductions in social spending. A mass campaign of strikes and protests would not only knock the confidence out of the bosses but it would have the potential to bring the government to its knees.
The problems our movement faces are primarily political. We are being held back by our leaders’ blind allegiance to Labor. If we can break this deadlock the potential is there break the whole situation open and put the workers movement back on the front foot.
The starting point is the building of a militant current within the movement that can win support for a fighting approach. The ultimate goal however is to build a society that does away with corporate domination and uses the wealth we create to raise the living standards of all.
The Socialist Party demands:
-Mass delegates meetings in every region to draw up a log of claims and discuss plans for ongoing national action.
-Organise workplace meetings to build for an initial 24-hour national strike with mass protests in all major cities.
-Trades and Labour Councils form regional action committees open to all union members to help facilitate local strikes and protests.
-A 35-hour week with no loss of pay to share out available work. End the blight of underemployment.
-Unions to fight for a minimum wage of $25 per hour, plus all penalties and loadings.
-The right to permanent hours for all casuals after 2 months. End dodgy insecure work arrangements.
-Oppose divisive enterprise bargaining. For a return to industry-wide bargaining regardless of what the laws say.
-For the right to strike, including solidarity actions and political strikes. Break the rules to change the rules.
-The ACTU to use union members money for strike funds, not just media campaigns and stunts.
-That unions pay no fines. Mass defiance can turn bad laws into a dead letter.
-A fighting leadership of the ACTU prepared to break bad laws and challenge the profit-driven system.
-A new workers’ party based on trade unions and community groups that can offer a real political alternative to the big business parties.
-A democratic socialist society that puts people’s needs before profits. Change the system, not just the rules.
Editorial comment from the April 2018 issue of The Socialist