Editorial: Bad laws deserve to be broken—fight for the right to strike

Malcolm Turnbull managed to hang on in the Bennelong by-election in December, maintaining his slender parliamentary majority. But his political demise is only postponed.

Turnbull has trailed Labor in the polls consistently for almost a year and a half, and by a wide margin.

As the Liberals slump they are constantly looking to scapegoat migrants and refugees, stirring up racism and fear in an attempt to maintain or claw back support.

Dutton and Turnbull are constantly boasting of how they have “secured our borders” through torturing refugees on Manus Island and Nauru.

But Peter Dutton set a new low in January with efforts to whip up racism about “African gangs”, following a media beat-up about gangs and crime in Melbourne. But his scare campaign about people being too afraid to go out for dinner met with considerable opposition—on social media, from lawyers and the Sudanese community. It was dismissed on Melbourne radio. Even police said talk of a gang problem was misleading, with the Victorian Police Commissioner calling Dutton’s comment “garbage”.

This racist campaign won’t save the government. But it has already resulted in an increase in racist abuse directed at people of African backgrounds.

The government’s political agenda remains deeply unpopular.

Treasurer Scott Morrison is stepping up their campaign for corporate tax cuts, using Donald Trump’s tax cuts in the US to try to sell them. But following Trump isn’t exactly a path to popularity. And neither is shovelling more money to massive corporations, who aren’t paying tax anyway.

The government can try to talk up jobs growth and the economy. But record low wages growth means most workers don’t feel any better off. Average wages have been dropping in real terms for the last five years, and remain below 2010 levels.

The latest figures show the number of private sector workers covered by an enterprise bargaining agreement has declined by 40 per cent in the last four years. Most have moved back onto the basic award conditions, which are usually far lower.

There are more and more examples of bosses using the law to slash wages and conditions.

Workers at Port Kembla’s coal terminal are the latest to face the termination of their enterprise bargaining agreement. This would see them lose years of accumulated conditions and pay rises.

When they took industrial action, management locked them out, using scabs to do their work.

At the Glencore mine at Oaky North in Queensland, workers have been locked out for over six months, with the bosses demanding cuts to conditions around union representation, rostering and a pay cut.

The ACTU “Change the Rules” campaign has used disputes like these to show how the Fair Work rules are stacked against unions and workers. But its focus is on looking to a future Labor government to change this.

Labor has committed to some changes, including overturning the penalty rates cuts, abolishing the ABCC, making it harder for bosses to terminate agreements and introducing new regulations for the use of labour hire.

But none of these will fundamentally change bargaining under the Fair Work Act or remove the restrictions on the right to strike.

Right to strike

The “Fair Work” decision banning Sydney’s rail strike effectively means that any strike or industrial action by rail workers is now illegal. The decision threatens the right to strike for all workers.

Last year, ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said that unions were right to break bad laws. Those words need to be turned into action.

If the ACTU and the Sydney rail workers’ union, the RTBU, had defied the ban on the rail strike it would have been a major blow against the employers’ offensive.

It would have put industrial action at the centre of politics and could have broken the 2.5 per cent wage cap imposed on state government workers.

Unions NSW and the ACTU could have called mass rallies in solidarity with the rail workers. Instead the RTBU meekly announced that it would call off the strike.   

Labor really should change the rules, not just tinker with them. But its changes will be modest. It will take an industrial campaign to beat the bosses and win the right to strike.

The mass picket at Melbourne’s Webb Dock just before Christmas showed how effective industrial action that stops business-as-usual can be. Shipping containers were stranded inside the port for almost three weeks.

But it also demonstrated that using “community pickets” is no alternative to industrial action. The Federal Court ruled that the community picket was being organised by the union movement anyway. As a result the company is now pursuing damages against the MUA and the CFMEU for up to $100 million.

We need stronger rank-and-file union organisation in every workplace to turn the “Change the Rules” campaign into a real fight to break the legal chains on the unions.

And we need stronger socialist organisation to build the fight against the bosses’ system of inequality, low pay, and the racism they use to divide us.


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