Thousands of workers in Sydney have taken illegal strike action to rally against the Liberals’ anti-union laws.
This is the kind of action needed both to resist Turnbull’s war on workers, and to build pressure on Labor to back the right to strike and scrap the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).
The day of action on 16 November was the third time construction workers have walked off the job to join stopwork rallies in Sydney this year.
For the first time Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) members also stopped work to attend. “What the MUA did in Port Botany is stop the ports and every wharfie walked off”, as Paul Keating, MUA Sydney Deputy Branch Secretary, told the crowd.
The action was called out of a combined unions delegates’ meeting in late July, as a result of pressure from the CFMEU and other rank and file unionists.
In August the CFMEU ended its defiance of Turnbull’s new Construction Code, agreeing to sign new “code compliant” agreements that strip out a series of union-friendly clauses. The Code was introduced alongside the re-introduction of the ABCC, in an effort to attack unions in the construction industry.
Labor voted against the ABCC legislation and says it would scrap it if it comes to power. But last time Labor formed government, it took them five years to repeal the ABCC. And they never abolished all of its powers, rolling them into a new Building Industry Inspectorate.
An ongoing campaign of stopwork rallies are needed, as part of an effort to defy the ABCC and fight Turnbull, as well as send a message to Labor that unions expect them to deliver. Last time around it took the willingness to break the law and defy the ABCC by individual unionists like Noel Washington and Ark Tribe, backed up with stopwork rallies, to force Labor to change the law.
But the ACTU’s focus remains on an electoral campaign against Turnbull. Earlier this year, ACTU Secretary Sally McManus captured the attention of workers with her call that “bad laws should be broken”, defending the CFMEU’s right to take “illegal” industrial action.
But the ACTU campaign slogan is not “Break the Rules” but “Change the Rules”, focused on an attempt to win electoral victory for Labor, and on a Labor government’s willingness to change the law.
Sally McManus attended the rally and told the crowd that, “ten years since the Your Rights at Work campaign… we need to finish the job.” She outlined some of the changes that the ACTU is demanding—which they hope an incoming Labor government will adopt.
As well as some modest specific changes like a guarantee of “ten days domestic violence leave for all workers” and abolishing the ABCC, much of this remains vague, including the hope for some kind of legislation to reduce casualisation, and the use of the Fair Work Commission to combat wage theft.
But McManus also called for an end to the ban on “pattern bargaining” across an industry, saying, “we need more bargaining power for workers, that means we should be able to choose over what we bargain and who we bargain with, whether that be across a sector, across an industry, up the supply chain. We should not just be forced to bargain on an enterprise-based level.”
She also tipped her hat to demands for the right to strike, saying, “We need better and fairer rights to withdraw our labour when we need to. We need to stop the fines that are dished out to unions”, citing, “the $2 million for stopping work to defend your delegate at Barangaroo”, as, “unacceptable”.
Just like the Your Rights at Work campaign, the ACTU’s campaign efforts remain squarely focused on mobilising workers into marginal electorates and voting booths with how-to-votes.
In a call to action, she declared: “We need to stop this government and we have a chance right now. We must do everything we can to win Bennelong and bring down the government.”
Workers were urged to volunteer for the campaign against Liberal MP John Alexander in the Bennelong by-election.
But forcing Labor to stop the fines against strike action will take serious pressure—and a willingness to take to the streets and defy the laws. As one MUA banner demanded, we need to, “Smash the anti-union laws: it’s our right to strike”.
By Sophie Cotton and James Supple