Winning right to strike a key challenge for unions

Review: The State of Industrial Relations
Evatt Foundation,  $24.95
THIS SHORT volume was put together in 2008, after Labor’s election but before all the details of Fair Work Australia, Rudd’s answer to WorkChoices, were known.
Consequently some material is a little dated. And it probably could have done without reproducing a Julia Gillard speech spruiking Labor’s laws as aiming to “drive productivity and co-operative workplace arrangements.”
The chapter by ACTU President Jeff Lawrence “A New Settlement” is astonishingly complacent and devoid of vision. There is no program to rebuild the unions, no agenda to win back the rights lost under Howard, no argument for industry-wide agreements or to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).
“Our main worry,” says Jeff, “is not the government’s intentions, but a rear guard operation from some employer organisations and the new opposition to link Labor’s industrial relations reforms with future economic difficulty.”
There really is no excuse for this. Even in March 2008 it was well-known that Fair Work Australia was going to fall short of union expectations.
The chapter on productivity under WorkChoices provides some evidence for what we already knew—that productivity increases under Howard was driven by work intensification and longer hours.
The chapter on working women details the way in which “the attack on working conditions opened up by WorkChoices fell disproportionately on Australia’s working women.”

Strike action
But one contribution is particularly welcome—Chris White’s chapter “The Right to Strike”.
The significance of the savage restrictions on the right to strike has rarely been raised in discussions about union rights. It was not a feature of the Your Rights At Work campaign. Jeff Lawrence doesn’t mention it either. Yet, arguably, it is the lack of the right to strike that underpins the difficulties over the past 20 years in rebuilding the union movement.
Marx and Engels were the first socialists to recognise the significance of unions and strike action in developing working class consciousness. From the experience of the first ever mass strikes in Britain Marx concluded (a little optimistically) in The German Ideology in 1846, “even a minority of workers who combine and go on strike very soon find themselves compelled to act in a revolutionary way.”
In The Conditions of the English Working Class, Engels calls unions “the military school of working men” and writes, “What gives the unions and the strikes arising from them their real importance is this, that they are the first attempts of the workers to abolish competition [among the working class].”
Marx understood the way in which strikes develop working class consciousness and confidence in their own power.
It is a point made by Russian revolutionary Lenin writing of the early working class movement in Russia, “Every strike reminds the capitalists that it is the workers and not they who are the real masters—the workers who are more and more loudly proclaiming their rights. Every strike reminds the workers that their position is not hopeless, that they are not alone.”

Anti-strike laws
The right to strike is recognised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as a fundamental right for workers not only to “obtain better working conditions” but also “to seek solutions to economic and social policy questions and to labour problems of any kind which are of direct interest to the workers.”
The Howard government imposed some of the harshest restrictions on the right to strike in the world. Because of WorkChoices, the ILO listed Australia among extreme violators of labour standards.
In 2005, Kevin Rudd attacked WorkChoices for limiting workers’ right to strike. Yet, under Labor’s legislation, Howard’s harsh restrictions on the right to strike remain in force.
It was the Keating Labor government which introduced the first restrictions on the right to strike in 1993 when enterprise bargaining laws restricted lawful strikes to a defined bargaining period.
Strike days had plummeted with the recession of the early 1980s, from around 800 strike days per 1000 workers leveling out at around 200 strike days during the Accord years of the Hawke and Keating government. With the introduction of enterprise bargaining, strike days dropped again and it is from this time that union membership and union coverage drops dramatically.
White quotes Whitlam labour minister Clyde Cameron saying, “The right to withdraw labour is the one thing that distinguishes a free worker from the slave.”
It says everything about the power of strikes for economic and political ends that construction workers’ strikes will stage illegal strikes to protest against the ABCC will be illegal (see article p21).
Bad laws do have to be broken and the right to strike still has to be fought for.
Ian Rintoul


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