Building a campaign to change the rules

Over the coming weeks, tens of thousands of workers will take to the streets in mass rallies as part of the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ “Change the Rules” campaign. Union delegates meet in Melbourne on 17 April; they are likely to endorse a CBD rally for 9 May. Unions in other cities will be mobilising for May Day demonstrations.

The Change the Rules initiative is a welcome attempt by Australia’s union movement to put corporate power and anti-worker industrial laws at the centre of political debate in the lead-up to the federal election. The aims of the campaign are to unseat Turnbull’s Liberals and to push Labor to introduce significant changes to industrial laws.

Australian industrial laws are some of the most anti-worker in the developed world, especially regarding the most important right that workers have – the right to strike.

Even after decades of anti-union “reform” by the likes of Margaret Thatcher, industrial laws in Britain allow workers to take strike action at any time, after balloting their members. By contrast, Australian workers may strike only every few years, after an enterprise agreement (EA) has expired.

The International Labour Organization – hardly a radical organisation – notes that Australia is one of the few countries in which solidarity strikes are illegal simply because they are solidarity strikes. In the US, for instance, union contracts can contain clauses that enable workers in one union to respect the picket lines of another union without being victimised.

Even compared to many countries outside the advanced economies, Australian workers have few legal rights. The industrial laws of the Philippines – passed during the Marcos dictatorship in the 1980s – give workers the right to strike in protest at “unfair labour practices” such as contract violations or the sacking of unionists. This right is denied to Australian workers. 

The above restrictions on workers’ rights have been endorsed by successive governments, both Liberal and Labor, over many years. 

In February, a rail workers’ strike in Sydney was banned under a clause that enables the Fair Work Commission to stop strikes that “cause significant economic harm to the employers or employees” involved, or “cause significant damage to the Australian economy or an important part of it”. 

In other words, strikes that are effective can be banned. This clause was not some holdover from a previous Liberal regime: it was written into Australian industrial law in 1992 by the Labor government of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating.

Defiance of these laws is possible – even essential. It’s also expensive. In fact, industrial murder is cheaper than going on strike in Australia. The highest fines imposed on a company for killing a worker through dangerous workplaces are around $1million. This is what Toll Shipping was fined after a wharfie was killed at Melbourne’s Webb Dock in 2014. 

Typically, however, penalties for workplace fatalities are only a fraction of this – construction tycoon Daniel Grollo paid only $250,000 in fines for the death of three pedestrians after a wall collapsed on his construction site in Swanston Street, Melbourne, in 2013. 

Compare that with the $2.4 million dollars in fines imposed on the CFMEU construction division last year for a single strike – a two-day stoppage and picket by workers at the Barangaroo construction site in Sydney in 2014, against the unjust sacking of a union delegate and health and safety rep. 

Attacks on workers’ rights extend well beyond the right to strike. Companies like Esso and CUB impose wage cutting agreements with court approval. The Fair Work Commission now routinely approves employer applications to abolish EAs, threatening workers with a return to threadbare legal minimums and shredding generations of hard-fought-for conditions. 

The Fair Work Ombudsman is pathetically ineffective at enforcing even the legal minimum at millions of Australian workplaces – but is increasingly active in fining unions that strike to maintain jobs and workplace conditions. And the list goes on.

So the union movement’s attempt, through the Change the Rules campaign, to put issues like this at the heart of Australian political life is long overdue. 

With thousands of others, socialists have been signing up to Change the Rules and will be active in our workplaces to promote the campaign and build attendance at the rallies. As material becomes available, it’s important for every militant to get it around our workplaces to encourage discussion of the issues and participation in campaign actions.

Strikes and demonstrations are the most powerful motor of any campaign. In 2005, John Howard rammed through his vicious anti-worker WorkChoices laws. Media stories generated mass revulsion against the laws (such as the story of Annette Harris, a Coffs Harbour retail worker offered a contract that stripped all penalty rates and allowances in return for an over award payment of just two cents per hour). 

But the mass strikes and demonstrations, called at first by the left unions in Victoria, gave our side hope and powered the campaign. Tragically, these strikes were reined in by the ACTU before they came anywhere near to a campaign of mass defiance that could have killed Howard’s laws stone dead. 

This time around, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory seem to be the only places considering a daytime stop-work rather than a weekend rally (for full list of events, go to www.australianunions.org.au/12_days_of_action).

Our movement shouldn’t be handing the ALP a blank cheque on what changes to implement. After all, almost all of the laws we’re protesting against were passed by Labor governments or left on the books by Labor when in office. In one respect, the Change the Rules campaign is a step forward from the ACTU’s anti-WorkChoices campaign: at least there is campaign material available online that spells out (in general terms) the changes our movement demands. 

But this material is inadequate in the most crucial area – the right to strike. A single vague line is buried in a long document: “Workers’ rights to withdraw their labour must be aligned to ILO standards”. A campaign that aims to create a sense of expectation and political pressure from workers around this question, and a preparedness to act on this sentiment, needs to focus on this core demand.