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Australia: union fight back conference!

Sam Wainwright

 

If anything summed up the mood of defiance at the National Union Fight Back Conference held at the Trades Hall in Melbourne on June 11 it was the hero's welcome accorded to former AMWU Victorian state secretary Craig Johnston. Johnston was released from Loddon prison on May 27 after serving nine months for his participation in an industrial dispute. As he took the stage the near capacity crowd of over 350 lifted the roof chanting "Craig Johnston - Here to stay!"

West Australian MUA secretary Chris Cain spoke for most when he said, "I believe the type of trade unionism that Craig Johnston has brought to Victoria needs to be brought to more unionists around the country."

Although the AMWU's national office advised its Victorian officials and organisers that they could not address the conference in an official capacity, the attendance of over fifty rank and file members of that union showed that they are keen to see the issues debated out.

While the ACTU and many union officials have explained the drastic nature of the attack on workers' rights and the union movement planned by the Howard government, they have only slowly and grudgingly agreed to organise activity that might force the government to retreat. The purpose of the conference, explained organiser Sue Bolton, was "to gather together unionists who are serious about stopping the government." The event was initiated by the Socialist Alliance and sponsored and attended by many officials and organisers drawn from the more militant section of the union movement.

While there is a growing awareness in the wider community of the scope of the Howard government's anti-worker agenda, not so well known is its tailor-made attack on the CFMEU Construction Division. The Building Industry Taskforce will soon have the power to coerce people to give evidence with the threat of a $6,600 fine or six months jail.

Victorian CFMEU secretary Martin Kingham explained that, "Construction workers will lose our right to silence, something that every other citizen enjoys. The right to not incriminate yourself to a hostile investigation."

Despite this help from Howard, Victoria's construction bosses have been rushing to sign up to new three year agreements with the CFMEU.

Kingham said, "That's employers voting with their feet to avoid being the battleground." He pointed to the strength and discipline of the CFMEU's members in winning a 36 hour week industry standard in the midst of the Building Industry Royal Commission witch-hunt. He said, "It's an example of what workers can achieve when they feel they've got a stake and what they do can make a difference."

Electrical Trades Union Victorian organiser Wes Hayes explained that in addition to pushing through new EBAs, his union is getting employers to sign common law deeds that commit them to many of the provisions that would become inadmissible to EBAs under the government's legislation. However Hayes is aware that the government could move the goalposts again. He stressed that legal defences are "worthless unless we have strong, militant and committed members."

Defy the laws
The dominant theme of the conference was the need to defy and de-legitimise the governments anti-union offensive, regardless of how much of its package is actually passed by the Senate. Martin Kingham said, "It's one thing to have laws but it's another thing to apply them... so them passing the legislation is not the end of the campaign." Chris Cain agreed, emphasising that the union movement has to prepare its members and supporters to this end:

"I don't want to talk about what Howard's doing. I want to talk about how we go forward and how we defy his laws in mass. If you believe in rank and file trade unionism you have to break the law... Sooner or later there's going to be casualties when we do, but if we do it... in mass then we'll win. When the construction workers marched down to the Patricks picket line in 98, that defied Howard and Reith's laws and the dogs and all the rest of it. Now we can do that again, that's the way to win this blue. If you think about it, they can't put a hundred thousand people in jail. But they can pick us off individually and sue us individually."

Industrial lawyer Marcus Clayton from Slater & Gordon drew on a number of other historical examples to make the same point. He pointed out that the right to strike has never been recognised in Australia and industrial action has always been illegal to a greater or lesser degree and that the relaxing of penal provisions had always come through their outright defiance by the union movement.

Craig Johnston pointed out that some unions have already been staring down the government's laws and winning better conditions for workers.

This approach, he argued, needs to be generalised by the whole union movement in order to defeat the current offensive by the employers:

"We need to tell people about all the wins we've had. In the last ten years we've faced a bad industrial environment with the laws passed back in 96. Despite that there have been many wins by many unions right around the country. We need to be saying that unions have taken it on, broken the laws and won the disputes. We need to be highlighting that and telling it to people, because unfortunately there's too much doom and gloom about how you can't do this and you can't do that. Well that's bullshit, there have been many victories and we need to highlight them and get them out to people."

Reaching out
A strategy of defying the anti-union laws depends not just on cross union solidarity but a concerted effort to reach out to all of the working class. While supporting the ACTU's $6.4 million publicity campaign, Cain emphasised that this can not substitute for the big mobilisation, "What will do a better job and get more publicity will be one hundred thousand workers on the street."

NSW Greens Senator Kerry Nettle believes she can help get the union message out to a wider audience, "What we can contribute is to get this message out to a slightly different group of people who don't have that direct connection to the trade union movement... as part of a broad based coalition." Craig Johnston argued that unions had to be active builders of alliances, not sitting back and waiting for other sectors to come to them. He observed the diverse range of protests coming up in Melbourne and concluded that "We need a union presence at every demo."

Joan Doyle the secretary of the CEPU's Victorian postal and telecommunications division and Scott Wilson from the Queensland branch of the ETU suggested that the challenges thrown down by the government's attack would give the unions a chance to recruit, throw off conservative attitudes, recruit new members and regenerate themselves. Remarking on the $2 million salary paid to the head of Australia Post, Doyle said that the government's naked championing of the big business cause gave unions the chance to raise bigger questions about social spending and workers' control of industry.

Johnson, Kingham and NTEU Victorian secretary Matthew McGowan all stressed the need to press the ALP to make a public commitment to repeal the anti-union laws. Kingham also pointed out that the state Labor governments could significantly help unions do their job, particularly their right of entry, via state occupational health and safety laws. But, he added, "They won't do it unless there is coordinated combined pressure on them to do it."

Plan for action

The conference, while highly charged, was a serious and sober assessment of the challenges and tasks for the union movement.

Accordingly a number of proposals were adopted by the participants, pledging to: 1. Build the June 30/July 1 actions as big as possible; 2. Establish a union fightback network; 3. Campaign for more nationally co-ordinated action. Wes Hayes summarised the value of the conference's approach when he said, "Continuing the education and training of our members is the first and foremost priority... and encouraging and promoting... direct action as the means to gain the results. We all know from our experience that the best form of development is through elevating the debate on militant unionism, not shying away from it."

 

June 2005

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