Australia: union fight back conference!
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
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
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."
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."
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
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."