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Australia; Turn up the heat! Opposing Howard's attacks on workers

Sam Wainwright, Editor, /Maritime Worker/, journal of the WA MUA

There's a change in the air. In the first few months after PM John Howard was re-elected and he revealed the full scope of his government's anti-worker agenda, depression and despair were everywhere to be found. The message coming from the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) was "there's nothing we can do except batten down the hatches". Yet now there is anger instead of resignation. There is determination that we can and must take a stand, and there's a growing feeling that maybe this fight could be the beginning of the end for Howard and his gang.

Why are things beginning to turn around? Firstly, a number of the more militant unions, especially those in Victoria, insisted that there had to be a massive public show of opposition. The Western Australian unions backed this call, and while reluctant at first, the labour councils in the other states and the ACTU at last swung behind the push for massive protests on June 30 and July 1.

Meanwhile the Howard government, having abandoned any pretence that it can or will keep a lid on interest rates, brazenly revealed its anti-worker agenda when it upped its planned exemption for enterprises from unfair dismissal laws from those employing up to 20 to those with up to 100 employees.

By overstepping the mark, the government has done us a favour: the squeals of outrage by government parliamentarians over the ACTU's powerful and moving ads about the impact of the proposed changes prove that the Coalition is starting to feel the heat. The pre-election bullshit about caring for "the battlers" has been cast aside like a bit of tinsel. This government only looks after its paymasters in the Business Council of Australia.

However, there's a weakness in the ACTU's ad campaign: it doesn't call everyone out to protest and it doesn't spell out that our peak union body is determined to fight and win. This really is the guts of the matter. Active unionists have to convince our workmates, friends and family that there's no white knight in shining armour ready to save us from the Howard gang - not the High Court, not the state governments and not a future Kim Beazley federal Labor government. Only a campaign that involves millions of working Australians can stop them.

Of course, any support we get through the courts is valuable, but the courts aren't the independent umpires they are made out to be. They blow with the wind, and most of the time the wind is blowing with the bosses! However, when the community is passionate and out on the streets, they feel the pressure to come down on our side too. Does anyone seriously believe that the federal court would have decided in favour of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) in the 1998 dispute with stevedoring company Patrick without the tens of thousands of community members standing on the picket lines?

Our campaign will have to go for the long haul. There are not many protest movements that succeed after just one demonstration. There will need to be lots of protests, workplace actions and community education. A number of unions have already suggested another national day of action in August when the government's legislation is introduced into parliament. These big demonstrations are vital because they give us all a feeling of our collective strength and purpose, especially for those workers with no union at their workplace to involve them in activity.

A 24-hour strike by all unions when Howard introduces his legislation wouldn't be a bad idea, either. It would show the bosses, many of whom are already getting nervous about the prospect of losing millions, what the price of continuing to support the Coalition's laws will be.

A massive and united display of political protest and industrial action has the potential to kill off Howard's IR agenda outright. However, even if he gets some of it passed, it's not the end of the fight. It's one thing to have a law on the books and it's another to actually enforce it. The community picket lines that stopped the government and Patrick Corporation from smashing the MUA in 1998 were "illegal". However Howard knew that he could not send tens of thousands of people to jail, because this would have been political suicide. Once again we will have to defy the new and existing anti-union laws and make them unworkable. Bad laws have to be broken! We must support with every means we have anyone targeted by the government, the bosses or the courts over industrial activity in defence of their rights and conditions.

Howard is a clever politician and he will try to avoid a full-on confrontation with large sections of the work force at once. Instead he will go after particular unions and sectors one by one. We have to respond with the old union slogan, "Touch one, touch all!". No matter who he goes after first - be they blue collar, white collar, public sector, private sector or people on welfare - we must lock in behind in support and show Howard that his divide-and-rule game is a dead end.

A successful campaign against Howard's industrial relations agenda we will push him onto the back foot and turn what laws he does get passed into a dead letter. A successful campaign will force Beazley and the other Labor politicians to publicly commit to repeal all of the anti-union laws without exception, if and when they next take office. We've got a sniff that such a thing just might be possible. Let's turn this dream into a reality and throw everything we've got at it.

June 2005


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