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Australia: all out against Howard’s law

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Workers in Australia will be coming out in their hundreds of thousands on 28 June to fight against anti-union laws that are crippling effective trade unionism and giving bosses the legal right to intimidate workers.

Days of action last year showed that there is mass opposition to the laws, but so far the militancy and anger of workers have been squandered and corralled into one-day protests by the union leaders.

The 28 June protest is an opportunity for workers and young people to fight for effective action to defeat the government offensive as workers and young people did recently in France.

The last of Prime Minister Howard’s Work Choices anti-union laws came into force in Australia at the end of March. The laws give employers far greater powers to sack workers and cut their wages.

Within a week of the laws coming into place several bosses had dismissed their entire workforces and then offered to re-employ some of them but on much lower wages and conditions. At the Cowra Abattoir in New South Wales 29 workers were sacked and only 20 offered new contracts. And some of these paid $180 less a week. The bosses were eventually made to back down by the Office of Workplace Services, with the result that the government appeared to be the reasonable mediators.

In April, 70 field technicians were sacked at Optus in Melbourne for “operational reasons”. The employees were told to attend a seminar to write CVs and reapply for their old jobs. This time they would have to buy their own vans and pay their own insurance, pension and other expenses leaving them $200-300 worse off a week. Optus made $500 million last year.

Perhaps the most bizarre case so far is the Melbourne worker fired for “smirking” at his boss. His termination form says he was fired for “being disrespectful”. Two other workers were also fired for supporting the first. Their union did not respond but a 200-strong picket organised by the local community did win the men their jobs back.

The response from the union movement has been uneven. While there have been community assemblies, solidarity BBQs and pickets such as at Optus where workers have been sacked, none of these have yet turned into strikes or solidarity action, despite promises by union leaders to do so at the two large rallies last year.

On 28 June, there will be a third national day of action with unions, workplaces and individuals taking some form of industrial action. Many individuals will also take unofficial action by calling in sick or taking a morning off or long lunchtime to attend.

The two days of action last year were real shows of strength. There were good turnouts for the TV cameras and some union leaders and politicians spoke against the bill. But none of the speeches outlined a plan of action that could fight the new laws and challenge Howard’s government and the bosses.

Some unions have decided that the way to survive these laws is to try and ride them out without a fight. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union for instance has been desperately trying to re-negotiate all its contracts before the final legislation is in place. That did not prevent Quantas proposing to sack 480 workers and cut wages. The union has been able to pressurise the Australian Industrial Relations Council into telling the airline to withdraw the proposals. And while the union’s lawyer said that under Work Choices the union could not have challenged the airline’s actions, the union has still entered into negotiations rather than fight the cuts.

Other unions, like the National Tertiary Education Union, have stated publicly that it is more important to defend the union than its members.

>From the very first time the new laws were announced Workers Power has argued that such a class-wide attack can only be met by a class-wide response. We’ve argued consistently for a general strike and for how this can be organised. Of course, a growing number of workers are casualised, part-time or not even union members and in some workplaces and industries where there is still high unionisation, there are not the networks or structures of union democracy. All this makes calling for a general strike difficult.

However France has only one in 10 workers in unions (less than half the Australian number), but with the enthusiasm and dynamism of the students acting as a catalyst, French workers were able to stop their government’s CPE contracts. In the US, unionisation is as bad as France, but earlier this year more than a million workers and migrants have demonstrated and gone on strike against racist immigration laws.

Inspired by the French events, the left-group Resistance has called on Australian students and young workers to strike on 1 June, with the aim of getting the ball rolling before the ACTU national day of action.

The national day of action on the 28 June, part of a week of action, is the perfect place to kick off a general strike.

In the run up, unions must call meetings of delegates to hammer out a strategy to defeat the bill. New South Wales unions have called for a series of workplace meetings for the 15 May to build for the day of action.

But in Western Australian, white collar unions have refused to support the day of action leaving the main blue collar unions, maritime workers, plumbers and electricians, manufacturing workers and construction and mining, to go it alone.

That is why meetings are needed in all union branches and workplaces to build for the 28 June and force unions to back the day of action.

Inter union co-ordinating committees should also be built to unify the struggles and prevent any white/blue collar division such as in Western Australia and to run the week of action and the 28 June stoppage in local areas democratically but with strength.

In the meantime, every job really must be defended with strikes, pickets and solidarity actions.

But to build and generalise action from these disputes will mean challenging the current union leaderships, even those that appear to be more militant. Workers must guard against any tendency for the union leaders to “wait for a Labour government”. Labour has already said it will not get rid of all of Howard’s anti-worker laws.

When it comes to arguing for the general strike, we have to be clear - this is the only way to stop the laws and bring the whole Howard government crashing down. And if we get a general strike, then it poses the question of who rules society?

Workers must have an answer. We need a different type of workers’ party, one that will fight for workers’ interests against the bosses and Howard and won’t betray like labour. We need a workers’ party that will stand up for immigrants and oppose Howard’s military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Solomon Islands and now East Timor. And we need a workers’ party to fight for socialism and bring about the end of capitalism - a revolutionary party of the working class.

• All out on 28 June
• For a general strike to bring down Howard
• For a new workers’ party