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Australia: Only workers’ power can smash Howard’s attacks

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600,000 workers demonstrated across Australia on 15 November against premier John Howard’s draconian anti-union laws. The demonstrations were the largest in Australian history with only one exception, the antiwar mobilisation of 15 February 2003.

Prime Minister John Howard is hell-bent on having the Industrial Relations Bill, his welfare to work legislation (Work Choices), and new anti-terrorism laws, all on the books before Christmas.

The Industrial Relations Bill will:

1. Abolish protection against unfair dismissal for four million workers employed in companies with less than 100 staff (99% of the Australian private sector)
2. Allow employers to put workers onto individual contracts; workers who refuse to sign could face the sack
3. Lower minimum wages by changing the way they are set
4. Well nigh abolish comprehensive minimum employment conditions; many workers could face cuts to weekend, shift and public holiday rates, overtime, redundancy pay, etc.
5. Block unionisation and hamper collective bargaining.

Due to come into effect on 1 July 2006, Work Choices is a massive blow to the welfare state, won by the working class during the post-World War II period.

The measures will force 200,000 claimants onto cheap labour and work-for-dole schemes. They attack all sorts of categories of claimants, including the disabled. In short, they are part and parcel of the worldwide neoliberal offensive against workers and their families.

Thus, the huge scale of resistance in Australia is good news for workers around the world fighting this offensive. It will be even better if November 15 is followed up by a real all out campaign to stop them before they can be enforced.

300,000 people had attended the previous anti-IRB protest, on 30 June and 1 July, but the 15 November turnout doubled these figures.

By far the biggest turnout was in Melbourne, Victoria, where a quarter of a million trade unionists and youth packed the streets. 100,000 demonstrated in other towns and cities in the federal state of Victoria. Numbers in other cities and states were only small by comparison with the huge response in Victoria. In Sydney there was 45,000, with similar numbers in Perth and Adelaide, and 25,000 in Brisbane. 3,000 truck drivers in Sydney blockaded the M4 motorway in protest.

Large numbers of workers struck to participate in the demonstrations, many despite real intimidation from their employers, and stern warnings from the government, which launched an advertising campaign to discourage participation. Thousands of Melbourne building workers defied laws, preventing their attendance, without their employer’s permission. They could be fined up to $22,000 each and the union $110,000. In fact, 80% of commercial construction sites closed down.

Building workers are a particular target of the Howard government and the new legislation. So too are port and maritime workers. Three tugboat operators, employed by Adsteam in Queensland, were sacked for attending the protest. Postal workers too faced threats of management reprisals. Large numbers of casual workers wanted to join the demonstrations, but faced the sack if they attended.

The vast Melbourne march united teachers, nurses and public servants with building workers, car and component workers, too. Five packed busloads of workers came from the Ford factory at Broadmeadows They chanted together, punching the air with their fists: “the workers, united, will never be defeated.” Twenty thousand teachers – half the workforce – went on strike in Victoria to attend the rally. Young people were also present in great numbers.

Home made placards on the demonstration made the link between anti-union and anti-welfare laws, and Howard’s ferocious support for Bush in Iraq and his attack on democratic rights and on refugees. Alas, this theme was totally absent form the speeches of the leaders of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). Its president, Sharan Burrow, and secretary Greg Combet kept totally off the issue of the new anti-terrorism act.

Indeed, at the beginning of the year, Combet argued against any campaign involving mass union mobilisations. Instead, ACTU relied on sucking up to sections of the bosses and other parties to water it down, or block it in the Senate. But since this class collaborationist strategy came to nothing, in June-July and November, the ACTU bureaucrats were forced to take the brakes off and go for days of action.

Indeed, in his national broadcast Combet was forced to huff and puff a bit:

“In the next couple of weeks the government will abuse its power and ram these laws through. When it does so it will not signal any setback for our campaign. Rather, it will signal the start of a determined, relentless effort to overturn these laws and put in their place decent rights for the working people of this country.”

He even claimed he would refuse to pay any fine the new laws impose.

The danger remains that, for ACTU and its state affiliates, the huge demonstrations will give way to total inaction again, turning the huge capital they represent into the small change of voting for the Labor Party at the next federal election.

Combet made this clear:

“Take the issues into your local community. Lobby politicians. Get active in marginal seats. Put at risk the job security of politicians who don’t support workers’ rights.”

Of course Australian workers should demand that Labor repeal totally and unconditionally these laws. But to wait for them to do so would be a fatal mistake, similar to that of the AFL-CIO in the United Sates and the TUC in Britain. The Labor Party actively supports a neoliberal economic agenda, and previous Labor governments encouraged moves towards individual contracts.

The union bureaucrats are determined to prevent working class militants from seeing through Labor and breaking with it. To this end, they provided Labor leader Kim Beazley with a platform at the Brisbane rally. Beazley talked tough and promised to “tear up” the new industrial relations laws if Labor wins. But if these anti-union laws are allowed to be implemented, there can be little doubt that he will find reasons, like Britain’s Tony Blair, to leave them fundamentally intact.

Meanwhile, many unions have experienced a surge in membership since the July mobilisation. Trade unionists in Victoria are talking of organising another national strike and demonstration on 1 March. They should go further than this. What is needed to crush the reactionary IRB, the welfare “reform” and the anti-terrorism law too is an all out and indefinite general strike. This alone can sweep away these reactionary laws and the government, which spawned them.