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Australian anti-union laws pass Senate

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Howard’s coalition government has succeeded in getting its anti-union, anti-working class legislation through the Senate. The Nationals’ senator Barnaby Joyce was again a pathetic attention seeker who of course made no effort to actually make any changes to the laws.

Of course the Australian Congress of Trade Unions’ campaign was never going to be able to actually stop the laws. Greg Combet and Sharan Burrow have been dragged by the most militant sections of the union movement into taking some action beyond the expensive television advertisements and they have said some fine words in their various speeches, but in the end they are as afraid of a real union fightback as Howard.

In fact, only days after the huge demonstrations of 15 November, the ACTU emailed everyone who had signed up for the Your Rights at Work campaign to say that the next step was to phone Barnaby Joyce and make sure he crossed the floor. Not only is it terribly naive to believe that the right wing Christian National Party senator was going to break from the Coalition, it is in fact demobilising.

When over half a million workers take to the streets, many walking off the job or taking strike action to do so, it should be clear that there is a will to fight. And even though the largest marches were in Victoria, where there is a strong tradition of militant unionism, it’s clear that a huge proportion of the Australian working class wants to stop Howard’s laws.

In fact, this was clear even before the November demonstrations. Thirtieth June saw a huge march and stopwork in Melbourne, and smaller events around the country. Sydney had the Sky hook-ups – giant satellite screenings, which have always been a way of separating and demobilising workers – but nonetheless, the turn-outs showed that people were not going to give up hard won conditions without some sort of fight.

Then the coalition’s advertisements started on television. Almost immediately Howard’s popularity dropped. People were not willing to buy his lies and were in fact very upset by the huge government spending, from taxpayer funds, to convince us they were right.

All along, the key factor has been the push coming from the most militant sections of ACTU. Both the June and November demonstrations were forced upon the top levels of the ACTU from below. Along with this was the fact that 15 November was again channeled into a huge TV hook-up – the militant “action” expected of those who attended was apparently to applaud celebrities and politicians!

The role of the Australian Labor Party politicians, in particular, is interesting. Despite his rabid support for the coalition on other crucial issues, like the war in Iraq or attacks on civil liberties, Kim Beazley has had to promise to repeal the Industrial Relations laws if an ALP government is elected. Not just that, but every ALP MP has been seen sporting a prominent Your Rights at Work badge. The ALP has been a key organiser of local community meetings in the build up to 15 November.

But the ALP strategy boils down to waiting until the next election: vote for us and we’ll fix this up. And this is exactly the strategy that the ACTU would be happy to employ as well.

The problem is that we simply can’t trust the ALP to actually repeal these laws in full. The experience in New Zealand is a pertinent example. After the passing of the Employment Contracts Act in 1991, union membership collapsed almost overnight. The NZ Labour Party of course promised that, once elected, they would repeal the ECA – forgetting to mention that they would replace it with a Workplace Relations Act, which contained most of the same restrictions on the right to strike and the same advantages for the employers of a “flexible” workforce!

But if the ALP’s promisesw should be taken with a huge dose of salt, we certainly can’t trust much of the union bureaucracy either. They will fight to retain their privileged positions: hence, some union officials have openly talked about how saving union structures is more important than defending members’ conditions, wages and even jobs. What they have failed to understand is the most basic aspect of trade unionism – a union is nothing but the power of its members.

The coalition’s laws rely on this knowledge that the union officials will defend their positions over their members. That’s why there are such huge fines and threats of gaol for individuals, especially union leaders. Though Combet has said he’ll go to gaol if necessary, we should all remain a little cynical on this claim.

This is also why the strategy adopted, even by the most militant unions, of believing we can stop these laws being implemented after they have passed by the legislature, has been so dangerous. The position amongst much of the left, and certainly the best layers of union leaders, has been that, even if Howard gets the laws passed, he won’t be able to put them into practice.

Unfortunately, the NZ experience again shows that this is naive at best. While some unions, with strong membership and union loyalty, may be able to stand for some time against the laws, past experience shows that without the support of the whole movement, they will be defeated.

In Britain in the early 1980s, the brave and militant National Union of Miners held out against Margaret Thatcher for nearly a year. They were not sold out by their leaders, but they were not able to win. Not because of treachery, but because they didn’t have a strategy that was able to link up their struggle with the rest of the class and call for the only action that could have won – a general strike.

It is the call for the general strike that has been sadly missing in much of what the Australian left and the union movement have been arguing. Workers Power has been arguing since the IR laws were first mooted that a class wide attack requires a class wide response. A general strike – all out until the laws are defeated – is that response.

But while the Australian union movement can still mobilise hundreds of thousands on the streets, the rank and file organisation, needed to agitate for and make a general strike does not exist in many unions, and needs to be urgently rebuilt. Delegate structures have been allowed to collapse, meetings are irregular or badly attended, and, in many unions, there is only a thin veneer of democracy over a machine that works in the best interests of officials rather than members.

This does not mean that the call for a general strike was or is a hopeless abstraction. It just means that it is going to be a lot harder to achieve. For this reason, it is a slogan that does not spontaneously occur to most people.

On 2nd December ACTU put out a call for all those, who had signed up for the campaign against the IR laws, to keep fighting for the next 18 months, until the next election. We can’t fault them for making it clear that the fight is not over with the passing of the laws. We can say though, that a proper campaign of industrial action to stop the laws before they passed would have been a much better option. Two days of action, months apart and with little in between, were never going to stop these laws. Nor was lobbying coalition MPs and Senators.

Now that these laws have got through the Senate, union and community activists have a tough job ahead of us. In Victoria there are Union Solidarity Committees forming in a number of communities. These committees are there to help defend groups of workers, attacked under these laws, and to provide the networking and solidarity necessary to stop the laws being implemented.

But we need a lot more than that. We need full cross-union delegate meetings, which can share information, discuss, plan and carry out the kind of extensive industrial and solidarity actions that will be necessary in the coming months. And we still need, now more than ever, a general strike.

Any kind of industrial action is going to be increasingly difficult. Bosses are already using injunctions to try and stop pickets. The building unions have already had basic rights, like the right to silence removed. Unionists have already accumulated huge fines. All these things are set to increase and in a climate where unfair dismissal laws will mean it is easy for bosses to remove delegates and other activists who try to stand in their way.

But this is not a reason to hide. Only by confronting these laws wherever they are used, by not cowering from them, will the union movement be able to survive, grow and win. Already Victorian unions report an increase in membership. This is an excellent sign, that even in the climate of fear that Howard has tried to create, working class people recognise that collectively we can win.

The fight for a general strike remains central to this struggle. We can gird ourselves to fight the many small battles over the next couple of years. We can be prepared for massive fines and for gaol. But the only way we will defeat these laws is with a nationwide, indefinite stoppage. If the country stops, then Howard is left in a position where he cannot govern. The question of who really holds the power becomes prominent. As a union and working class movement we have to say clearly: we hold the real power, and we’re ready to use it!