It will take more than a change of government to win rules that work for unionists

A public sector unionist speaks out!

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The past two-and-a-half years have seen some watershed moments in the Australian union movement. My own industry — the public sector — is rich with examples. Alignment of Public Service Enterprise Bargaining Agreements under the Labor government, in conjunction with the hardline Liberal administration’s extreme bargaining “policy,” led to the first near-service-wide strike action in twenty years. 

In the public service, dedicated action by union members and delegates in big and small departments succeeded in winning concessions after huge and, in some cases, repeated NO votes rejecting poor offers in multiple agencies. It awakened a critical spark of understanding in a new generation of members and delegates that collective action can lead to real change. But it was tough going. 

Initial offers were delayed by government intransigence and the near-obscene combination of pay offers that would deliver no improvements in pay, coupled with severe cuts to conditions. The first offer made to workers in the huge Department of Human Services (DHS) did not even get to a vote, due both to the fight union members put up and the poisonous relationship between management and staff resulting from the enthusiastic embrace by DHS of the government’s draconian policy.

Bureau of Meterology workers battle on! This strike is “protected.” But restricting strikes to when Fair Work deems it legal means almost never! Photo courtesy of CPSU.

In the subsequent period numerous overwhelming NO votes, whilst successes in themselves, failed to significantly shift the policy. Finally, after several years of virtual pay freezes, workers in most agencies have been ground down and voted up compromise agreements. Some are still fighting, and striking, such as unionists at the Bureau of Meteorology. Meanwhile workers at the Department of Home Affairs had strike action cancelled in 2016 by Fair Work Australia. They were forced to arbitration and are still waiting. Public service workers have fought hard and, while stemming some of the attacks, have lost a lot.

The pay and conditions of both public servants and workers in the private sector are going backwards in real terms, and have been for some years. The agenda of the bosses — supported by a raft of restrictive laws and regulations — continues to get the upper hand. While losing ground monetarily, workers are forced to work harder without real reward and suffer reduced job security. Mass casualisation is another factor destroying workers’ ability to maintain hard-won conditions. The attack on penalty rates is another brazen assault on already hard-pressed and low-paid workers. We are a long way short of where we should be. To mount an effective fightback, it is vital that workers fully understand what has got us in this predicament.

Learn from history. The Change the Rules campaign is an attempt by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to rekindle union influence across all unions and industries ,using media advertising and mobilising unionists through events for delegates and members. Its central, but flawed, premise is that the rules governing industrial relations have become “broken” under the Abbott/Turnbull government and need to be returned to an earlier period when they were somehow fair. The ACTU is none too precise about when this bright era existed, because the rules governing industrial relations have always restricted the rights of workers to organise.  [See “Change the rules through union power, seized by workers!” Freedom Socialist Organiser, January 2018]

Key to the ACTU’s strategy of mobilising workers to protest broken rules is harnessing the resources of unions and their members to campaign for the election of Labor governments.  The focus is on electioneering in marginal seats for both state and federal elections. The Victorian election is late this year, while the federal election is due no later than May 2019. In this way, it has many similarities to the Your Rights at Work Campaign.

In 2007, an election year, the massive Your Rights At work campaign by unionists delivered the end of the Howard years, and the Rudd/Gillard Labor government was sworn in accompanied by much hope from the union movement. The changes were mostly cosmetic. What we got were empty assurances. For public sector workers, this included maintaining the efficiency dividend, which is corporate speak for an annual budget cut. In this era, we also saw the introduction of the current Fair Work Act, which essentially is just a watered-down version of the hated Howard government Work Choices. Strike action by workers in Australia remains virtually outlawed, except in narrow circumstances, and this is the key reason why workers continue to go backwards.

There is a long history of Labor in government failing to deliver for workers. It was the Hawke/Keating Labor government in the ’80s that continued the campaign by the neo-liberal conservative establishment, started in the ’70s to shackle and ultimately break the unions. Hawke brokered the Prices and Incomes Accord and Keating followed with the introduction of Enterprise Bargaining, known as agency bargaining in the public sector. This system, which sees workers confined to bargaining for pay and conditions in their own workplace, is a way to divide and conquer. For the last 40 years, regardless of which party is in government, both have been singing the same tune. Both are demanding “productivity and flexibility,” which is code for stripping conditions and reducing real wages. 

The Labor Party, whose original power base is the union movement, pays lip service to workers’ concerns whilst propping up the capitalist system. At the same time, union democracy has gone backwards. Trotsky wrote that modern trade unions were drawing together with the state power. Never is this more evident than when Labor is administering capitalism in Australia.

Since the sell-out of workers by the Hawke-Keating government, the agenda of the right has progressed under both Coalition and Labor governments. Both repeat the mantra that union activity — in other words, workers having rights — is bad for the economy. This view continues to be peddled in the general climate of neo-liberal capitalist ascendancy. This is precisely why the union movement throwing its weight behind the election of another Labor government is ultimately futile. It will not achieve our aims of improving our pay, conditions and job security, but rather will keep unions firmly under control of the bosses.

We’ve got the power! There is promise in the recent changes in trade union movement leadership. Elected last year to lead the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Sally McManus is a formidable organiser who understands that the power of the union movement lies in its ability to mobilise workers. [See “‘Break Unjust Laws:’ First female head of Australian Council of Trade Unions shakes things up,” Freedom Socialist, June 2017]. But she has taken the reins of a movement that is not so much fighting a broken system, but working as a collaborator propping up the system that, in the name of productivity, defends the rich at the expense of workers. It is a system that needs to be overturned. The era when playing round the edges with reform could deliver real improvements for workers is a long gone. 

Both McManus, and the Secretary of Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC), Luke Hilikari, have an orientation towards actively mobilising grassroots unionists. This is a strength. However, in the lead-up to both the Victorian state election and then federal election, unless the ranks can convince these leaders to change plans, they risk wasting the blood and sweat of members campaigning hard simply to bring in another centrist Labor government which will make only superficial changes to the hard line of the current neo-liberalist regime.

It is positive to see the Change the Rules campaign moving from a primarily online and media campaign into one which mobilises unionists in their workplaces. On 17 April, (VTHC) held a mass union delegates meeting, busing in delegates from around the state and packing out Melbourne Town Hall for a meeting to fire up workplace leaders to build for a mass midweek rally on 9 May. While this mobilisation is welcome, a clearer orientation for the campaign will be needed to turn the tide. 

Essential is democratic and politically independent unions. This will need to come from grassroots unionists as the current movement power structure — which funnels union leaders into parliament — is too invested in the status quo. The real change will come when unionists insist that the direction of the union movement is set by regular multi-industry, cross-union delegates meetings that allow real debate between contending perspectives and are not just set-piece displays to gee up the troops for the next election. We must take this opportunity to push the Change the Rules campaign to deliver. To do this means putting the fight for the right to strike front and centre so that we can challenge the system which keeps workers muzzled and going backwards. 

It will not be an easy fight. But it needs to start now. This is our opportunity, and we must seize it.

Denis Mann is a workplace delegate with the Community and Public Sector Union. He is keen to collaborate with other unionists who are fired up and ready to hold accountable whichever government is in power beyond the next election.

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