Frontline unionists speak out against John Howard’s grab bag of anti-worker laws

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There’s a crippling shortage of skilled workers in Australia. Thirty-plus years of neoliberal economics have meant that bosses and governments have neglected training. The result? Many skilled workers can pick and choose where they’re employed and how much they’re paid. Wages are rising, and the bosses are squealing.

But Prime Minister John Howard has a plan to ease the corporate pain. After July 1, when his reactionary government gains full control of Federal Parliament, it plans to enact a slew of laws that would remove employment protections for many workers and severely weaken unions’ ability to organize.

In the face of Howard’s massive attack on workers’ rights, top union leaders are preparing to wave the white flag. Not so, however, for unionists at the grass roots, thousands of whom demonstrated their opposition to the changes at May Day rallies across the country. They know the consequences of surrender.

The rally in Melbourne gave me the opportunity to talk to several working people about their reactions. One was Carlene Wilson, a teacher unionist from New Zealand.

In her country, Wilson told me, submission to legislation like Howard’s nearly destroyed the unions. “Because the leadership didn’t take action,” she said, “many rank-and-file workers left because they were not prepared to be members of organizations that were not prepared to fight. Union membership went from over 80 percent to fewer than 20 percent.”

Eddie Coughlan, a rail industry electrician, agrees with the need to pour on the heat. “We have to band together to defeat this,” he said. “Otherwise workers in vulnerable sectors will be crushed. It’s just basic unionism: hang together or hang separately.”

Unsafe and unsound. Howard’s arrogant and cynical government excels at manipulating language, as a sampling of his legislative package shows. The “Right of Entry” bill, for example, would restrict the ability of unionists to enter workplaces! The “Small Business Employment Protection” bill would allow small firms to fire workers without warning, among other things. And the “Building and Construction Industry Improvement” bill is aimed at crushing unionism in the industry where the labour shortage is most critical and where pay is rising fastest.

And when Howard recently spoke about workplaces being “gummed up” by state laws, what was he talking about? Health and safety rules! So state legislators are to be overridden by the “Better Bargaining” act. This law, which attacks the right to strike from several directions, would make it illegal for workers to lay down their tools over health or safety issues unless they have a “reasonable” belief that they are in immediate danger.

What is reasonable? That’s up to unaccountable government officials. If they decide workers are acting without sufficient foundation, then massive fines can apply and an unsafe employer can sue for damages. All action to stop the use of poisons such as asbestos, which kills over decades, would be effectively outlawed.

Steve Reghenzani is a manufacturing union delegate in a suburban factory. The “Better Bargaining” law is also aimed at criminalising shop-floor organizers like him. Said Reghenzani, “We can beat these laws if we all stick together. We can win with change to spare. But if we don’t stick together, they’re going to rip us apart. We’ll rot on the picket line.”

Green light to discriminate. Another new law is called “Fair Dismissal Reform.” If you work in a workplace with less than 15 permanent workers, this bill would permit your boss to racially discriminate, to sexually harass and to bully.

If you complain, you could be fired with no redress. There’s no requirement for notice, no pay in lieu of notice, and no severance pay, even if you have a contract.

Julie McDonald is a single mother and works part-time at a supermarket franchise. Speaking of the government’s recent welfare cutbacks, she said, “As a single mother it’s going to be very hard. They’re forcing single parents back into the workforce, but there are no childcare places. What are we supposed to do during school holidays?”

McDonald is very concerned about Howard’s new attacks. About the Fair Dismissal bill, she said, “A young woman working in a clothing store last year refused to wear an inappropriate T-shirt. The media found out and the boss backed down. But after July, he could just toss her out.”

Unity is strength. The distress call “May Day” comes from the French “m’aidez” (help me). The workingclass holiday May Day, of course, has the opposite meaning. Through organizing, workers can unite to help themselves.

Howard’s new laws are a 21st-century update of vicious anti-worker legislation in place since unions first appeared in Australia in the 1850s. By 1969, unionists had had enough of fines and jailings; when union leader Clarrie O’Shea was jailed for refusing to pay a fine, millions of workers walked off the job throughout the country. An unidentified employer paid O’Shea’s fine, and those laws were never used again. Unjust laws are meant to be defied, and there’s strong support for such a fight now. Terry Costello is a phone company employee and national councilor of the Community and Public Sector Union. His advice to workers is this: “If they try to ban entry to a workplace, then unions should just walk in. If enough people break the laws, they become useless. Just like they did when workers freed Clarrie O’Shea.”

Peter Murray, who is a trainer on Melbourne’s commuter rail network and a member of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, can be contacted at fsprwaus@ozemail.com.au.

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