It’s 2005 and Craig Johnston, former Victorian State Secretary of the AMWU, is still locked up in Loddon Prison. He’s serving nine months of a 33-month sentence for his alleged involvement in a run-through of Johnson Tiles after the company sacked 29 workers. Johnston was the only one of 18 unionists originally charged to receive a jail sentence. Craig is in jail because of his politics and as part of a broader offensive to criminalise dissent and intimidate the union movement into compliance with the stifling restrictions of the bosses’ Workplace Relations Act.
Craig Johnston is part of a proud tradition. Trade unionists have a long history of breaking unfair laws as part of mass industrial struggles. The Freedom Socialist Bulletin spoke to four unionists about their experience of breaking the law to show that what Johnston is now doing time for is little different from what hundreds of thousands of workers have done before him.
CPSU member: “The most empowering experience that I have ever had as a unionist was participating in the mass pickets at Swanston dock during the 1998 MUA dispute. The ACTU spin doctors labelled the actions “peaceful community protests” in the hope that this would somehow protect us from capitalist laws designed to stop us from taking effective action to defend the MUA. But we knew what we were doing — it was a mass picket! When Justice Beech issued an injunction ordering the entire Australian population — journalists included — to stay away from the waterfront, it was a joke. People simply defied the law. And when the police tried to break our mass picket, they failed too. Thousands stood all night with linked arms and firm resolve. There were too many of us, and the police backed off.”
NSW Teachers Federation member: “The Johnson Tiles run-through reminded me of one I was involved in as a teacher unionist in the 1980s. The big difference was that the Accord-loving officials of my union would have died if they knew what their members were doing on that day they “authorised” us to strike over one of our puny wage claims.
The TAFE college where I worked was made up of several departments. Word was out that some within the food school were scabbing. Twelve unionists walked in on the scabs’ classes. We confronted the teachers about their strikebreaking and informed their apprentices about the strike. There was violence: a teacher pointed a huge knife at me. He singled me out for being a socialist feminist and union militant. We didn’t back down, so he did.
Like strike action, run-throughs are a collective act of self-defence when workers are under attack. They’re an act of class solidarity and an expression of our power.”
Rail, Tram and Bus Union member: “ The trammies had been on strike for a month when they decided to picket the Jolimont rail yards. I was asked to help. I agreed, but they had to be quite clear they were going to break the law. It’s illegal to stop a train or to place objects on the tracks. We would be trespassing as well. But the trammies resolved that a law against picketing was a law against struggle and should be ignored.
My role, as a rail union delegate, was to ensure safety and liaise with other rail union delegates. A mass meeting of my union had “authorised” such pickets, after a motion by the militant rank and file group. At 4 am we streamed onto the tracks, standing at key points to stop the first trains out of the yard. I called the main signal control centre and spoke to the delegate. One by one, the signals went to red. The picket remained until the afternoon, disrupting the train services all day. Management called the police. But then the shunters walked off, objecting to cops in the workplace.”
AEU member: “I find it ironic when told by union officials that we can’t take industrial action outside a bargaining period or terrible penalties will befall us. During the late ’70s and early ’80s, I was in the Technical Teachers Union and we stopped work many times to defend our rights. We struck to resist teachers being forcibly transferred and to oppose individuals being victimised. We walked off the job over class sizes and workload issues. In 1993, the Industrial Relations Reform Act legalised the right to strike. Before that, it was illegal. Then in 1996, the Workplace Relations Act restricted the right to strike by introducing the concept of protected industrial action. But before 1993, taking stopwork action or going on strike was a right that workers simply exercised. We didn’t ask if it was legal. It was just and it was necessary to defend our collective interests.”
The job of unionists is to band together collectively to break the bosses’ rules and to defend workers’ interests. Craig Johnston was doing his job as an elected union leader. He must be released!
Support Craig Johnston by circulating the petition to Victorian Attorney General Rob Hulls calling for his release, passing motions of support in your union and joining public actions like the 6,000-strong Victorian Rally held on 25 November. To send a solidarity message to Craig, write to Craig Johnston CRN 98509, Loddon Prison, Locked Bag 3, Castlemaine Vic 3450. For copies of the petition, call Solidarity Salon on 03-9388-0062. To contact the Free Craig Johnston campaign call 0413 377 978 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org