The trade union movement is firing up for another mid-week mass union rally. The theme, Australia needs a pay rise, is sure to strike a chord with workers seeing their wages flatline. Income inequality is the worst in 70 years, and it’s not hard to see why. Wage growth in the private sector is well below inflation. In the more unionised public sector, pay has stagnated, barely keeping up with the cost of living. In contrast, CEO salaries have hit a record high with the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors announcing that the median pay for CEOs, already commanding rates in the millions, rose by 12.4%.
The immense potential of union power was on display in May when 120,000 workers shut down Melbourne for the Change the Rules rally. Workers are angry and want to fight back. Many defied restrictive anti-union laws and stopped work to march. This boldness must be repeated and spread.
When the ACTU launched Change the Rules last year, it argued the rules are “broken,” and fairness and balance must be returned to the system.
The Fair Work Act is certainly making it tough for workers. Airport strikes by public servants in the Department of Home Affairs were banned by Fair Work Australia (FWA). These workers were then forced into binding arbitration. After a four-year pay freeze, FWA issued a statement of intent ordering a pay outcome of 4%, way below cost of living movements. These workers still have no ruling on conditions. In January, FWA was at it again. It intervened to prevent a strike by the Rail Tram and Bus Union in New South Wales. With their industrial wings clipped, the union eventually settled for far less than they were demanding, leaving NSW railway workers’ pay below their counterparts in Victoria and Queensland.
There’s nothing new about these tactics. Dating back to the 19th century, the capitalist state has used legislation and the courts to frustrate unionists’ ability to take effective action. To throw off these shackles depends entirely on workers fighting collectively and militantly.
The 1947 Commonwealth Arbitration Act allowed huge fines to be imposed on unions. The conservative Menzies government then widened these provisions in 1951. The suite of penalties became collectively known as “the penal powers.” It took two decades of educating and organising to strike down these so-called “broken rules.” This culminated with a million workers striking — many in defiance of their union officials — after tramways leader Clarrie O’Shea was jailed for refusing to pay fines.
There are important lessons to be learnt from this history. When millions of workers get organised, withdraw their labour and stay strong, they get to re-write the rules!
There’s a tension in the union movement between those who understand these iron laws of class struggle and those with illusions that electing a Labor government will solve workers’ problems. While unionists would welcome the defeat of the current pro-capital warriors in Canberra, they could re-configure the industrial landscape by mobilising in defence of their interests — including the crucial right to strike — regardless of which party wins government.
Every unionist needs to build the 23 October rally. Just as vital is making the case for what’s needed to win. Let’s show our power.