On September 5, Victoria witnessed the biggest teacher strike in its history. Forty thousand state school teachers and support staff walked off the job, closing more than 400 schools across the state. Twenty thousand Australian Education Union (AEU) members packed out Melbourne’s Rod Laver sports arena for their strike meeting. Wearing bright union T-shirts, their march to the Victorian Parliament made the city’s major streets look like a surging river of red. Even more historic and spectacular, 5,000 striking teachers from the Catholic school system — members of the Victorian Independent Education Union (VIEU) — joined them. They shut 60 private schools to do battle alongside their public counterparts over the Liberal government’s assault on their pay and conditions.
Australia has oppressive anti-strike laws. Industrial action is illegal, except during a “protected period,” when an enterprise agreement expires and negotiations break down. There are prohibitive financial penalties for breaches within the maze of rules and requirements set up to undercut the impact of protected industrial action. The AEU members’ strike was “protected.” The VIEU unionists’ action was not, and Fair Work Australia (FWA), on behalf of the Catholic school bosses, ordered the union not to “organise or encourage” its members to strike.
Legal hurdles and threats could not stop teachers from hitting the streets. Teachers’ wages have steadily fallen behind inflation. Yet the Baillieu government’s answer to the AEU’s demand for a 30% increase over three years is an insulting offer of 2.5% per year! Working conditions across both education sectors are disgusting. In the public schools, nearly 20% of teachers and 45% of education support staff are employed on temporary contracts. Class sizes and teaching loads are near- impossible, and the government plans to introduce performance pay for all schools. Baillieu is waging war on education workers, which he has widened to the TAFE sector — cutting $300 million and thousands more jobs. Strike is these workers’ only defence.
Industrial battlefield. A week before the teachers’ strike, the Baillieu government, in cahoots with property developer Daniel Grollo, sent hundreds of police, armed with horses, guns, batons and capsicum spray against striking construction workers. As teachers marched, the Grocon Myer Emporium site in central Melbourne was literally a combat zone. Construction, Forestry, Mining, and Energy Union (CFMEU) picketers stopped scabs from entering in buses under police protection. At the heart of this battle is the most fundamental of union rights: to elect shop stewards and Occupational Health and Safety representatives and to organise at the workplace. In an industry notorious for safety violations — nationally, 50 construction workers are killed every year — Grollo is trying to replace CFMEU shop stewards and safety reps with his own. The aim is clear: to put profits ahead of safety. During the standoff, CFMEU defied FWA’s orders to end its alleged “illegal blockades.” Grollo is now going after the union for millions of dollars for profit supposedly lost in the dispute.
At the Queensland Children’s Hospital site on the Gold Coast, building unions — the CFMEU, the Electrical Trades Union and Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union — continue to flout FWA orders to end their long-running industrial action over pay and conditions. The developer, Abigroup, refuses to accept a union enterprise agreement to replace the non-union one currently in force or to sign a subcontractor’s clause to ensure that workers doing the same work are paid the same rate. Workers at the huge QCH site stand to lose as much a $10 – $12 per hour, or $500 per week. Again, the right to organise is at stake.
Last November, Victorian nurses inspired and galvanised unionists across all industries when they boldly struck for pay and managable patient-staff ratios. Four- and-a-half thousand nurses from across the state filled Melbourne’s Festival Hall and voted unanimously to disobey FWA’s orders to end their “unprotected” action. But the union officials, buckling under the unrelenting pressure of the government and courts, soon wound back the campaign. The leadership didn’t have the tenacity to match the members’ courage. By December, nurses felt their only option was to vote for a compromise that fended off a vicious attack on nurse-patient ratios but didn’t deliver the pay outcome so urgently required. What could have been a stunning victory resulted in a draw.
Queensland unions’ huge walkout in September — a response to the Liberal National Party government’s brutal budget cuts and privatisation — showed the movement’s potential strength. The rallies — the biggest since the campaign against the Howard government’s WorkChoices laws — were thrilling to watch. But union officials’ fear of legal reprisals is undermining the possibilities. Instead of leading a militant fightback, the Queensland Council of Unions has called for a “1,000-day” campaign focused on re-electing the Labor Party.
Bosses want more! In the lowest paid, least organised industries, most of the workers are not covered by enterprise agreements. The community sector, where I work, is such an industry. Most community workers — more than 70% of the sector — are under an inferior industry award, paid the bottom-line pay rate with lousy conditions and no right to strike.
Workers covered by an enterprise agreement must go through an intricate obstacle course before strike action is permitted. Therefore, a legal strike signifies solid determination across the union membership. Even so, the FWA can suspend or terminate an action at any time. A long list of reasons includes a threat of “significant damage” to the Australian economy or “significant economic harm” to the employer. There are prohibitive financial penalties for breaches, which the FWA can order both against a union and individuals. Solidarity strikes and secondary boycotts — where a union refuses to work or handle goods for a company that it is not in dispute with — are prohibited.
Yet the major bosses are still not satisfied. The Australian reported in June that the Australian Mines and Metals Association are pressuring the federal Labor Party government to further restrict workers’ right to strike when employers refuse to negotiate — such as in the current disputes with the Victorian government, Grollo or Abigroup. Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten (and former Australian Workers Union official) says that he will consider this.
Gloves off! On my way to work on September 5, I was thrilled to see so many teachers heading off to their mass meeting. It was a rare and beautiful sight. But I also felt that something wasn’t right: I couldn’t join them. Funding cuts are decimating my sector; our pay and conditions are the pits. We should be out on the grass together!
Recently, my workplace union branch unanimously passed a motion that the Australian Services Union approach other unions — starting with the education, health and public sector unions — and call a cross-union mass meeting to launch a membership-led campaign to stop the cuts and extend the funding. A meeting of ASU metropolitan delegates endorsed the motion. But the ASU executive rejected it, claiming that Victorian Trades Hall Council is already running a campaign. If it exists, no one knows about it, and officials will be controlling it anyway.
When the interests of capital versus labour become utterly irreconcilable — as they clearly are now — then workers have to come together, organise and fight. Denying the boss our labour is our trump card. This is why anti-strike laws exist and are so punitive. Nurses, teachers and construction workers have shown workers what we are capable of. They’ve demonstrated boldness that most union officials lack. But we’ve also seen from their fights that no union can sustain a battle on its own against the boss and his courts.
It’s time for the union movement to militantly fight for the right to strike, including the right to strike in solidarity with each other. To win this right, we have to use it — break bad laws! Our courage and solidarity is in the workplace; we should talk to each other. The striking VIEU teachers held placards with a message for us: “unprotected & undeterred.” Let’s put these fighting words into united action!
Debbie is an Australian Services Union workplace delegate. Contact her at email@example.com