Huge rallies protest against anti-union Industrial Relations laws

Over half a million workers marched across Australia on 15 November, protesting against the anti-union Industrial Relations laws of the right wing Liberal government, led by Prime Minister John Howard.

Niall Mulholland spoke to the Socialist Party (CWI Australia) in Melbourne, just after the huge protests had ended.

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Over half a million workers strike and protest

The Australian Congress of Trade Unions (ACTU) called a two hour walkout and rallies on 15 November. Many workers decided to stay out longer than two hours, and, in effect, went on strike for the whole day.

“They have turned out in large numbers at rallies around the country – from tropical Darwin to the southern state of Tasmania,” reported BBC World News online.

The biggest march and rally was in Melbourne, in Victoria State. Around 250,000 workers marched in the city. Regional meetings around the rest of Victoria State attracted around 25,000.

Throughout the country, other large protests took place, during the country’s biggest ever national stoppage. According to ‘Melbourne Indymedia’, about 45,000 attended rallies in Sydney, New South Wales, with a further 95,000 people in more than 200 venues across the state. 25,000 people attended a Brisbane rally in Queensland, with 35,000 turning out in other parts of the state.

About 40,000 attended a rally in Adelaide, with 10,000 workers at rallies throughout the state.

Reporters say 3,000 were at protests in Darwin and 2,000 in Alice Springs. 5,000 went to a rally at Canberra Racecourse. Around 30,000 protested in Perth, and a further 10,000 throughout Western Australia State.

Solidarity protests took place in Auckland and Christchurch, in New Zealand. Hundreds protested at the Australian High Commission in Wellington.

Unprecedented attacks

The protests were so big because of the deep anger at John Howard’s unprecedented attacks on workers rights and conditions. The legislation is deeply unpopular. Indeed, Howard introduced the new legislation last week, on the same day as a massive police operation against ‘terrorist suspects’. Many workers believe this was an attempt to deflect attention away from the anti-union bill – a ruse that failed.

The new Industrial Relations laws includes attacks on job security by abolishing unfair dismissal protection for millions of workers; bosses are allowed to cut take-home pay; the value of minimum wages will fall; the right to collective bargaining will be eroded and bosses are allowed to sign up workers to individual contracts.

Howard claims the ‘reforms’ will “boost the economy”. But the Industrial Relations legislation will mean further exploitation of workers to boost the super profits of the bosses. Job security and work conditions will worsen dramatically and bosses will find it easier to sack workers.

Huge anger from below pushed the Australian Congress of Trade Unions (ACTU) leaders to call for industrial action on 15 November. Even though the protest was limited to a two hour walkout, the magnificent response from workers and youth across Australia shows the depth of anger to Howard’s laws. This, despite a massive media campaign by the government, in the weeks leading up to 15 November, that saw a sustained attack on workers who planned to go on strike. In some cases, workers were threatened with fines by bosses if they took action.

The Socialist Party (CWI in Australia) participated in the walkouts across the country, including in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. Initial reports are that Socialist Party members taking part in the huge rally in Melbourne sold out of copies of their paper, ‘The Socialist’, and sold many of their popular anti-Howard stickers and badges.

Socialist Party members report the mood on 15 November was more serious and sombre than during the last day of industrial action against the Industrial Relations laws, in June. The legislation is now in place and attacks are starting. Workers understand that it will take bold and determined mass action to defeat the government’s new laws.

The Socialist Party took part in the 15 November stoppage. It was a brilliant display of workers’ strength. Now industrial action has to be stepped up, including a one day national general strike.

But a successful struggle to defeat the Howard government’s anti-union laws, and to kick out the government, poses the question, what is the political alternative to the ruling Liberals?

The ‘Great Debate’

This vital issue was addressed during a public meeting, organised by the electricians’ union, in Melbourne, after the walkouts and rallies on 15 November. Around 150 to 200 people packed the ‘Comrades’ Bar’, to discuss political representation for working people. The meeting was entitled, ‘The Great Debate: Howard is against us – Who is for us?’ and subtitled, ‘Labour? Greens? Independents? New Party?’

Speakers included leaders of the electricians, postal workers, plumbers and the fire fighters’ unions. Steve Jolly, Socialist Party (CWI) Councillor in Yarra Council, Melbourne, and the Chair of a huge public housing estate in Richmond, Melbourne, also addressed the crowd. Anthony Main, a Socialist Party organiser, chaired the meeting.

Green Party members from the floor asked to be included on the platform, but this was opposed by the meeting because of Green policies (although, of course, the party was able to make its points from the floor). The Greens are sometimes viewed by people as being to the left of Labor. Although there are some individual left Greens, the party leadership wants to work within the straightjacket of capitalism and often supports policies similar to those of the Australian Labor Party.

During the Comrades’ Bar meeting, union speakers gave damning accounts of what Howard’s new anti-union legislation will mean for workers. The public housing representative condemned attacks on social housing.

Most of the platform speakers agreed that workers do not have adequate political representation. However, some of the union speakers said workers have no choice but to “reform” the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

A speaker from Socialist Alliance (SA), which is mainly made up of the Democratic Socialist Party and International Socialist Organisation, made a call for people to join the SA. But the SA has generally performed poorly in elections since it was set up a few years ago (in comparison, the Socialist Party has regularly outperformed the Alliance in elections). The SA remains a small formation that has failed to attract the new generation of workers and youth.

Steve Jolly, on behalf of the Socialist Party, argued the Australian Labor Party is no longer a vehicle for workers’ struggles and carries out pro-market policies when in power, including neo-liberal cuts and attacks on workers’ rights and conditions. He gave examples of what a socialist councillor can do representing workers and youth, on Yarra Council, albeit on a small scale.

Steve got a very good response to his call for a new mass, workers’ party. Such a party must have democratic, federal structures and allow different tendencies and ideas, if it is to attract youth and working people. Furthermore, it must be a campaigning party - a combative party of mass struggles, with bold socialist policies - if it is to grow and be successful.

The Comrades’ Bar meeting was an important exchange of views on political representation for workers and youth and marked a step forward in the campaign for a new mass party of the working class. The Socialist Party will continue to raise the idea of building a new workers’ party, alongside its campaigns in the communities, workplaces and colleges. The idea of a new workers’ party will get a stronger response as workers and youth struggle against the Howard government and come to realise that they need to build a political alternative to all the bosses’ parties.

More reports and photos of the 15 November day of action across Australia will be posted on socialistworld.net

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