Around 1600 workers from Woodside’s Pluto Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) site in Karratha are facing fines of up to $28,000 each and the possibility of jail over industrial action taken in defence of their working conditions earlier this year. Thirteen contractors have taken the workers to the Federal Court in an attempt to send a message to all workers that they should accept cuts to their working conditions or face massive fines.
Workers can be fined and jailed for taking industrial action while the bosses are given a free hand to carry out attacks on pay and conditions. This dispute highlights the draconian industrial relations regime facing Australian workers today.
Julia Gillard, who was the Industrial Relations Minister when the dispute began, backed up the bosses and called on the workers to go back to work. At the same time Gillard made no call on the bosses to maintain the current working conditions by allowing workers to keep their permanent accommodation. Permanent accommodation, as opposed to rotating rooms, is very important to these workers, who can spend up to 10 months of the year away from home.
Probably the most significant aspect of the dispute is that it was initiated by the workers themselves. The construction unions involved have all taken a step back from the action fearing fines if they got too involved. It was the workers, who, facing attacks on their hard won conditions initiated the strike action and heroically defied court orders telling them to go back to work.
In the next period the effects of the international crisis of capitalism will become more apparent in Australia and workers will face further attacks on their standards of living. Although we haven’t seen dramatic events similar to those that have shaken Europe and the US take place here, they inevitably will at some stage. There is no doubt that when this occurs, bosses will expect workers to foot the bill for the crisis of their system, as they have internationally.
Workers will have two starkly different choices. They can choose to meekly accept the cuts and attacks that the bosses and their political lap dogs will attempt, or they can choose to follow the example of the Pluto workers and fight back. The second option will mean breaking laws, defying courts, and sometimes even struggling without the support of union leaders.
As they have clearly shown, both Labor and the Liberals may as well be two wings of the same big business party. Gillard’s so called ‘Fair Work’ laws are so similar to Howard’s ‘WorkChoices’ that even Tony Abbott has said that he sees no need for change. The bosses realise they have plenty of scope to attack workers, while workers have no way to legally respond – as the Pluto dispute clearly demonstrates.
One of the biggest issues facing workers currently is the lack of their own political party. Such a party is essential for the tasks of helping to organise solidarity amongst the labour movement with the Pluto workers and others workers in similar situations. It could also play a vital role in organising the struggle against the boss’s industrial laws, their courts and their politicians.
In the future workers will be more and more forced into the same position as the Pluto workers. This highlights the need for both strong militant unions and a new workers party. As a step in this direction unions must break with Labor and establish a new left political alternative.