Australia: ‘Labour Relations’ laws a major attack on workers’ rights

Unions leaders finally call national protest action

For the past four months workers were asking, ’What’s the next step in the campaign against Howard’s IR laws?’ After much debate, finally the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) called another mass nation-wide rally on 28 June.

This decision was made by the ACTU under some duress. The ACTU were pressured by some of the more left wing unions, in particular, the AMWU (metal workers), CFMEU (building) and CEPU. The ACTU leaders made it quite clear that they would much rather aim at getting the Labor Party (ALP) re-elected at federal level (national) by focusing on marginal seat campaigns and not organising mass workers’ rallies.

Mass rallies are a problem for the Labor Party, as the party does not want to come to power on the back of a mass movement. This would make them more accountable to that movement and they definitely do not want that. Labor knows that if they get into office, they will get rid of the Industrial Relations (IR) legislation, anyway. Not only do they agree with the present government’s neo-liberal policy of ’workplace deregulation’ but even Labor wanted to scrap the laws it is probable that the next election will be fought against the backdrop of the beginnings of an economic downturn. Given that the Labor leadership is wedded to capitalism the party will be in no position to hand over increases in wages and conditions to workers.

The Labor Party would much rather just use the unions as their own personal ATM, tapping them for money when they please, and using rank and file trade unionists to hand ALP leaflets on election day.

Labor’s current performance begs the question as to whether they could actually win the next election anyway. With no fundamental policy differences to John Howard’s governing Liberals, and with Labor attacking workers across the country where they hold power at state government level, the chances of Labor being re-elected federally, with a Senate majority to overturn the laws, are slim. The irony of the situation is that when workers were on the streets last year in mass protests against Howard’s policies, Labor was ahead in the polls. Since the opposition campaign slowed down, Labor has dropped in the polls significantly. The union ACTU leaders understand this and they called the 28 June national protests partially to help to boost Labor’s popularity.

Protests and industrial action

Last year’s mass protests were a fantastic show of workers strength but, as far as John Howard is concerned, workers can protest until the cows come home. He showed his contempt towards working people three years ago when the biggest protests in Australian history were organised against the Iraq war. He didn’t listen then and he will not listen now, unless we take the campaign to the next level. That means linking the protests to industrial action. Hitting Howard and his big business mates in the hip pocket is the only way to make them listen. Workers in Korea showed how to defeat anti-worker laws, last month, when they prevented the final approval of three bills by staging a series of 24-hour general strikes. Workers and students in France also recently staged mass protests, strikes, and occupations, against anti-worker laws.

If the Australian Council of Trade Unions continues with the plan of relying on Labor, and not organising ongoing demonstrations and industrial action, the campaign will be doomed to failure.

It is clear that the ACTU leaders are out of touch with the mood of the union rank and file. The vast majority of workers strongly oppose the new Labour Relations laws and are more than willing to fight them. Once the laws are fully carried out, and the brunt of the attacks is felt by workers, this opposition will grow.

Rank and file activists, and shop stewards, need to more input into the direction of the campaign. We need to establish rank and file campaign committees around every Trades and Labour Council in the country. These committees could help put the campaign back on track, to defeat these laws and John Howard’s right wing Liberal government.

This article first appeared in the April 2006 issue of The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party (CWI in Australia)

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April 2006