Victorian CFMEU Secretary John Setka has called on Bill Shorten and Labor to lift restrictions on the right to strike and union right of entry should they win the next election.

Setka moved onto the offensive after blackmail charges leveled against himself and fellow Victorian CFMEU official Shaun Reardon were dropped. The demands are the strongest to come from a high profile union leader since the launch of the ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign.

Setka called on Shorten to get rid of protected action ballots and notice periods for strikes. He also demanded unions have the unrestricted right to enter workplaces to organise members and called for the repeal of laws making secondary boycotts illegal. He told The Australian, “If I am on site and my boss is ripping me off, I am not getting my proper wages and he’s just screwing me, who is the law to tell me, hang on a sec, you just can’t walk off the job, you can’t stop work”.

Setka was particularly scathing in his criticism of the Fair Work Act introduced by the Rudd-Gillard Government. “That Labor government was in for five years—what did they achieve for workers? Nothing”, he said, “They should be ashamed of themselves.”

The ACTU responded with cautious support, pointing out that, “Australian law is out of step with global standards in our bans and restriction on industrial action”. However, Labor’s workplace relations spokesman Brendan O’Connor said that while he was “open” to union demands he rejected the introduction of the “unimpeded right to strike”.

This is consistent with what has emerged of Labor’s industrial relations policy so far. There are some real changes but the bulk of the Fair Work Act will remain. Labor has committed to reversing the penalty rate cuts and abolishing the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission and the Registered Organisations Commission. Labor’s draft policy platform also outlines plans to restrict the termination of Enterprise Agreements, ban sham agreements and restrict bosses’ efforts to employ workers as casuals. There is nothing on the right to strike.

Setka’s comments are welcome, but he is playing a contradictory role. The CFMEU were the bulk of the 120,000 strong stopwork that launched the Change the Rules campaign in Victoria in May. This kind of mass mobilisation is essential if unions are to win the rights we need. But Setka’s actions at the Victorian Labor conference also saw him shut down criticism of Labor, in the belief this would help get them elected. The CFMEU voted with the right-wing AWU to protect Shorten and shut down debate on pro-refugee and right to strike motions.

This underlines why rank-and-file union members need to push for the mass industrial campaign to continue and to spread to other states; and to put the demand for the right to strike front and center. In addition to the massive mobilisation in Melbourne, hundreds have also marched in Sydney at an MUA stopwork rally demanding the right to strike. We need to build that fight.

By Adam Adelpour

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