On 22 February, the Fair Work Commission will hand down its decision whether or not to terminate the Port Kembla Coal Terminal enterprise bargaining agreement. The South Coast Labor Council has called a rally in Sydney that day for the “Right to Bargain”, “Right to Strike”, and the “Right to Organise.”
It should be the start of the ACTU campaign to Change the Rules. But there is no sign that the ACTU or Unions NSW are mobilising for the rally.
All over the country workers are being locked out, or facing drastic wage cuts and bosses’ threats to terminate agreements.
For over 200 days, workers at Oaky North in central Queensland have been locked out by Glencore. In January, Glencore applied to terminate their enterprise bargaining agreement.
The Fair Work Commission ban on the NSW train strike has shown that workers’ fundamental right to strike is threatened by a Fair Work Act that is loaded in favour of the bosses.
Wage growth is stagnant as corporate profits soar. Inequality is rising. Yet Malcolm Turnbull is pushing ahead with his plan to cut corporate tax from 30 to 25 per cent and hand $65 billion in tax cuts to big business.
So far, Labor leader Bill Shorten opposes Turnbull’s corporate tax cuts.
Shorten also opened the year by declaring the minimum wage was too low to live on, saying he has a goal of, “raising the pay of all Australians”. But he was vague about how workers are going to get much-needed pay rises.
The NSW rail workers’ strike had the potential to break the state government’s pay cap and open the way for real pay rises across the board. But when the Fair Work Commission banned their strike, Shorten said nothing.
ACTU Secretary Sally McManus now says bluntly that, “the Fair Work Act is broken”.
At the heart of this is the fact that, as she put it, “Taking industrial action is too difficult and seems to be becoming even more difficult.”
Enterprise bargaining makes any strike action outside defined “bargaining periods” when an agreement expires, illegal. And even in a bargaining period, unions have to jump through hoops that frustrate and delay industrial action.
Labor is suggesting some small changes, such as making it harder for bosses to terminate agreements and restricting the use of labour hire. But it has said nothing about establishing an unrestricted right to strike.
The ACTU has begun talking about the right to strike. But the talk has to be turned into action.
A campaign that is limited to getting Labor elected won’t deliver the change we need. It was Labor governments that both introduced enterprise bargaining in the 1990s as well as the mis-named “Fair Work Act” in 2009.
In December the MUA organised an illegal picket to defend jobs at Melbourne’s Webb Dock. Construction workers also walked off the job, breaking the law, to join them.
If we are going to beat Turnbull and the bosses and win the right to strike, that is the kind of defiance that we need. There’s no time to lose.