It was a bitter morning in Canberra but the 120 of us at the rally in front of the ACT Magistrates’ Court in early August in support of Johnny Lomax were not phased. The comradely feelings and chanting and stamping and clapping kept the cold away.

Lomax is an organiser with the building union, the CFMEU. He is charged with blackmail. His crime? Lomax put pressure on an employer to sign an Enterprise Agreement and pay higher wages, up from $17 an hour to $26 an hour.

The employer says he suffered loss as a consequence of this pressure. But that is what wage increases do. They take some of the money from the exploiting boss and put it back in the hands of the exploited workers. Lomax did no more than what any good union person does; he successfully persuaded an employer to pay higher wages. He received no personal benefit.

We were there to support Lomax and to defend unions. If this prosecution is successful it would return us to pre-1820s industrial law where unions were per se a criminal conspiracy and winning wage increases a crime. It is no exaggeration to say that Johnny Lomax is the modern day equivalent of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, transported to Australia in 1834 for the crime of organising a union and asking for higher wages.

This prosecution threatens to criminalise all union activity and all unionists fighting for better wages. It’s why the head of Unions ACT Alex White was there and spoke about the danger to all Australian workers. It is why CFMEU National Secretary Dave Noonan stressed all unions and unionists need to unite to fight for Lomax and the right of unions and unionists to organise.

It is why there were unionists from a large number of unions there: to defend Johnny Lomax and defend our unions.

By John Passant

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