Two thousand unionists filled Melbourne Town Hall and spilled out onto Swanston Street for the “Change the Rules” delegates meeting on 17 April.
The mood for a fightback against the Liberals and for workers’ rights was electric. But we will have to keep pushing for the right to strike to be at the centre of Change the Rules if we are to land any blows.
Troy Carter, one of the ESSO workers locked out for 300 days, opened the meeting. He explained how current rules, “allowed our company to legally make 200 workers redundant… and the very next day offered our jobs back to us with a 30-40 per cent pay cut”.
He got a standing ovation after he talked about the toll the lock out was taking on his family.
Union leaders encouraged donations to the fighting fund and visits to the picket. But they stopped short of calling for solidarity strike action to pressure the company, or even explaining why it shows the need for sympathy strikes to be legal.
ACTU Secretary Sally McManus listed the many ways the rules are stacked against workers: labour hire loopholes, casualisation, pay inequality, restrictions on what workers can bargain about, and finally (to huge applause) the limits on our right to strike. But the strategy for winning change did not match the scale of the problem.
She called on delegates to “explain to your workplace what the Change the Rules campaign is about” in order “to move public opinion”.
From there the aim was “to change the government, to kick out Malcolm Turnbull” and get a Labor government into power—and finally to push new laws through the Senate that support workers, close legal loopholes and “re-empower the industrial umpire”.
The ban on the Sydney train drivers’ strike has made it clearer than ever that “independent umpires” like the Fair Work Commission are stacked against workers.
Labor is proposing some limited changes to the law. But it is not talking about an unrestricted right to strike. McManus told the meeting that, “the rot set in with Mr Johnny Howard”.
But in fact significant restrictions were introduced by Paul Keating when his Labor government brought in enterprise bargaining in 1993. And most of Howard’s changes were not repealed by the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments.
Solidarity members and other rank-and-file union activists leafleting the meeting with a motion to put the unrestricted “Right to Strike” at the centre of Change the Rules. This garnered huge support in conversations with delegates. Every union activist has an experience of struggle that was frustrated by the legal restrictions on striking.
Some delegates still think that Change the Rules is about the right to strike. Her famous defence of the CFMEU’s illegal action, arguing that “bad laws must be broken”, has made McManus a symbol of the right to strike cause.
However, McManus only referred to it once in her speech, and the right to strike is not included in any of the material delegates were given for workplaces.
There was extraordinary enthusiasm for the weekday 9 May rally. But this isn’t clearly called as an all-unions stopwork.
While construction unions have a tradition of walking off the job for weekday rallies, rank-and-file teachers, nurses, public servants and other workers will need to push our union leaderships for stopwork action to attend.
That’s the sort of action needed for a defiant mass industrial campaign to win the right to strike.
By Lucy Honan