In 2007, the mass union mobilisations through the Your Rights at Work campaign were the central force driving John Howard from office. It beggars belief that only three years later, we came so close to having a Coalition government led by Howard’s clone, Tony Abbott.
The Your Rights at Work campaign was wound down while the ACTU put its faith in negotiations with the Labor government behind closed doors. While the union leaders sat back and waited for Labor to act, first Rudd then Julia Gillard pursued a right-wing agenda that delivered almost nothing for working class people. The resulting disillusionment with Labor saw them punished at the ballot box.
Unless the union movement starts to stand up and fight, in three years time workers will be no better off, and could easily end up with the Liberals back in power.
Rudd failed to live up to his promise to rip up WorkChoices, delivering us WorkChoices Lite, which kept most of the Liberals’ laws intact. And the attacks continued.
Under Rudd and Gillard, the ABCC continued to harass construction workers, trying to jail Victorian CFMEU official Noel Washington in 2008 and has taken action against scores of other workers and union organisers.
On September 13, a magistrate will hear final submissions in the case against Ark Tribe, another building worker facing jail because he wouldn’t tell the anti-union ABCC what workmates said at a safety meeting on a Hindmarsh building site.
The CFMEU has threatened a national strike if Ark is jailed. Not before time. A campaign of strike action from 2007 could have ended the ABCC long ago.
Over the last three years the construction unions have organised a series of one-off protests and one-day strikes. But to finish the ABCC off will require more than this.
When the charges against Noel Washington were dropped in 2008, the unions should have declared that any future attempts to charge unionists for refusing to appear at the ABCC would be met with another national strike.
Instead the union officials sat back and waited while the ABCC had Ark Tribe and other workers charged and dragged through the courts. Like the ACTU, the construction union officials put their faith in negotiating changes to the ABCC with the Labor government.
Time and again since Labor took office workers have come up against the anti-union laws kept in place by Labor’s Fair Work Australia. Just three weeks before the election, 1500 workers in the Pilbara were warned they faced fines of up to $28,000 each if they were found guilty of taking illegal strike action.
Their illegal strike action forced management to make concessions over accommodation for workers on site.
Too much has been lost already by waiting for Labor to act and refusing to strike against their laws. There is an old union saying, “If you don’t fight, you lose.” And if the union leaders aren’t prepared to lead that fight, we will need to push them from below.
By Ian Rintoul