The run of pre-Xmas strikes are a welcome start in reversing years of management bullying, privatisation and job cuts. The limited revival of industrial struggle by workers marks a shift in the terrain for the Labor government. It is incredibly important given the previous very low strike figures.
The strikes at Australia Post, NSW buses, Qantas and Jetstar are only the most public of the pre-Xmas strikes. There have been EBA disputes at Dorevitch Pathology, Telstra, Buffalo Trident in Melbourne, BP in Brisbane, oil and gas workers in WA, in the coal industry in NSW and Queensland and among Canberra cleaners.
When Labor was first elected in November 2007, the bosses were wary as they knew Labor’s victory was a result of opposition to Howard’s unsavoury WorkChoices. There was an expectation that workers might gain the confidence to demand a reversal of the cutbacks suffered under Howard, and throw off the shackles of Howard’s anti-union laws.
But Labor quickly moved to re-assure the bosses. In the lead up to the election Julia Gillard bragged that Labor would be prepared to break strikes. Labor’s new workplace legislation, Fair Work Australia, was labelled WorkChoices-lite, retaining the bulk of Howard’s anti-worker laws. The bosses have seen it was business as usual.
This has now come back to bite them in the bum, as workers, in an economy that has not been hit as badly as other countries, want their rightful share and want to limit untrammelled employer power.
At Australia Post (AP), union officials have been pushed by management intransigence into calling national strikes in the lead-up to Xmas. This is unheard of for over 25 years! Qantas hardball has pushed the hardly militant engineers in APESMA to strike before Xmas too.
AP has lost in three ways. It has lost millions in profit, had their sacred corporate “brand” tarnished and lost the respect of many of its workforce for forcing a dispute.
Of course, the outcome is not certain victory for workers. Picketing at Melbourne post depots was successful, while hardly any took place in Sydney. Too often the desire of the union officials to “compromise” still results in a premature end to strike action and shoddy deals. But a few very public victories could burst the damn wall and the trickle could become a flood.
Then, the bosses, Labor and a range of union officials will have a hard time trying to tone down action fuelled by years of low pay, rotten hours and management bullying. This is yet to happen. But the real “green shoots” of a recovery in workers’ fighting ability are there for all to see.