On Tuesday 15th November, Australia witnessed the biggest workers’ demonstrations in its history. The largest rally was in Melbourne, where approximately 200,000 Trades Unionists brought the city to a standstill. Similar rallies were held in all the major cities across the country. The Australian Council of Trades Unions estimate that over 500,000 people participated in the national mobilisation. Many more would have participated had it not been for threats and intimidation by employers.
The movement has been prompted by the draconian anti-Labour laws, currently being pushed through parliament by the Howard government. The Industrial Relations ‘reforms’ represent an all out attack on the rights of working people and their families. Four million workers will lose the right to claim unfair dismissal, the lowest paid workers will see their terms and conditions further undermined with a lowering of the minimum wage and the abolition of penalty rates, which currently guarantee basic minimum conditions for shift work and nights.
All workers’ conditions are threatened by the assault on collective bargaining that is at the heart of this legislation. The centrepiece of the legislation is the so-called “Australian Workplace Agreement”. All new workers in an enterprise will be expected to sign an individual contract with their employers and will face dismissal if they refuse to sign. Unions will face massive fines if they even attempt to suggest union representation! The AWAs are clearly the thin end of the wedge; the Australian ruling class is attempting to atomise the powerful Australian labour movement. A taste of what this will mean for all Australian workers can be seen in the long-running Boeing dispute. http://awu.net.au/national/campaigns/boeing
These attacks are being pushed through under the mantra of ‘choice’ and ‘flexibility’. Despite the relative health of the Australian economy and the historically low rate of unemployment (based partly on gerrymandering of the employment figures through ‘work for the dole’), the Liberal government argues that these ‘reforms’ are needed to guarantee the health of the economy. Fifty million dollars of taxpayers’ money has already been wasted advertising the workplace changes to a largely sceptical Australian public.
The truth behind these Orwellian claims is that the Liberals are preparing for the next downturn. An economy based upon commodity production is particularly vulnerable to fluctuations in the world market and the Australian capitalists are hoping to soften up the Unions in preparation for the next wave of struggle.
Another ominous development is the introduction of ‘anti-Terror’ laws, which revive the medieval offence of ‘sedition’. If Howard were really concerned with protecting the Australian people he would not have been so keen to adopt the role of Bush’s poodle in the Southern hemisphere. The reality is that these laws are intended as much to deal with domestic dissent, as they are to counter international terrorism. They have even prompted former Liberal Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser (not known as a friend of the labour movement) to comment that “These are powers whose breadth and arbitrary nature, with a lack of judicial oversight, should not exist in any democratic country.”
The response of Australian workers to these threats was the magnificent rallies that took place this week. The most striking feature of these rallies was their overwhelmingly working- class character. While the usual ragbag of sectarians tagged along, they were massively outnumbered by Trades Union banners. At the forefront were the construction and allied workers’ union, the CFMEU, whose members’ lives are literally at risk should Howard have his way. They were joined by health workers, teachers and marine workers.
This was in stark contrast to the platform, which did their best to downplay the class nature of the mobilisation. The rally began with singing the national anthem. Various church leaders were dragged on stage to show support and the speeches constantly made reference to the un-Australian nature of the legislation. Most of these speeches were greeted with polite silence. The crowds’ cheers were reserved for the pioneers of the Australian labour movement, who rightly see the ‘reforms’ as threatening all the advances they have struggled a lifetime to achieve. Similarly enthusiastic greetings were given to the widow of a construction worker who pointed out that dire threat the IR ‘reforms’ pose for workplace safety.
Magnificent as this mobilisation was, it can only be the beginning. The biggest danger at the present time is that the movement could be de-railed by the bureaucracy. While it is important to ensure that the Labour Party leadership stays firm in its opposition to the changes, Australian workers cannot wait for an incoming Labour government. Workers’ lives and livelihoods are at stake here. Rank and file trades unionists must put pressure on the leadership to oppose the legislation by any means necessary and preparations should now begin to build upon these mobilisations by organising a one-day national stoppage.
As Lenin and Trotsky knew only too well, sometimes it takes the whip of counter-revolution to rouse the working class. After several years of retreat, the mighty Australian workers’ movement has begun to move. Australia is a land rich in natural resources. The Venezuelan workers have begun to show us how the wealth of a land can be harnessed for the benefit of the many not the few. It is only a matter of time before the Australian working class join them.