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Big business and the Coalition government in Canberra are desperate to defeat the manufacturing union's Campaign 2000 due to start on 1 July. The union campaign aims to establish a common standard of wages and conditions across manufacturing. Its success will mean that working-class action has established clear social barriers to the drive for maximum profit.
The Australian Financial Review reported back on 3 May that a bosses' cabal, the Australian Industry Group, was pressing "the Australian Democrats and the Federal Government to rush through special amendments to the Workplace Relations Act to counter the metal unions' action".The AIG has other tactics, too. Two trade union officials, Dean Mighell and Craig Johnston, have been hauled to court and face further legal action to make them pay fines for "contempt" over stopwork meetings called earlier this year. Other options being considered by the bosses, according to the AFR, are "cancelling employer payroll deductions for union fees, a class action in the Supreme Court for manufacturing businesses damaged by union strikes, and secondary boycott action". "Secondary boycott action" is exactly what the unions should be planning in response. Widespread industrial action is needed, like the campaign which helped the Weipa workers in 1996 or the one which helped push Indonesian troops out of East Timor last year.
On 11 May, responding to the employers' demands, Workplace Relations Minister Peter Reith put new "Third Wave" anti-union amendments to Parliament. He aimed to push them through into law by 1 July. On 5 June, the trade union campaign against the "Third Wave" squeezed the Democrats into abandoning their initial support for the legislation. As we write, it is not clear whether Reith will try to go ahead with a subtler version of the legislation. Whether he does or not, it must be pretty certain that the government and the bosses are planning other action against the unions.
Over the last year (with the union action for East Timor, Reith's abandonment of his "Second Wave" legislation, and the victories for the Victorian building unions on the 36 hour week and the New South Wales teachers on pay) the balance in the class struggle has shifted, in a limited but real way, towards more working-class confidence. The capitalist class and the government want to claw back the advantage, especially before the GST price rises trigger big wage claims. Reith's new laws would have outlawed effective union solidarity. As Reith himself put it, "the purpose is to ensure that protected [lawful] industrial action is limited to the pursuit of enterprise-specific outcomes, and is not generally available as a means of seeking common outcomes across a number of employers or across an industry".
It would be perfectly legal for the government to impose a six per cent rise in the cost of living, across the board, through the GST, but unlawful for unions to seek redress except piecemeal, enterprise by enterprise. Strong, well-placed workforces might still be able to win better wages and conditions, but the unions would be debarred from any systematic and explicit action to generalise those gains. Less well-placed workforces would lose out. The stronger workforces would then be weakened in their turn, by the pressure of competition from workforces compelled to accept worse wages and conditions.
The "Third Wave" laws would also oblige the Australian Industrial Relations Commission to suspend a bargaining period (and thus close the window for protected industrial action) if an employer applied for that. It would have to decide on employers' applications against industrial action within 48 hours or, if it couldn't decide in that time, make an interim order to stop industrial action within 48 hours. Reith's amendments also instructed the Commission, when deciding whether union action amounted to unlawful "pattern bargaining", not even to pretend to be even-handed, but to "have particular regard to the views of the employer" And they made it easier for bosses to take legal action against unions.
The AMWU recalled Reith's statement to a business lunch in Perth (9 July 1998): "Never forget which side we're on. We're on the side of making profits. We're on the side of people owning private capital".
Industrial resistance is vital and so is political resistance. Although the ALP has sensed the way the wind is blowing, and distanced itself a bit from the economic rationalism of the Hawke-Keating years, it still offers no positive working-class alternative. Workers will always be on the back foot until the unions start defining clear policies for jobs, union rights, welfare and Aboriginal rights, and organising to push Labor into implementing those policies.
The first step should be large conferences of union delegates in each state to discuss action - on the same lines as those called by the Victoria Trades Hall Council and the ACT Trades and Labor Council during the battle against Reith's previous attempt at legislation, last year. The ACTU should also call a big Australia-wide emergency conference of grass-roots union representatives.
Victoria Trades Hall Council: http://www.vthc.org.au/
Brisbane Defend Our Unions Committee: firstname.lastname@example.org