The right to strike, strikes and workers’ control

‘The right to strike, strikes and workers’ control’.

Speech by Chris White at ACTU Congress fringe event 2012.

Unionists need to organise for the right to strike, for the effective strike and for workers’ control.

1. Unions’ right to strike campaign is to repeal all Fair Work Act penal powers and for a ‘firewall’ protection for workers in their unions taking industrial action.

ILO principles can prevail: ‘The right to strike is one of the essential means available to workers and their organisations for the promotion and protection of their economic and social interests. These interests not only have to do with obtaining better working conditions and pursuing collective demands of an occupational nature but also with seeking solutions to economic and social policy questions and to labour problems of any kind which are of direct concern to the workers.’

The ACTU argued these ILO principles with the 1993 Keating reforms for the first enterprise bargaining protected action regime, but we did not achieve all our the aims. Reith’s 1996 WRAct weakened this protected action limited right to strike. ‘Repressive tolerance’ of strikes came under corporate legal attack and moved to repression of strikes under WorkChoices – the most severely regulated anti-strike regime in the OECD world. But as we know WorkChoices was not abolished as the Fair Work Act retained the repression of strikes.

Howard’s WC spin said ‘we are not taking away the right to strike’ but in practice unionists are not free to strike and the Rudd and Gillard government flouts such a right to strike.. Still no one argues against the principles. ALP MPs and Rudd in 2005 criticised WC and supported the ILO right to strike.

In ACTU policies there remains scope for the endorsement at this Congress of these ILO principles based on an appreciation of the right to strike as a civil, political, and socio-economic entitlement.

In 2012 right to strike amendments can go through this Parliament. Minister Bill Shorten can first delete all of the FWA/WC anti-strike provisions. Then insert the above ILO principles. Then a section to ensure no one can take a legal case against any industrial action, full stop. Employer legal sanctions to stop strikes and fine striking workers and union officials are not to be available. Corporate law firms are removed from the industrial relations practice of stopping strikes with penal powers. The right to withdraw our labour-power is ‘firewalled’ legally paramount over all corporate law.

What does this ‘firewall’ protection for the strike mean? Such a new FWA right guarantees freedom for workers in unions to collectively bargain with strikes. Unionists are free to determine the strike processes, the timing, the negotiations, the notices, the tactics and free to determine how we take industrial action democratically decided in paid workers’ meetings. Workers are free to pursue any demands – not in anyway legally constrained, not restricted by old legal restrictions of ‘matters pertaining to employment’ or so-called ‘not permitted’ matters. Free to bargain with industrial pressure for claims not only for wages and conditions in collective agreements but over so-called management prerogative decisions, over industry development strategies, for job protection provisions, environmental demands etc. Free to respond with strike action to the worst of management’s workplace rule.

The right to strike on occupational health and safety is absolute.

The employer right to lockout is repealed, with Qantas tactics unlawful.

The Workplace Relations Minister does not have the discretion to stop industrial action.

Industry and pattern bargaining industrial action is lawful as the industrial parties are free to determine at what level to bargain.

The Building and Construction regime and the anti-strike powers now in FWA is abolished. Restrictions in trade-related industries, such as the waterfront are repealed. The lawful strike extends internationally – essential for unions to organise globally in response to powerful multi-national corporate interests.

This right to strike politically is a last resort response to bad government policy affecting workers’ interests. Workers, as citizens in a democracy, have legal protection for political protest assemblies e.g. against WorkChoices; no penalties against workers taking time to attend ‘No War’ rallies or on foreign affairs protesting against dictatorships e.g. in Fiji and fascist acts such as Indonesian TNI genocide against the East Timorese. The lawful strike supports human rights struggles. Provisions in the Crimes Act and anti-terror laws are repealed. No exceptions such as ‘for damage to persons or property’.

Union officials organising the strike have legal protection against ancient British master and servant common law actions in tort, contract and in equity – no possibility of crippling damages. Industrial disputes are settled by the parties or in the FWA system and not in the courts.

Picketing is protected industrial action not subject to injunctions. Employers cannot employ ‘replacement’ labour to break a strike, as this is a violation of our freedom of association.

Competition law outlawing solidarity strikes and secondary boycotts is removed.

The individual on strike is protected: no return to work orders, no threat of dismissal, no victimization, no fines.

Only then is there an opportunity at work for workers to freely bargain with the powerful corpororate or government employers.

2. The question is then reviving the strike so working people can regain power and transform Australia. Unions know the strike is the essential means for the power to win our demands, e.g. secure jobs.

How workers organise a winning strike is a priority. Historically in this era strikes are essential to respond to the capitalist and environment crisis and in response to the political attacks on workers’ rights. Democratic control by workers in their unions of their industrial action is central to defeat the employers’ decisions, defeat the corporate attack and defeat right-wing ‘austerity’ cuts.

The effective strike now is very difficult because of our repressive regime and corporate/government lawyers taking legal actions against unions. Employees in their unions in enterprise bargaining have to win ‘protected’ strikes as best we can and there have been stirring struggles with workers winning.

Recruitment succeeds when integrated into successful strike action. We can criticize past union leaders shifting resources to organize the un–unionized sectors, as this has failed to revive unions. Unions cannot resolve our crisis simply by adding new members – without a powerful strike in place.

Planned lengthy strikes are necessary to organise. Australian unions are good at the one-day protest publicity strike. But this gives the illusion of struggle, distracting from our real problem, which is the lack of an effective traditional lengthy strike.

Secondary bans, boycotts and solidarity strikes are a powerful means of union strength and need to be again back in practice if unions are to succeed.

Mass general strikes in many countries are being organised as the global capitalist order is in another chronic crisis period with corporate and state austerity attacks on workers. Occupy activists call for a general strike on May Day. But look back through history about how general strikes happened. They are organized in the workplace only by union delegates and organizers organizing step by step all their co-workers across all unions and can be done again.

Our Your Rights at Work campaign proves our capacity strategically to win in civil society, in the community and politically decisive. Unions defeated Howard, but we failed with the Rudd/Gillard government to secure key rights at work, such as the right to strike. Such a campaign has to be recreated.

We organise outstanding social unionism struggles with community support. But to win requires the power of collective strike action. Social unionism is not a replacement for direct struggle against employers. Social unionism where the strike is abandoned loses the central role of workers at work, at the point of production.

Co-ordinated strikes against the repressive anti-strike regime requires union members organising across industries, a mass strategy to defeat the penal powers, learning from the 1960’s anti-penal powers organising model resulting in mass national ‘Clarrie O’Shea’ strikes.

Working class principles justify the refusal to follow unjust and illegitimate restrictions and for the principled defiance of judicial orders to win the right to strike. “Labour is not a commodity”, “our labour power creates wealth”, “the right to strike is a basic freedom that distinguishes us from the slave or bonded labour or from fascism”, ” freedom from corporate and HR rule” etc.

3. But the strike is only a means. We return to work but then workers’ struggles need to develop more collective power at work. Workers’ control over our work to counter employers’ control is the challenge. We can develop democratic self-management agendas. Tactics historically are sit-ins and occupations when workers facing redundancies took over factories and ran them cooperatively. We can learn about workers self-management cooperatives. We can study workers control developments.

As unionists we can listen to the history of militant workers who acted believing we can control our work and the economy without capitalist rulers.

Chris White worked for the AWU, LHMU, NTEU, ASMOF and for 17 years as Assistant Secretary and Secretary of the United Trades and Labor Council of SA. He lives in Darwin. These arguments are extensively developed on his Left Union Blog May 12 2012

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