A day of class struggle in Melbourne

Organised labour must be prepared to use every tactic against WorkChoices, writes Tristan Ewins.

ACTU national day of union and community action, November 30 2006, MCG Melbourne

It was with an air of anticipation that I boarded the bus for the Melbourne Cricket Ground on November 30. The determination to "Fill the G" was almost overwhelming in its scope. The redeveloped MCG - capable of holding anywhere near 100,000 people - would be a challenge to fill, but judging from previous attendances at ACTU rallies the prospect did seem within the realm of possibility. A protest of such magnitude would renew the labour movement’s mandate to take the fight to the conservatives and to engage in whatever kind of action that was necessary to repeal John Howard’s extreme industrial relations laws.

While not achieving this, we didn't do too bad. The ground was close to three quarters full: but it was not filled to capacity. News programs claimed an attendance of 40,000 - but watching from within the ground itself and judging by the estimates of the labour movement, the crowd seemed upwards of 60,000. Less than the previous Melbourne rally, but a remarkable statement in itself despite the mockings in federal parliament by Peter Costello and Kevin Andrews which followed. About 40,000 mobilised in Sydney. In total nearly 300,000 rallied across the country.

Comedians Dave Hughes and Corinne Grant entertained the Melbourne audience, while Casey Donovan and Jimmy Barnes gave memorable and powerful performances. Certainly, the air around the ground was mixed. Many were disappointed that the objective of the exercise: to fill the MCG, had not been realised. News that several trains had been cancelled due to technical difficulties confirmed the fears of some. Nevertheless, the sense of solidarity was strong, and this is far from the end of our struggle. Speeches by Greg Combet and Sharan Burrow energised the crowd, giving the occasion a strong sense of determination and purpose.

Sharan Burrow encapsulated the situation stating: “We are now a nation where employers can say, 'Take it or leave it.' It is a fact that every AWA made under these laws has removed award conditions. Overtime, penalty rates, public holidays - all systematically stripped away. If you start a new job or get a promotion, you can be asked to sign an AWA individual contract. If you don’t sign, you don’t get the job.”

Greg Combet, in particular, emphasised the plight of construction industry workers under the draconian new regime introduced by John Howard: “Building workers have been specially targeted by the Government. They risk fines and imprisonment for standing up for their rights, even for something as simple as holding a workplace meeting. In the building industry the Government has given itself the power to summons workers to a secret interrogation. If they do not attend they face up to six months gaol and six months gaol if they refuse to answer questions. And six months gaol if they tell anyone including their family about the questions they were made to answer.”

Certainly this struggle against the fining and possible imprisonment of West Australian construction workers is turning out to be a test for the labour movement: a test we cannot afford to fail given what is at stake.

And yet, in the face of such vicious attacks, Combet does not seem to feel that the industrial wing of the labour movement has the means to win this battle on its own. As Combet argued: “Let's be very clear about the real implication of the High Court decision.  It has confirmed that the only way to get rid of John Howard's industrial relations laws is to vote against the Government.”

This line of argument was echoed by Kim Beazley who in his speech said; “Now that the High Court has said it can’t stop John Howard's IR laws, the issues are clear.  The only way to get rid of these extreme laws is to throw Howard out.  That is the only way.  That is something all of you can do.”

The battle for the next federal election is an important one. Certainly the broader labour movement is correct to focus on the election of Labor as a core strategic objective in overcoming the extreme and hostile environment that has taken hold since the conservatives won control of both houses of parliament in the last election. In France, however, combined general strikes and mass protests rocked the conservative Gaullist government to its foundations. At its height the movement mobilised 700,000 people on the streets of Paris. Combined with militant action by students, many of whom fought to occupy the Sorbonne university campus, this action forced the French government to back down on labour market deregulation: in particular moves to remove unfair dismissal protection for French youth.

While it is true that the French working class enjoys a generally more militant tradition than is held by many Australian unions, what the French scenario shows is that a mass movement, led by militant trade unions and student organisations, has the potential to force the withdrawal of hostile labour laws.

Should Labor lose the 2007 election - and that is a possibility - the Australian labour movement will face a choice: whether to organise a more militant campaign against the legislation, or whether to batten down the hatches for another four years, during which its strength will decline.

In June this year the ACTU managed to mobilise 300,000 to rallies nationally: with 150,000 taking part in Melbourne alone. This massive showing has already given the ACTU a clear mandate to take action. Should the Howard conservative government be returned, though, the ACTU must build for a similar demonstration: to renew the labour movement’s mandate to resist these attacks through whatever means necessary. This could mean strategic stoppages at workplaces where picket lines are easier to maintain and defend, with mass mobilisation such as was seen in the MUA dispute.

Following the example of France, general strikes, also, ought not be thought of as out of the question, and attempts by the government to respond with repression - even imprisonment - ought lead to a further escalation of the struggle. The right to take political industrial action is a human right as much as any and unions should be demanding that Labor recognize this in its platform; but we can only win this struggle if we prepare in advance for all manner of eventualities. There will be some who might argue that any escalation of the struggle might lead to defeat: but with the alternative of a slow death under Howard’s industrial relations regime, what choice do we have but to prepare for anything? Industrial action taken without preparedness could well be disastrous and should not be taken as a matter of desperation. Industrial action ought not be taken unless we are confident we can win. Building the confidence and resolve necessary to win such a struggle and organising on the ground to prepare for such an eventuality, is something we ought be working on now.

Returning to the day of action, there was still much in the event that can be seen as a success: even if now the labour movement must redouble its efforts to remobilise in numbers not seen since June this year.

A carnival atmosphere took hold as protestors engaged in a Mexican wave, unfurled a massive Southern Cross flag from the balconies and booed John Howard when his image briefly appeared on the grounds display screen.

With the march from the MCG to Melbourne CBD, the awesome size of this demonstration became palpable. The crowd snaked its way down Melbourne’s city streets for many blocks, and from around the middle of this procession the ocean of flags, banners and faces seemed almost endless. The entertainment continued in Melbourne’s Federation square, but slowly the crowd dispersed - its statement made, albeit unheeded by the conservatives in Canberra.

Greg Combet, November 30 2006, MCG Melbourne

As Greg Combet argued at the rally: “Elections in Australia can be decided by a few thousand votes in a handful of seats. The South Australian seat of Wakefield will change hands if just several hundred people change their vote. In that seat there are 15,000 union members. Many of them who voted for John Howard last time are reconsidering their decision because of the IR laws.”

The struggle to elect a Labor government is a vital one: and demands the devotion of our energies and aspirations. If, however, Howard succeeds again in ‘wedging’ workers against one another, playing on fears and insecurities to con workers into voting against their own interests: we need to be ready. We need to be ready to win this struggle whatever it may take. The very survival of the labour movement itself is at stake.

October 30, 2006

Tristan Ewins is a freelance writer, grassroots ALP member, and qualified teacher, having been published in the Canberra Times, Arena, New Matilda, Online Opinion, Z-magazine and, of course, Labor Tribune.


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