More than 300,000 workers protested in towns and cities across Australia recently against proposed anti-union laws.
These were by far the biggest protests since the anti-war demonstrations of February 2003. More than 100,000 packed the streets of Melbourne, Australia’s major industrial city. Tens of thousands turned out in Sydney, Brisbane and Perth, and thousands took part in smaller cities and towns.
The rallies were timed to coincide with John Howard’s Tory government gaining control of both houses of parliament.
For the first time the Tories can pass legislation without the support of independents and minor parties.
Howard sees an opportunity to pass a raft of pro-business laws that will move Australia much closer to the US model.
To clear the way, he wants to shackle the unions with Thatcherite laws such as secret ballots and restrictions on union organisers’ access to workplaces —with jail terms for those who refuse to comply.
The proposed laws also allow companies with fewer than 100 employees to sack workers on the spot, and give the power to set minimum wages to a body stacked with government appointees.
But despite Howard having the formal power to pass any law he likes, the big mobilisation by the unions has already led some commentators to worry that he may have overstepped the mark.
Although the laws are aimed primarily at unions, many non-union members realise their wages and conditions will also be hit. Many of these people voted for Howard at the last election in the false belief that he would protect their living standards.
And despite declining in numbers and influence in recent years, the unions remain a powerful force in core sectors of the economy such as manufacturing, construction and the public sector. When the government tried to smash the powerful dockers’ union in 1998, tremendous solidarity from other workers meant the attack was defeated.
There is much debate in the unions about what to do now. The more conservative union leaders warn against industrial action, saying it will alienate the wider public. Their strategy is to tough it out over the next couple of years and hope the Labour Party wins office at the next election.
But there are also important sections of the union leadership that recognise that more strike action can push the government back. At all the rallies there was a strong mood among the rank and file for more strikes and protests.
Laki Phillips, a union shop steward at a local council in Melbourne, told Socialist Worker, “We need to hurt the bosses so that they get on to Howard and tell him to back off.”
Pete Seray, a manufacturing worker in Brisbane, said, “The bastards are going to make all our lives harder, so we need to win before they put it into the senate (upper house of parliament). There’s no other way and no point waiting for an election to save us.”
Jarvis Ryan is the editor of the Australian Socialist Worker. Go to www.iso.org.au