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Solidarity spoke to Emma Kerin, Communications Officer of the National Union of Workers in Australia, about class struggle down under. Emma has been involved in the campaign to defend victimised trade unionist Bob Carnegie.
While there are obviously industry specific issues such as public sector cuts and privatisation, or health and safety for truck drivers and care workers, or being able to earn a living wage for minimum wage earners: there are two key issues affecting Australian workers across industries.
The first is insecure employment models; whether it’s labour hire and other third party arrangements in warehousing and distribution, sham contracting in construction, fixed term contracts for teachers and university staff, cash-in-hand work through dodgy contractors in poultry or cleaning, or outsourcing in the public sector, all these employment models shift risk from employers onto workers, with very harmful affects on workers’ lives and their communities.
The second issue for Australian workers is the ongoing deterioration of workers’ rights to collectively organise. Secondary boycott laws from the 1970s have been continually built upon to limit workers’ ability to show solidarity, which is really the only economic power we have in a democracy.
When unions have restrictions put on them to limit their power, and degrade any real economic democracy, workers have two choices; to abide by laws that take away their democratic right to organise, or to use the only tool they have and show solidarity with one another so that their rights are not swept up in a race to the bottom.
In Australia, workers can only apply to take industrial action during the bargaining process of their Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (typically once every three years).
If workers are forced to take industrial action, other workers are not allowed to strengthen their arm by taking solidarity action.
However, when those workers are on strike their employer has every right to bring in secondary labour to continue production. Contradictions such as these abound. But how we work affects how we live, and workers will continue to have no choice but to fight for their rights with the only tool they have – collective organisation and solidarity.
Essentially union solidarity is based on the wider community supporting a group of workers when they are in struggle. In some senses trying to break down our ability to show solidarity has actually decentralised the process, so that workers supporting other workers is happening more and more on a grass roots basis and not necessarily at the say so of a trade union. Some trade unions are likewise organising more and more on a community level. I think this is happening all the time. The key remains solidarity, because that is still where our strength lies.
And we must be able to support those activists, whether from the community or a trade union, who step into leadership roles.