The right to strike and Changing the Rules

Submitted by Janet on 16 September, 2018 - 5:41 Author: Bob Carnegie and Martin Thomas
Break the Rules

The ACTU's new campaign to "Change the Rules" indicts the fact that the "rules" of working life have shifted more and more against workers over recent decades, even if you take it into account the limited moves the Rudd and Gillard federal governments made between 2007 and 2013 to undo some of what the Howard coalition goverment had done.

The campaign is a positive move; but by itself not sufficient. The more active unions need to supplement it by a public campaign for the right to strike.

The Australian industrial relations system is exceptional in giving great weight and spread to official arbitration procedures, and restricting workers' right to take industrial action more, probably, than any other country which allows parliamentary elections, free activity for opposition parties, and significant media critical of the government.

This exceptional system has not served Australian workers well. Union density has fallen faster than in other countries, from 51% in the mid-70s to 15% on the latest figures, 9% in the private sector, 7% among workers aged 20-24 and 4% among workers aged 15-19. In October 2017, Vitor Gaspar, the IMF's director of fiscal affairs, reported that as regards growth of income inequality since the 1980s, Australia is up there with the leading few countries, the US, South Africa, India, China, Spain and the UK (

Australian capitalism has done relatively well, compared to other countries, since 2007. That should have given more space for the union movement to push for improvements. But workers are still going backwards.
The items in "Change the Rules" are mostly wishes for changes in government policy, to be mediated through the arbitration-heavy system of industrial relations. They are good and desirable. All experience shows that unions' ability to win such changes on any large scale depends on the strength of union organisation and activity, and not just on the desirability of the changes. Without a regrowth of union organisation and activity, all campaigns like "Change the Rules" will be pushed into becoming increasingly plaintive pleas to the good nature of Labor politicians.

The very low union density rate among young people is not a product of those people being flooded with right-wing ideologies or even of them fearing that union membership will get them victimised. A survey among young people found that they "considered that unions were portrayed [in the media] as associated with strikes and causing trouble. However, interviewees suggested that the demonising of unions was typical of broadcast media operators... Overall, interviewees... (including non-members) were not unsympathetic to unions".
Why weren't they union members? The most cited reasons were that they "don’t see them [unions] doing all that much", or they feel they "don't know enough" about unions, or that unions are "invisible in the workplace" (

Those perceptions cannot be overcome without unions winning, and being seen to win (by more than aficionados of the small print of Fair Work Commission decisions), disputes. And to win disputes, unions need to take action.

Unions should sponsor a campaign, complementary to "Change the Rules", for the right to strike to be recognised by law as an individual right as basic as the right to free speech, the right to hold meetings, and the right to protest on the streets. It is so recognised in the constitution of France.

The general demand in the "Change the Rules" material that "Workers' rights to withdraw their labour must be aligned to ILO [International Labour Organisation] standards" is not sufficient. The ILO is an international body originally set up by the League of Nations in 1919, and then adopted by the United Nations in 1946, run on a 2:1:1 basis by representatives of governments , employers, and unions.

The ILO's own pamphlet on the ILO and the right to strike records that "the right to strike is not set out explicitly in ILO Conventions and Recommendations" ( Various ILO meetings have deplored various Australian government actions as not up to ILO standards, but there are no "ILO standards" to rely on.

Support for the right to strike does not mean thinking that strikes are a cure-all. It suggests intelligent and judicious use of that right. Workers' victories come most often from short, sharp, well-timed actions: long set-piece disputes are most often won by the employers, who have deep pockets. Nor does support for the right to strike mean thinking that strikes are the only form of industrial action. One of the outrageous features of the current Australian regime is that action which would not even be "industrial action" in most countries, like work-to-rule, can be outlawed.

The more active and campaign-minded unions should be approached to sponsor a specific right-to-strike campaign complementary to the "Change the Rules" campaign, and to assemble funds sufficient to get office space and a minimal staff for it in each state.

The first task of the right-to-strike campaign should be basic public outreach - meetings, debates, petitions, street stalls, leafleting, social-media promotion.

The campaign should also seek endorsements, one by one, from Labor politicians for its demand for a right-to-strike law. The unions sponsoring the campaign should use their votes in Labor conferences to push that demand, and press other unions to do the same.

As well as doing its basic public outreach work, the campaign should be set up on a sufficiently "arm's length" basis that it can organise "community assemblies" and such in support of industrial disputes while not falling foul of the law, at least as at present interpreted. It should organise support for unions and workers penalised, or threatened with penalties, for industrial action to defend their rights.

The aim is to raise the confidence of the union movement - and of workers who are not unsympathetic to unions, but don't join because they "don't know" or they perceive unions as "not doing all that much" - so that it can coordinate diverse forms of social pressure into a push sufficient to revitalise union organisation and force a new Labor government to concede the right to strike.

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