Cops, protest and the future of work

From time to time police, and their union, seek pay rises and other improvements in their conditions. They are protesting when they do so. They wish for and expect that the general public (90 per cent of whom are workers with a similar problem) would support them.

Then there is this, in Sydney yesterday….

And there are far too many other examples where police, on wages, enforce anti-democratic laws against civil and industrial protest.

They say they are “just doing our job”.

Really? Is it their job? Or is it the “job” required by the masters: the masters of climate and environment destruction? The masters of exploitation? The masters against land rights for First Nations people? The masters of war? The masters of shonky building development? The masters of the “broken rules” in the banking system? The 1-10%.

At the very least NSW unions could and should ask Unions NSW to convene a meeting with the Police Association to discuss the principles and practice of police behaviour associated with protests of this kind.

There is an alternative to doing the job as the masters require it.

Against the odds the police could be really brave: think bravely outside the box they are trained to think within; act bravely so that what they do defines whose side they prefer to be on.

Putting it another way, take more control over the nature of their work so that democracy grows more widely and strongly.

We are talking about a particular form of “workers control”.

Not far from where Danny Lim was arrested, some time in the 1970’s, this happened.

We see Jack Mundey, then NSW Secretary of the NSW Builders Labourers Federation, being arrested because his members had decided to put a famous Green Ban in place to protect public housing from private developers.

Nowadays, many of the great Sydney historical buildings and other public spaces (for example, The Rocks) survive because of the builders labourers’ green bans, and are recommended to Sydney’s visitors by public and private tourist operators.

Why should the principle of “workers control” as learnt and applied by builders labourers not be taken up by the lower ranks of the police force.

And, if its good enough for builders labourers in the 1970’s as they set an example for the rest of the working class, why should this not be a critical dimension to the future of work across the whole workforce.

Workers – the 90% – actually know more completely than their employers how to make products and services and provide them to other workers who buy them. Their employers, and the managers who they employ to act on their behalf, are not really necessary.

This applies in the public sector also. And therefore in the police force.

The arrest of Danny Lim also took place near the origins of white settlement in Australia … as a penal colony. The arrest continues that penal tradition – a central theme in Australian history – into the 21st century.

Its also close to where a really good union organizer not long ago used the food malls as lunchtime meeting places for lift service and other construction workers to join their union and pursue their enterprise agreement discussions.

They were watched by officers of yet another Australian industrial police force: the notorious, semi – fascist Australian Building and Construction Commission. If a new Labor government is elected in May, we all expect that one of its first priorities will be the abolition of the ABCC.

The climate change crisis, the desperately urgent need for a rapid, just transition to a green economy, requires that the future of work includes  struggles for more workers control over the decisions that determine a) job security, b) new products being made and services delivered that protect and rescue. The current “broken rules” of the Fair Work Act 2009 prohibit such matters for “legal” bargaining.

Therefore #changetherules campaign – as it progresses before and after the federal election – must be about who multi-employer and award based bargaining, and enable workers and their unions to negotiate on investment decisions and how work should be done.  No more prohibited matters.

Danny Lim is well known as a modest and peaceful “protester”. His protests have a personal and “individual” character, but he that does not make him alone. In fact, he is part of a growing Australian majority who are becoming more and more disturbed at the lack of action by governments and corporations on climate change.

He has earned the right to our support and that of our organisations.

A draft dodging memoir: RIP Bob Hall

Below, with the permission of my good friend Andy Alcock, I post his wonderful short memoir of the draft dodging exploits of Adelaide anti-war activist Bob Hall and his comrades. Bob’s recent death is the occasion and Andy’s brief memoir is in the form of a letter to Bob’s family.

Members of the MUA will read about the old Seamen’s Union unique contribution to Bob’s successful activities.

Hi Chris & Luciana
Thank you very much for your email concerning Bob’s death.
I am very saddened to hear this news as I was hoping to see him again and because he was a good friend
He was a wonderful comrade whose draft resistance in the late 1960s was an inspiration to many in the peace movement And it led to him having many adventures and to him becoming a sailor in the British merchant navy.
One of the highlights of my activities in the peace movement was having an “underground” meeting in 1969 with Bob and several peace supporting VIPs – former senator Jim Cavanagh, Adelaide and Flinders academic Neal Blewett (later to become the MHR for Bonython and health minister in the Australian federal parliament), Ally Fricker and John Healy etc. Former Adelaide Uni economics professor Geoff Harcourt may well have been there as well. The meeting was actually held upstairs in one of those 2 level houses in Queen St Norwood with the lower level 1/2 underground which was rented by Ally Fricker and John Healey – 2 prominent peace activists of the day. Ally is still involved in the anti-uranium movement today. Ironically, I was living next door and our student household was sheltering another draft dodger – Danny Nicholas.
Before this Bob’s partner before his court hearing was Anne McMenamin who is currently still active in the peace and anti-uranium movements. She chained herself to the steps of the SA Parliament House in protest when Bob was arrested. The Adelaide elite was outraged because of these actions.
After a court hearing, Bob, who thought he would receive a prison term of 1 month for failing to attend a medical examination as required for conscripts, discovered he was going to prison for 2 years and a month for total non-compliance. As he reached the door of the courtroom, he told me that he thought to himself “Bugger me! I am not going to accept this!”. He broke free from the Commonwealth Police personnel who were escorting him and managed to escape after a sprint through Adelaide’s streets. 
There was an underground that supported Bob for some months until, with the help of the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA), he was able to get out of SA and indeed Australia for 10 years.
Bob called the meeting because he wanted to know if supporters thought he should surrender to the Commonwealth Police or continue to live “underground”. The overwhelming decision was that if Bob felt up to it, he should continue to live on the run to help tie up Commonwealth Police and government resources. He was lucky that he had dual citizenship – British and Australian – and was thus able to spend almost a decade at sea with the British merchant service.
In 1979, about a decade later, after I had worked in Sydney and Malaysia, Cathy Heptinstall (now my wife) and I were shopping in the Adelaide Central Market and bumped into Bob. It was a great reunion and we invited him to visit for a meal. He told us that when he arrived back in Adelaide, he was accosted by ASIO officers at the Adelaide Airport. When they told him that they wanted to speak with him regarding his violation of the National Service Act. His response was to tell them that that particular act had been abolished by Gough Witlam and he advised them to consult a taxidermist (or words to that effect!)
 I knew him first at uni because we both studied Organic Chemistry and I have to admit that he was a much more brilliant student than me.
It was interesting that we both had careers in OH&S – he as an OH&S inspector in Victoria and I was an OH&S coordinator for the SA Education Dept and IH&S officer for 2 unions.
I felt it was a great pity that we did not meet up more often after he returned to Australia, but I always  considered him a hero of the anti war movement in this country and a great supporter for the OH&S of Australian workers.
Goodbye Bob – you were a champion and you will never be forgotten.
My condolences to you Chris and Luciana in your time of grief.
Paz, Amor y Solidaridad

Some thoughts on “the right to strike” and the Change the Rules Campaign – Part 2

The “right to strike” versus employer opposition and Laborist naivete

The “right to strike” is one of two (see below) demands that would change the “balance of power” towards working people in a “fair dinkum” way.

The FWA09 restricts workers’ right to strike so severely it is almost meaningless against an array of powers provided to employers to control grievances, disputes of all kinds, industrial award changes, and enterprise bargaining. In effect, the FWA09 denies the “right to strike”.

The right to strike is the countervailing power to the employers’ unrestricted right to withdraw their capital or to transform its use from productive activity to non-productive forms of profiteering, or to re-locate it in another country.

In struggling for a genuine “right to strike” the labour movement is seeking to change a law that a Labor government established in 2009, and that its union leaders consented to. At that time, most activists in that great struggle went to sleep, believing that what Labor was delivering was adequate. Those who did try to explain the serious shortfalls of FWA09 were criticised (not “team players”) and marginalized. That minority have now been proven to be correct.

There is a lot of other detail, also quite important, that will be contested terrain in the months ahead but also perhaps more amenable to agreement. For example, in enterprise bargaining FWA09 empowers employers to use just a few workers (who may not even work under the proposed agreement) to create an enterprise agreement that will cover many other workers who do work under the Agreement. Such enterprise agreements reduce wages, conditions and rights against previously established standards. Also, agreement might be reached to restrict or prevent employers from taking on workers as “self-employed”, individualized workers to drive down wages and conditions.

Laborist discomfort with the “right to strike”: tensions to emerge

Again today, not everyone is comfortable about changing the rules to enable an unrestricted “right to strike”. Some, especially in the parliamentary wing of the ALP  will argue that this change will harm the ALP’s election prospects. They also have some supporters in the leadership of the union movement, at both peak and mid-levels.

Generally speaking, they are comfortable with a minimalist programme of change to the FWA09, one that does not upset the employers or the voting public too much. They believe that the antagonisms between workers and their unions on the one hand, and employers on the other, are not fundamental or severe and can be managed with minimal conflict.

Instead, the minimalists prioritize more power to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) to arbitrate disputes, some modest rights for unions to access workplaces and create disputes for arbitration, and tougher limits on employers using their “lock out” and “termination of agreement” powers in enterprise bargaining.

It should be noted and discussed that the recent and important ACTU pamphlet, “The system is broken- Big Business has too much power”, does not mention the “right to strike” issue in “changing the rules”.[1] Restoring stronger arbitration power to the Fair Work Commission does not give more power to workers.

Usually, the advocates of minimalist and technocratic change, will invoke “pragmatism” as the logic for this approach.

But really, their “pragmatism” is the height of “naïve idealism” because it leaves fundamental employer power intact and assumes that employers will not take advantage of that, and that workers’ power is not necessary for the FWC to treat workers fairly. The minimalist approach assumes that workers themselves cannot exercise their power democratically and effectively, and therefore cannot give their unions more power.

In the real world, a more fundamental reform programme is necessary. Fundamental reform enables a more decisive shift in the balance of power towards workers and their unions at both workplace and industry levels.

The unfettered right to strike is the most important element of reform, including in Award based bargaining (see below).

Direct strike power to workers enables workers, including through their unions, to do what unions were originally formed to do: limit and prevent the employers’ use of the competition threat to freeze and drive down wages, conditions and rights. It gives effect to the democratic idea that workers themselves, in their unions or in other types of combination, should be enabled to exercise their potential power against the powers of the employers. Thus, workers themselves are more in charge of their present and future.

Also, it brings Australia into real alignment with agreed ILO minimum standards on workers’ rights to organise and bargaining collectively.[2]

Bargaining rights: enterprise bargaining, “supply chain bargaining” and Award bargaining

In some union discussions “supply chain bargaining” appears to be the multi -employer bargaining that is quite popular. As one form of “multi-employer” bargaining it is not objectionable, provided its serious limits are not ignored or glossed over.

In a “supply chain” the focus is on a group of employers who are in “cooperation” with each other to deliver a product or a service to its ultimate customer. However, first there is usually one employer who is the main controller of everything else in the chain. Also, each employer link in the chain is likely to be in competition with an employer who is not in the chain. The competitor not in the supply chain might like to be and can offer lower wage costs as the competitive edge to get into it.  Or, the competitor might be in a competitive supply chain able to deliver the same or a similar product to a similar or the same type of customer at a lower wages standard.

Therefore, there are real limits on how “supply chain bargaining” deals with the problem of the downward pressure on wages etc that is created by uncontrolled competition between employers in the same industry or type of business, nor how it deals with the 21st century reality of global supply chains.

On the other hand, the enabling of a new form of Award based bargaining (that includes a “right to strike”) is a big step toward limiting, maybe preventing in some circumstances, the employers’ competition power.  How changes to Awards are processed these days is a big part of the broken rules of the FWA09.

Every effort should be made to bring together experienced and new worker activists to discuss how to advance the fundamental and comprehensive approach. Those in the parliamentary Labor Party and unions who seek, as they have before, to dilute proposals to establish a legal “right to strike”, can be challenged and pushed back.

Other significant factors that shape this struggle for genuine and fundamental strengthening of workers’ powers

There are other factors that do influence how this struggle might evolve in the months and years ahead. One of them is the rapid change in the composition of the workforce. There is also union density currently running at about 12-14% overall. This has to be taken into account in developing programme, priorities, strategy and tactics, and shape how the “the right to strike” can be achieved. Just calling for the “right to strike” in the most militant manner possible will simply not be adequate for the situation we face. And, there is the timing of the national election.

Sally McManus (ACTU Secretary), and other union leaders who have stressed the continuation of the campaign after the next election, are correct to do so. If the Labor Party wins, including with Greens support, a continued campaign will require a clear and determined strategy very different to the collapse of the Your Rights at Work campaign over 2007-9. It will not be adequate to declare, as in 2009, that there is “unfinished business” and then do nothing about it.

The labour movement’s strategy must aim to bring 21st century workers into the experience of struggle, with a new foundation in which they discover directly in their own workplaces and across their industries and regions, the great untapped and democratic potential of their power in combination. The workers themselves, including through their union membership, reveal the power of any appeal to “join their union”.

[1] The “right to strike” issue is put forward in the more comprehensive ACTU Campaign Kit at pp 34-35: here:

[2] Andrew Stewart provides a summary of the issues at stake re the ILO standards here: