Issue #1523 19 October 2011
Resistance growing against attack on workers and their unions
Qantas airlines is waging an all out attack on the wages, working conditions and jobs of their employees. Its Australian workforce is in effect being told to compete in a race to the bottom with foreign cabin crew employed by its subsidiary Jetstar on a base weekly wage of $258 and working shifts as long as 20 hours. Qantas staff are waging a great fightback which deserves the full support of the trade union movement (see page 3). Air safety is also at risk. The attack is not confined to cabin crew – pilots, engineers and airport staff are likewise under attack. Qantas plans to cut 1,000 jobs in Australia.
The Qantas offensive is indicative of the all out war by corporate Australia against workers and their trade unions in Australia. The big corporations and financial institutions are taking every opportunity to cut costs and boost profits by sacking workers, cutting wages and entitlements, going offshore in search of cheaper labour and taking short cuts with safety. State and federal governments are playing a key role in the process through legislative and other means.
The current Labor government did not completely tear up the Howard government’s WorkChoices laws. The right to strike remains almost as limited as under WorkChoices and the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) has been strengthened with increased funding. It effectively criminalises legitimate trade union activity on building sites.
In an industry where safety is paramount, where around one worker a week is killed, the Construction Division of the CFMEU has been fined over $6 million in the past two years! The ABCC turns a blind eye to corrupt and criminal practices of employers in the industry while trying to bankrupt the union. The aim of the ABCC, was made clear when it was introduced: to rid the industry of militant trade unionism.
Across Australia trade unions are in struggle against employer attempts to take back past gains:
Hotels with Heart is a campaign by hotel room attendants in Melbourne’s luxury hotels, and their union, United Voice, to bring an end the long hours, unpaid wages, injuries, bullying and intimidation they are subjected to.
The United Firefighters Union in Victoria is resisting attempts by the Metropolitan Fire Board to cut the minimum number of firefighters on duty in Melbourne.
Unions are in battle at BlueScope Steel over redundancy payments being offered to more than 1,000 workers at its Port Kembla plant in NSW.
Members of the Forestry and Furniture division of the CFMEU employed by the US company Jeld-Wen (Corinthian Doors) in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia are doing battle for higher wages and staving off employer attempts to slash working conditions.
Shell plans to close its Clyde refinery and import the refined product for distribution. Around 1,700 workers stand to lose their jobs, 500 of them from Shell and 1,200 whose jobs depend on the refinery.
Westpac has flagged plans to cut and outsource backroom operations with the loss of 2,000 jobs.
In Central Queensland thousands of coal mineworkers have been trying since last November to get BHP to negotiate a new enterprise agreement.
Across the country, the Australian Services Union and other unions are fighting for equal pay for 200,000 community and disability service staff. Their aims are being stymied by Fair Work Australia and state and federal governments that mouth equal pay but are unwilling to make the necessary increases in funding to the agencies that provide the services.
It is not just the profit-driven corporate sector that has gone on the offensive against workers and trade unions. Governments are madly cutting costs to balance budgets and appease the ratings agencies and financial sector. They are also privatising everything that could turn a private profit. Sackings, contracting out, wage cuts, loss of entitlements and deunionisation have become the order of the day. For the people who rely on the services involved, it means higher prices, poorer quality and cuts in services.
Twelve months ago the South Australian Labor government announced the axing of 3,700 public sector jobs, and through legislation sought to scrap the leave loading of non-shift public sector employees and cutting their long-service leave entitlements. The job cuts, already underway have since risen to 4,100.
The NSW government gave itself the power through legislation to dictate wages and working conditions, effectively disempowering the Industrial Relations Commission and denying public sector employees the right to negotiated wages and working conditions.
In Western Australia there is a similar struggle against a budget-cutting Liberal government and its plans to contract out public sector jobs to the voluntary and low wage, not-for-profit sector. The government has plans for WorkChoice-style legislation with individual contracts for the one third of the workforce on state-based award and agreements.
In Victoria, the Coalition government has capped funding for public sector wage rises to 2.5 percent.
The Labor government in Queensland is privatising furiously, and plans to slash 6,000 public sector jobs.
Federally, the Labor government has turned its back on the manufacturing sector, despite the impact this is having on jobs and living standards. It is beholden to the big financial institutions and mining corporations. It takes no responsibility for tourism, manufacturing and other sectors of the economy that are in crisis and gives no thought to the day that the mining bubble bursts or the next financial crisis hits (which may not be far off judging by developments in Europe and the US).
The employer and government offensives against labour are being met with increasing resistance – strikes, public campaigns, the use of social networks, mass rallies (35,000 turned out in Sydney to defend the public sector) and other actions.
There have been some great victories, such as in the Pilbara in WA where mine workers are free to unionise and bargain collectively for the first time in almost 20 years.
But there are weaknesses in the struggles. They tend to be isolated with relatively little solidarity actions from other trade unions or the community. The focus also tends to be on immediate economic issues. Spot fires are constantly being put out. Some gains have been made by left unions where they have the industrial strength. Unfortunately, the destruction of the old centralised award system and focus on enterprise bargaining has limited the flow-on of gains in one workplace where the union is stronger to other workplaces.
The election of Coalition governments in a number of states has seen a greater preparedness by some union leaders to take up the struggle. Many trade unions still remain strongly tied to the Labor Party, but a number gave support to the Greens in recent elections and several have disaffiliated from the ALP. The majority of rank and file membership have had a gut full of Labor. This was seen clearly in the NSW and Victorian state elections and is reflected in the opinion polls in the federal sphere and in Queensland. Workers, whose families had historically never voted Liberal, did so for the first time ever, they are so disillusioned with Labor.
PM Gillard is trying very hard to reinvent social democracy and win back those votes. There is little indication that she can succeed. It is the policies that need changing, not the rhetoric or cosmetic organisational changes. The bankruptcy of social democracy is evident to workers and their families. Labor has looked after the big end of town and their former “heartland” is hurting. Labor governments elected with the promise of real change failed to deliver.
There is a real danger that workers will turn to the far right if there is not a political alternative which is seen as capable of forming government and delivering real changes in the interests of working people.
Trade union independence
A broad movement is required that is capable of providing the basis of a new type of government. Candidates could come from left political parties, the Greens, from trade unions, community and other organisations and include left and progressive independents. Only such a government is capable of taking a strong stand against the likes of Rio Tinto, the big banks, Qantas and other sections of monopoly capital and representing the interests of ordinary working people, small businesses and small farmers.
This movement should not only take up the economic struggle in the workplace but social and other issues of importance to the groups in that movement. Such issues include democratic rights, trade union rights, equal pay, job creation, economic planning, privatisation, the environment, health, education, public housing and transport, asylum seekers, the rights of Indigenous Australians, and unemployment.
Central to achieving these goals is the political independence of the trade union movement and its unity in struggle for workers’ rights.
Next article – Imperialism’s plan for a “new Middle East”
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