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Issue #1760      December 7, 2016


The force employers fear

The re-constituted Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) law targets the community’s support for workers and their union: a picket is made unlawful to those who are not employees directly involved in action. This aspect of the law is an indication of the anti-democratic, anti-people nature of the attack on organised labour: an attack on the right of workers to withdraw their labour which has wider implications, striking at the very basis of rights at work.

The law also provides for the imposition of increases in penalties i.e. fines for individual workers, union officials and the union itself for taking industrial action. The law is all-encompassing, covering not only construction workers, but under the cover of “building work”, transport and supply to building sites.

Also included are coercive powers to intimidate workers who are interrogated by the ABCC, with threats of jail time for refusal to answer questions. The crux of the $80 million taxpayer-funded Royal Commission exercise in union bashing can be found in a simple headline in the Australian newspaper: “Bosses urge ABCC to cut wages”.

Trade unions and the workers’ movement are based on the common collective or community interests of all workers. It was the realisation of these common interests that brought trade unions into existence in the first place. It was inevitable, as the new working class came into existence with the emergence of capitalism that workers would band together. This gave the working people much more strength in the struggle for their interests against their employers.

Employers have always regarded the act of workers coming together with fear and as a crime. There were bitter struggles in the 19th century as workers tried to form trade unions. But inevitably the demand for joint action in support of commonly held interests triumphed. We saw a magnificent example – involving support from the community – in the 1998 MUA dispute.

Workers now constitute about 90 percent of all who are engaged in the production of goods and services. It is a mighty potential force. The ruling capitalist class fears this force and is doing everything possible to disrupt the potential unity of workers. That is why industrial relations legislation has increasingly pushed more and more for workers to be placed on individual work contracts and without trade unions. So we get back to the master-servant relationship – a David and Goliath relationship, except David cannot win, as the employer holds all the power.

For a long time, the common interests of workers were secured by the Award system which covered every worker in a particular industry. Then came enterprise agreements as replacements for awards. Unfortunately many unions accepted this idea when they were first introduced but enterprise agreements were a step towards the breaking down of the unity of workers. Many did not see it at the time.

Some unions have attempted to overcome the disunity caused by enterprise agreements by “pattern bargaining” i.e. attempting to negotiate a series of enterprise agreements at the same time and with the same conditions applying across a sector or industry. Part of the ABCC’s intent is to ban pattern bargaining. The reasons are simple. The objective is to eliminate the possibility of workers from a number of enterprises joining together in a common campaign and struggle.

Having implemented the enterprise agreements system, the next steps in breaking down the solidarity of workers were the breaking down of awards and the introduction of individual contracts.

Another way to cause disunity within the trade union movement is to pose the leadership against the membership as though there were an inevitable contradiction between leadership and membership.

There is ceaseless propaganda coming from the mass media and from conservative politicians promoting “individualism” as the way to go. We hear about the merits of “self” and “individual enterprise”. We hear about “entrepreneurs” who supposedly get things done.

It is impossible to get away from the reality that society is a community with each depending on others. Each worker depends on other workers. The capitalist class cannot do without the working people but the working people can do without the capitalist entrepreneur.

To achieve that latter, desirable situation the collectives of the working people must become much stronger than at present and this will be assisted by the defeat of the ABCC in the first place.

Next article – Public sector workers’ strong stand

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