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Issue #1796      September 27, 2017

Worker solidarity – Part 2

Building the movement

Warren Smith is the assistant national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). Vinnie Molina is the WA president of the CFMEU Construction Division and national president of the CPA. Last week in the first part of this two-part interview they spoke to Ana Pha from the Guardian about the unfair Fair Work Act and how it is used against workers and trade unions.

This week, in Part II, they continue their discussion on the anti-union legislation, the need for its repeal and for broad unity between trade unions and the community in the struggle ahead.

Warren Smith: Vinnie explained the massive fines and the MUA has been hit with fines and damages too. Every union that fights is confronted with legal issues arising from industrial laws which are designed to prevent workers fighting. This is where we need to build an opposition movement, with the working class at its core, that brings together the broadest trade union unity around questions of what a new act should look like.

If the less than 20 percent of unionised workers in this country are struggling to get a fair go, what chance have you got if you are not in a union. The Act and the pitifully poor National Employment Standards are all you’ve got. Eighty percent of workers in this country have nothing.

Workers are fighting back and that number is growing as conditions are forcing people into struggle. Trade unions more and more need to break the shackles of purely economic demands and struggles and embrace broader community issues that ultimately impact on each and every worker. We need to transform the view in the trade union movement to embrace the community. Embracing community and social struggles is the way to turn the tide on falling union density.

Broadest unity

Anna Pha: Warren, could you elaborate on some of the work the MUA is doing with the community and the consequences of that?

WS: The MUA and the Seamen’s Union of Australia and Waterside Workers’ Federation before it, have long held the position that, if an issue in the community affects the members, then it is an issue for the union.

That means an issue such as public housing is an issue for the union. The union for example has taken solidarity action with the people of Millers Point in Sydney who are being thrown on the street by the conservative government of New South Wales.

The MUA has been there in alliance with the residents, standing in front of their houses to prevent them being evicted. As a consequence, when maritime workers are in struggle, without question you will see the people from Millers Point standing on picket lines in support.

A comment was made the other day on a picket line by one of the leaders of the Millers Point housing movement that “you were good enough to stand here with us when we were getting thrown out of our houses, we are standing here while you are getting thrown out of your jobs.”

And that is the sort of solidarity that we need across the community. The union’s actions are not limited to housing but all social justice questions; peace, health, education struggles. Unions can’t be separate from the broader community, they must be part of community struggles and stand up for the disadvantaged in society and not just our own narrow economic interests.

AP: Vinnie, I believe the situation has changed in the construction industry in regard to community action under the new ABCC legislation?

Vinnie Molina: Yes, that is correct. The community cannot be involved in the same way any more. Community pickets are illegal outside construction sites.

There is essentially no right to strike in this country and it is going to get worse under the 2016 Building Code.

The Building Code prohibits non-working job delegates and shop stewards, it restricts the number of apprentices, the number of hours workers can work, no limits to casuals or labour hire; the number of women in the workplace, it bans union flags and stickers or anything that mentions unions.

Companies with a non-compliant enterprise agreement had until September 1 to vary or terminate their agreements. Government contracts will only be awarded with companies whose agreements are compliant with the New Building Code 2016.

ABCC

WS: The ABCC is not just a CFMEU question. All construction unions come under the hammer – the AMWU, the AWU, CEPU, the ETU, and so on – anyone involved in that area is affected. It also affects the maritime industry. Strictly speaking a seafarer on a ship carrying building products like cement can come under these extreme, anti-democratic laws.

By the same token building materials in a container could affect a wharfie. This has yet to occur but there is the scope for expansion of these repugnant laws to all trade unionists.

That’s no doubt a conservative dream, extending these neo-fascist laws, these totally anti-democratic laws to all of the working class.

It’s an existential battle ultimately for the future of the rights of the working class movement to be able to organise in the way they have done in this country historically.

VM: Warren mentioned something very important about union density, which is at historically low levels – 11.5 percent in WA for example. We need to start rebuilding solidarity among workers and among the community. We need to get rid of the secondary boycott provisions [of the Competition and Consumer Act – formerly the Trades Practices Act – ED].

[The maximum penalty under the Secondary Boycott provisions of the Competition and Consumer Act, which applies to trade union pickets that block the entry of another company, is currently $750,000. The government has legislation before Parliament to increase the maximum penalty to whichever is the highest of: $10 million; three times the total value of the benefit obtained from the secondary boycott; or 10 percent of the annual turnover of the corporation for the 12 months leading up to the secondary boycott occurring – Ed.]

That really restricts the ability of workers to help each other in solidarity to achieve their industrial goals. We need to work together with the community to build strong unions.

Centralised system

AP: What about the question of enterprise bargaining – the outlawing of bargaining across industries?

WS: Ultimately the movement must have a strategic plan to move back to industry forms of bargaining. That may not be the award because things will change and we are in a new historical period, where our historic awards have been stripped and had the guts ripped out of them, notwithstanding the minimal incremental increases to awards over the last two decades. Awards are symbolic of the industry approach but the system has been dismantled compared to its former nature.

We need to fight and struggle for industry-wide outcomes, to not be segregated into little enterprise silos designed to curtail the broader class power of the trade union movement organising across industries.

VM: A centralised system is a necessity; we need to go back to a centralised system. Unions need to start a campaign to return to and strengthen the award system or another centralised system. With the recent examples of Aurizon Rail in Queensland and the Collie miners, the employer was able to use Fair Work to terminate agreements and drop workers’ pay-packets by more than 40 percent. The termination of their enterprise agreements took workers back to the award.

Enterprise bargaining was good for a while, particularly for strong industrial unions. They managed to achieve massive increases in wages for workers they represented. At the same time, the government was stripping back the awards to minimum conditions and allowable matters.

Now we are in a process where people are being sent back to the award, and back to the award that hasn’t moved or is almost irrelevant for workers today. This is another example of a broken system, or as Sally McManus says: the rules are broken.

Regression

WS: That’s why I think awards might not be the solution because they are ossified documents that have gone on a journey with enterprise employment in a secondary fashion. All the economic outcomes and efforts for the workers have been transferred into enterprise agreements – which has been the primary form of collective bargaining.

Awards sit as an underpinning document subject to constant four-yearly reviews which then become a vehicle for attack and reduction in conditions. We’ve seen that with penalty rates. We’re also seeing that awards don’t cater for the advent of new technology.

Unions are required to fight during award modernisation (the complete oxymoron) for recognition of automated forms of machinery because they didn’t exist back then. The trend however with awards is to strip them not develop them.

We made a submission to recognise various forms of automated waterfront machinery and the bosses came back and said, “good, we will have a 38-hour week, we’ll get rid of public holidays and will reduce penalty rates.”

That was their submission.

Future fight

AP: The Howard government gutted awards removing a number of “non-allowable matters” and just leaving a few allowable matters. Employment Minister Michaelia Cash wants to do a little bit more gutting for the employers.

WS: It’s absolutely on. It’s part of the whole ruling class agenda to move away from awards or broader industry collective arrangements. Its aim is to have individual arrangements replace the collective.

We need to change our focus. We do a lot of creative organising in the union movement. The movement is growing and the ACTU and many unions are embracing and adopting different forms of community and strategic organising.

That’s a good thing. It also is a reflection of our weakness because we haven’t got the power or capacity to hurt bosses industrially with the industrial power that workers have traditionally had through withdrawing their labour. So we run corporate leverage campaigns, make their name mud campaigns which are completely legitimate and positive campaigns which arise because of the objective conditions

But ultimately if we do not address the fundamentals and tackle the right to strike the movement will find great difficulties.

Corporate community campaigning backed up with the right to strike would open up huge opportunities for the working class.

We need to fight for the right to fight!

Next article – Some forgotten anniversaries

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