Federal

Jan 29, 2018

If the rail workers can’t do it, when can we actually strike?

The defusing of Sydney rail-worker's threat to strike has raised once again the question of how free our right to strike really is.

Charlie Lewis — Journalist

Charlie Lewis

Journalist

Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus

The most immediate impact of the decision last Thursday by the Fair Work Commission to suspend all industrial action relating to negotiations between the New South Wales government and Rail, Bus and Tram Union for six weeks, was that a 24-hour strike meant for today cannot go ahead. More broadly, according the Australian Council of Trade Unions, it has the effect of demonstrating that the right to strike in Australia is "nearly dead". How true is that?

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33 comments

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33 thoughts on “If the rail workers can’t do it, when can we actually strike?

  1. Draco Houston

    I had no idea how bad the Fair Work Act really is. You’d think the unions would have had some idea about this sort of thing while the ALP drafted it, though. Did they not notice?

    1. N.A.F.

      The legislation was actually drafted by a tripartite group – as I recall the group consistent of a handful of reps from the ACTU, AiG (then regarded as the reasonable employer group) and Dept of Employment and Workplace Relations (the same DEWR who had drafted Workchoices a couple of years earlier). If I’m not mistaken they physically removed to some kind of writer’s retreat at an undisclosed location and agreed not to discuss the bill until it was tabled. The labour movement should have screamed blue murder when the bill emerged, but everyone was so euphoric at the time…

  2. Justin Thyme

    Is oppression of the workforce the best way to improve productivity?
    I recall reading of Ford workers in the US placing metal washers inside sealed body panels so that the rattle could only be found by cutting open the side of the car.

    1. zut alors

      A superb example of non-violent protest.

      1. AR

        Would Dr Scholls be today’s equivalent of le sabot?

      2. Sue Miills

        Seconded. Creative, matches the fairness on offer

  3. kyle Hargraves

    The utter irresponsibility of the trade union movement during the 60s & 70s has had repercussions. A major problem was the “excessive” number of unions that existed in countries such as Oz & NZ and indeed the UK. Poaching of members was not uncommon. The more sensible approach was adopted by Europe where the unions were (and still are) large and industry-based.

    Now, with “capital” having designed a system were events of the 70s can never reappear we have a near-Orwellian result. Having made that point the paragraph “Oversight” contains a good deal of FUD. There are numerous avenues for employees to object and correct such conditions.

  4. old greybearded one

    So the only bargaining tool a worker has, his work, he cannot use. F*****g brilliant. Maggie Thatcher rules.

  5. AR

    The Silver Bodgie showed Thatcher how to do it with the Accord in the 80s, workers’ conditions have gone downhill ever since.
    The ALP long ago change the words of the old standard to the “the Working Class can kiss me arse, I got the Foreman’s job at last

  6. michael dwyer

    Can’t say that I have any sympathy for Sydney rail workers. When I lived there in the late 60s and early 70s, there were frequent wildcat strikes called at around 2.00pm, meaning that workers had to knock off early to get home.
    I have even less sympathy for the Victorian power unions whose actions in the 60s and 70s caused all sorts of chaos, and a windfall for suppliers of generators. The antics employed on the construction of Loy Yang cost Victorian taxpayers plenty.

    1. N.A.F.

      45 years seems a bit long to hold a grudge. One suspects those who made you leave work early have since retired, but sins of the father and all that.
      Perhaps you’ll find it in your heart to forgive rail workers on the 50th anniversary of the last time you were inconvenienced?

    2. Draco Houston

      Do you think the government ‘owns’ these workers or something? Welcome to modern Capitalism. If you want serfs you will just have to go find a time machine.

  7. N.A.F.

    Thanks for the article – this is an important topic that warrants much more coverage than it gets. A correction though. It is not corect to say that strike action is unlawful if a workforce is covered by an award. There are many rules and regulations under the Fair Work Act, all designed to stultify the “right” to strike, but that is not one of them.

  8. kyle Hargraves

    For AR and Old Greybearded One.
    “The Silver Bodgie showed Thatcher how to do it with the Accord in the 80s”
    The proceedings of Thatcher and Hawke are not altogether analogous. The conservatives intended to reduce secondary industry and increase primary industry during the 80s. Her removal of infrastructure, thus trashing large scale secondary industry, (in favour of tertiary industry) remains evident today.

    Hawke (and his mates – not omitting Sir Peter Abeles) really did want an accord. [There was no accord in the UK – or anything that looked like an accord] To that end, and by way of an example, the pilots (in 1989) were afforded zero tolerance in terms of threating the accord. The PR was masterful.

    > workers’ conditions have gone downhill ever since.

    Probably not “downhill” but neither “uphill” either. It is obvious that the cream has not been distributed within the western world generally – much less evenly; compare changes in (median CEO salary) / (median X collar salary) over the last 29 years.

    The Left has been manipulated by the Right at every turn and mainly because the Left
    has not come close to appreciating the extent to which the game has changed. Now we
    have globalisation where entire functions can be out-sourced internationally –
    at third world prices.

    I have the strongest interest in ensuring that the surplus value to the capitalists remains at a minimum but the task is not easy. The methods of the new high tech companies are a case in point. However, its all about negotiation nowadays. Threating strike action is so mid 19-20 century and displays, frankly, a side of weakness. Bedsides given the existence of 5th generation robots man-less (women-less?) trains could well be in operation by 2030 (viz., 12 years).

    1. kyle Hargraves

      sorry : “reduce secondary industry and increase primary industry ” read : reduce secondary industry and increase tertiary industry

    2. kyle Hargraves

      sorry : ” increase primary industry ” read : reduce secondary industry and increase tertiary industry

    3. Draco Houston

      I wish the whole left were large galactic brained enough to get the death of wage labour, but how can you come to the conclusion that strikes are an act of weakness? The lack of effective strikes is a sign of weakness, all the negotiations undertaken by unions have resulted in the same trend we see everywhere: stagnant or falling real wages and insecure jobs with crap unemployment benefits.

      How can a dead class negotiate for anything? Recent history suggests that they can’t. Their entire way of life is coming to an end and they have no leverage.

      1. kyle Hargraves

        some excellent points Draco but let’s take it a bit at a time.

        “but how can you come to the conclusion that strikes are an act of weakness?”
        Consider the 19th century and indeed the Great Depression of the 20th century. It was not uncommon for demonstrating strikers to be assaulted by policemen with batons or to have dogs set upon them. The history is quite clear on this point. Indeed strikers where shot at on various occasions during the 30s in the USA – often (not surprisingly) resulting in fatalities. To strike then required very great courage.

        Not one dammed politician or clergyman or philanthropist improved the conditions of the working class. Some of that group may have been sympathetic but the Labour Movement achieved that for itself. The Reform Acts, although resisted, were for the benefit of the factories and (to the astonishment of the owners) productivity actually increased! On the eve of 2020 (so to write) the environment has changed utterly.

        By “weakness” I mean the inability to engage “capital” on its own terms. Your concluding remarks reinforce this very characteristic of Labour. The labour movement, like the Greens takes its imperatives from the anticipated reaction of the noddy observers. It doesn’t delineate fact and it doesn’t present a neutral albeit compelling argument sustained
        by the facts. More could be written but I’ll leave it there (on this point) unless you are interested.

        > stagnant or falling real wages and insecure jobs with crap unemployment benefits.

        various contributors to these pages have gone to some trouble to explain the phenomena that is responsible for these conditions. Taken as a whole they are interrelated and are not a function of any particular economic ill or event (such as immigration or whatever).

        > How can a dead class negotiate for anything? Recent history suggests that they can’t.

        rather my point. The Right has “trumped” the Left unambiguously in this respect. Pity. However, for what you may deem it to be worth, over the years I have attended both Nat, Lib and Labour branch meetings. Contracting the “head honcho” at a Labour
        branch meeting yields the same result at the end of the meeting : to wit “thanks for your ‘input’ but perhaps you might be more interested in another branch: xyz for example”. Its seldom the case at a Lib branch meeting (although I write of quite some years ago) and the reaction is (or was) often one of disbelief at at a Nat branch meeting. The Office Bearers get to call the shots and they don’t give a damn about the noises from the penny stalls.

        “Their entire way of life is coming to an end and they have no leverage.”
        Marx made the same point. Although choices may appear free the conditions under which the choices are made have been determined.

        1. Draco Houston

          The elaboration on what you meant by weakness makes sense. I was thinking of what indicates unions are strong or weak, rather than the strength or weakness of unionism. I agree with your assessment.

  9. Neil Mudford

    Yes, the Fair Work Act permits you to strike under quite restrictive conditions as this news article demonstrates. For example, you must provide your employer with the details of your proposed action well in advance. This allows your employer plenty of time to take preventative action. For example the employer can train other staff to carry out the work you would have done while you are on strike. Also, the action must not significantly inconvenience members of the public. Meanwhile, even if you are only banning a few aspects of your work, the employer can nevertheless withhold all of your pay. So, the upshot is, you can take industrial action provided it is ineffective. When you run out of money and/or max out your credit card but still need to feed the family, you may be allowed to return to work provided the employer has not ‘locked you out’. This way, you can achieve precisely nothing except to impoverish yourself. Additionally, the strike action can only legally be taken in relation to enterprise bargaining. Once the enterprise agreement is signed and registered, your employer can violate the agreement and you may not legally take industrial action to remedy this. So do you still think you have the right to protest and take action to press your case for fair wages and conditions? You don’t.

    1. kyle Hargraves

      The #1 objective of capitalism is keep the entire sorry mess afloat (at ALL costs). Marx
      failed to anticipate the capacity of capitalism to reform itself in the nick of time when
      conditions became particularly adverse. To this end the imperatives of the Hegelian dialectic were never realised; much less experienced. Such is NOT a failure of Marxist theory but merely an instance where one aspect of the theory could not (ever) be encountered.

      As to the current state of affairs (in Australia) risks to the commercial system have to be minimised or, preferably, eliminated – given high business and consumer debt etc. We can’t have financial fractures appearing via secondary boycotts and wild-cat strikes can we? Besides, what about the “innocent bystanders”?

      “Once the enterprise agreement is signed and registered, your employer can violate the agreement and you may not legally take industrial action to remedy this.”

      but alternative options are possible although they are not “overnight” solutions – but they will win in the long term; yet the employee may find another job prior to resolution.

      “So do you still think you have the right to protest and take action to press your case for fair wages and conditions? You don’t.”

      Actually, one does; its just that the methods have changed. Keep in mind that the ACTU was as complicit in this “new way of thinking” as was any other party. There was “consultation” of sorts.

      In any event such “bickering” amounts to just that; a meaningless atmospheric disturbance. The REAL question is “what will the employment environment (in the widest sense of the word) look like in 30 years. Frankly I can’t imagine but I
      do think that most service occupations will be undertaken as “work-from-home” (in ones tee-shirt or pajamas in winter) {no costs or ancillary costs for office space} or at work with Bring Your Own Device (BYOD – its a real and increasingly frequent method of employment). Then, of course, there are robots who can assess insurance claims as I type this note.

      The implications for worker’s comp., over the long term, are intriguing. Last conjecture: in 30 years employees will be deemed de-facto self employed even if they obtain most of their income from a single source. There may be implications for Public Sector employees but “capital” will have a decade or two to “solve” the details. I don’t say that such a state of affairs is “good” but I do suggest that such a state of affairs is inevitable.
      Unionism ? Is the labour movement even approximately equal to the (future) task? Its a very great pity that the labour movement, at least from my reading, hasn’t even considered the “future of work”. Its either in the “too-hard” tray or not on the “horizon” of senior Labor Party people.

      1. Dog's Breakfast

        “Marx failed to anticipate the capacity of capitalism to reform itself in the nick of time when conditions became particularly adverse.”

        By George, that is the most hopeful and naive statement I have read in a long time. Because capitalism has avoided revolutions in the past, they will always reform themselves in the nick of time.

        As they say, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Holy hell Kyle, we must be getting close now. Labour is tied up in knots and capital is stealing the furniture. How can you be so sanguine?

  10. Arky

    The trouble is that transport strikes are so counterproductive. Back in the 80s/90s every time there was a transport strike I could just feel public support for all unions draining away. The point of a strike is to put pressure on the bosses to make concessions to get the workforce back to work, but I don’t think the bosses get blamed for transport strikes, the union does, every strike or threatened strike hurts the unions more than the company.

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