Do we have the right to strike?

In January, the Fair Work Commission banned the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) from holding a 24-hour train strike in Sydney, as part of negotiations to win a 6% wage rise per year. This was despite the union following all of the Fair Work Commission’s many rules including giving well over three days’ notice, holding votes which showed workers wanted to strike, and waiting for the old pay agreement to end. The reasoning that the Commission gave was that the strike would threaten “to endanger the welfare of part of the population” and “cause significant damage to the Australian economy or an important part of it.”

This ban, and the reasons for it, are disastrous precedents in a trend of ever increasing limitations on the right to strike. In fact, according to the International Labor Organisation, Australia has the most draconian industrial relations legislation of countries in the OECD. A strike is when the workers in a certain workplace refuse to do all or part of their job for a certain amount of time, in order to put pressure on the employer to improve their pay or conditions. What makes a strike an effective tactic is that it puts pressure on the employer where they feel it most: their profits. If a workplace stops producing goods or services, then the employer loses money. What can make strikes even more powerful, and give workers even more bargaining power, is if their refusal to work can have flow on effects to other employers or parts of the economy. In Sydney, if the train drivers had refused to drive the trains for a day, this would not only mean that Sydney Trains would lose money from lost fairs, but also that flow on effects would be felt across the whole economy, putting further pressure on Sydney Trains management to pay what the workers want. The entire logic of the strike — what makes it an effective industrial tactic — was that it was going to disrupt the NSW economy. This is what makes the Commission’s decision so important. The strike was banned because it was going to be effective.

In response to the ban, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Secretary, Sally McManus said that “the basic right to strike in Australia is very nearly dead”. This is significant because the right to strike ensures that workers have some say in how they’re treated. This is one of the fundamental differences between wage labour and slave labour: if you’re a worker, you have the right to stop working if you don’t feel safe, don’t like the conditions, or if you want to work elsewhere. However, under Australia’s current industrial relation laws, workers can be fined thousands of dollars just for not going to work. Without this democratic right, we wouldn’t have any of the most basic freedoms or entitlements that we have today. For example, the right to get compensation for injuries at work was won in 1971 with a three-week construction workers strike, the right to long service leave was won in 1951 by a coal miners’ strike and the Victorian nurses strike in 1986 won nurse-to-patient ratios to ensure that nurses weren’t overworked and that people can receive proper care. And that’s to name just a few.

Not only have strikes won these important rights, but they are important in keeping wages up in any industry. There’s a massive statistical connection between number of strikes in a year and wage levels. Given the incentive for the boss to maximise profit and drive down wages, without a consistent, collective fight, workers will lose out in the long term.

This is because the rules about when workers can go on strike, how long for, and how much notice they need to give employers have been becoming more and more restrictive. Under the Fair Work Commission’s rules, almost all of the most significant strikes in history would be illegal, and the fines placed on those that do not comply could cripple a union.

For example, in 2014, a Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) delegate accused a construction company of having inadequate safety procedures during a massive fire that broke out on a construction site. When the delegate was sacked, 1,000 workers walked off the job, demanding better safety conditions and that the delegate be reemployed. However, under the Fair Work Commission’s rules, this strike was illegal, and last year it fined the CFMEU over $2.4 Million.

Another example from last year, a CFMEU health and safety representative delayed pouring a batch of concrete for what the company says was “about 10 minutes” and the CFMEU was fined $242,000.

These heavy fines don’t apply to employers. In 2014, a Melbourne-based construction company called Grocon was fined after a wall on a work site collapsed due to being not properly reinforced and having a billboard placed on top of it, which was in violation of safety regulations. That wall collapsed, killed three people and Grocon was fined only $250,000. Only months earlier the CFMEU was fined $1.25 million over a four-day protest about safety standards at that same work site.

It’s clear that Sally McManus is right when she says the laws are broken, and they need to be changed. However, a more pressing question is how we go about changing them. The strategy coming out of the ACTU is getting Labor elected. However, we shouldn’t forget that Labor is responsible for many of these laws, including the one that allowed the Fair Work Commission to ban the Sydney railway strike.

We can’t wait for these laws to be changed to take industrial action, because industrial action is the most important tactic workers and unions have for changing the laws. This strategy was used to break the Penal Powers, the rabid anti-union laws that were in place in the 60s. The Penal Powers ended after a general strike was called in 1969 to free union leader Clarrie O’Shea, who was imprisoned for refusing to pay fines for unprotected industrial action. The general strike shut down the country and forced the state to release O’Shea. This made the Penal Powers unenforceable, strike rates increased and wages along with them. The early 70’s saw a massive increase in working class confidence to demand more from their employers and demand a better kind of society to live in.

For those of us who support the right to strike, this history is important to remember. Not because it would be possible to call an effective general strike in this industrial situation, but because it shows the power that industrial action has, and points towards a general strategy that we should be adopting. We should be adopting a strategy of confronting anti-union laws and increasing union membership by proving that unions are willing to put up a fight.