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Issue #1530      7 December 2011

Dare to struggle, dare to win

“Should workers struggle?” was the title given to a meeting of trade union and Communist Party activists in Sydney on Saturday November 26. The meeting was chaired by CPA Sydney District Secretary Tony Oldfield. Needless to say there was no disagreement about the need to struggle amongst the speakers and others contributing from the floor. Nor was there any disagreement with the need for a unified trade union position and the importance of working with the wider community in waging the struggle.

Tony Oldfield, Malcolm Tulloch, Warren Smith.

South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris spoke about the 2008 global financial crisis and the need now to struggle for the best possible deal. He pointed to the overseas movements, in particular Greece, saying “nothing’s happened in Greece that can’t happen here.”

He discussed social democracy and its pursuit of more free trade agreements, more tariff reductions and the importance of fighting for jobs. He cited the example of Qantas and international competition which is “after a race to the top, not to the bottom” and expressed support for state regulation.

Malcolm Tulloch, state secretary CFMEU Construction and General Division, reminded everyone that the “history of the working classes has always been one of struggle. There is no condition or entitlement that we have today that hasn’t been hard fought for.”

He pointed to the obscenity of “corporation after corporation in Australia hitting record profits,” and gave examples. “BHP Billiton made $23.6 BILLION dollars profit – a corporate record in Australian history.

“In Australia unions are fighting a concerted bid by business to drive wages down.” Employers are using illegal immigrants, turning workers into small businesses through the use of Australian Business Numbers and sham contracting. “Not only does this reduce the cost to business, it means ordinary workers are carrying the risks of injury and sickness and safety,” Mal said.

Mal also raised the important question of international solidarity. “We need to seek out our brothers and sisters in developing nations and stand by them as they create labour movements.

“Rather than a race to the bottom, we should be demanding first-world conditions, safety and pay for third-world workers. Not only will this help pull those nations’ economies forward, it will negate the need to move jobs off-shore.”

Warren Smith, national assistant secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, said “Capitalism has failed… It cannot deliver in the interests of working people.”

He spoke about the deep economic crisis of capitalism. “It’s not our crisis, we shouldn’t have to pay.” He raised the question of seafarers, saying we need to differentiate between class and race.

“Social democracy has failed, social democracy is dead”, Warren said, pointing to the more open dictatorship of corporations. The corporations are waging an offensive aimed at the Labor government and Fair Work Act.

Warren talked about a number of struggles: the Patrick dispute; the Chevron struggle; and the decapitation of a worker at Baiada Poultry in Victoria and the company’s callous response. He highlighted the brutal repression of protestors in the Occupy Movement.

He proposed a trade union “coalition for 99 percent” and the merging with community movements, emphasising the importance of community involvement in trade union struggles.

David Matters, secretary of the Bus Division of the Rail, Bus and Tram Union in Queensland added a lighter note to proceedings with his story of a struggle waged by bus drivers, ostensibly around the size of the water bottle that was provided. They shut down the bus system in Brisbane demanding a larger water bottle so that they did not dehydrate in the extreme heat.

The real struggle was over the need for air conditioning on the buses. And they won it, with enormous support from the public who were sick of travelling in hot, sweaty conditions.

David also talked about the Accord between the Hawke Labor government and the ACTU with its provisions to restrain wages in return for trade-offs. It was a period when the trade unions traded off past gains.

Elizabeth El Sayer, an organiser with the Finance Sector Union, said, “I feel disappointed to see reminiscences of the so-called ‘WorkChoices’, or should I better say ‘No Choices’, introduced by the Howard government that are still in place. WorkChoices was a clear ideological attack against the working class of this country and it still affects workers from various industries. For example the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, amongst other employers, did not hesitate to introduce AWAs from the beginning. Even though AWAs are illegal now, CBA workers are employed under five different types of contracts.”

Elizabeth said finance sector workers are low paid and experience job insecurity, harassment, bullying, pressure, and micromanagement and subjected to an unfair bonus system. National Australia Bank, for example, declared a major restructure after announcing a rise in their earnings of 11.5 percent which adds up to a $5.5 billion profit. This restructure will result in more than 500 workers having to reapply for their jobs and 135 disappearing from the network.

“The only way for workers to struggle ... is to struggle in unity.”

Anna Pha, speaking on behalf of the CPA, pointed to an offensive by employers to take back past gains won by the trade union movement and their demands for anti-union changes to the Fair Work Act.

The attacks on workers are not confined to the workplace. “The public health system and public education are being privatised by stealth. Social welfare is being cut back, public housing is disappearing, while the government continues to cut corporate taxes and fund a massive military budget of $80 million a day.”

Anna took up the ideological and political aspects of the class struggle.

Workers are constantly exposed to a barrage of employer myths and propaganda. For example, “the myth that one worker’s wage rise is another worker’s job, that wage rises cause inflation. Or the class struggle is dead or dated, conflict is bad, hurts workers… Or trade unions are third parties, interfering in employer-employee relations.”

A number of issues were raised in questions and discussion from the floor that followed. These included the future of the Your Rights @ Work committees and other models for community involvement, and the need to argue for socialism to have a vision.  

Next article – A view to 2050 – Dr Tim Flannery on population, climate and Australia

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