Unions are facing a major challenge from the coming offensive

Photo by Scott McNsughton: ACTU secretary Sally McManus fires a warning shot

The Australian union movement faces a serious challenge. The loss of membership through the loss of traditional industries and the rise of insecure work, the ongoing economic downturn, and the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic are making it tough.

With the backing of the Morrison government, major employers are pushing, to use the situation for labour market reform. Their version of it. A means towards this is to tame the union movement.

In this context, labour market reform means lower wages, downgrading working conditions, and extending the casualisation of work.

The aim is to achieve this through the existing working groups. Their brief is this. They are charged with finding ways yo to cut out the legal right for casual employees to claim paid leave, promote individual contracts between employers and workers, make it harder to win wage increases, ensure industrial relations law even more pro-employer, and extend the use of greenfield agreements.

Attorney General Christian Porter is overseeing these groups.

Photo by Gary Ramage: Attorney-General Christian Porter

During the September sitting of the federal parliament, the Morrison government will move to cut the JobKeeper and Jobseeker rates.

The reports from the working groups are due at the is time.

These working groups are said to be to reach consensus among representatives of employers, unions and government. They are really a means to lock the unions into surrender.

Unions have seen that they must participate in the process and raise their own demands. They are not calling the shots and are wary. They are firing their own shots, led by The Australian council of trade Unions (ACTU), which has threatened a WorkChoices style campaign, to bring down a major offensive against the unions.

This is a good time to revisit what happened during WorkChoices.

John Howard and his government had made a move to bring in measures, similar to Morrison government’s. Like Howard did, the Morrison government argues that the measures are necessary to fix the economy.

Former Prime Minister John Howard

Unions answered Howard with united opposition and a series of mega marches around the country. The backbone was the day to day organising, in workplaces and in local communities.

In Melbourne, local groups were built. They brought together unionists and may others. Melbourne proved to be the epicentre of the national battle.

A new organisation called Union Solidarity played an important role. Drawn from unionists and the community sector, it contributed to the organisation of local groups, and proved to be crucial to the widespread distribution of material produced by the Trades Hall Council.

Union Solidarity played a pivotal role in efforts to overcome coercive industrial laws through the use of community assemblies. Union officials and members were protected, and better placed to campaign against WorkChoices.

Scene at the Union Solidarity community assembly at Boeing in Melbourne

Unions would be acting wisely to heed the lessons of the Howard era.

The recent Change the Rules campaign had a lot going for it. despite this, Lobbying of parliamentarians and the aim of changing the government failed.

There had not been enough attention put to union member day to day involvment and building a union/community alliance.

This remains the weak spot. The Coronavirus restrictions make working and organising at the base more difficult. Unions must pay even greater attention to finding ways around this, and this requires some thange in thinking.

An ACTU advertising campaign can help. slthough this needs the commitment of the resources needed to build the base to reach its potential.

Local communities know that if jobs are going to suffer, their neighbourhoods will suffer. They often look towards the unions as an organised support for their interests. Unions need local communities to win broad public support. The WorkChoices battle showed all of this.

Frontline and other workers are wearing the brunt of the pandemic and suffer higher infection rates. The ACTU is calling for support for these workers and says waking them pay will not fix the economy.

A petition is now circulating. If you want to give your support, you can add your name via the link.

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