Australian unions mobilize to transform working conditions

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A shut-down of Melbourne on May 9 demonstrated the strength of organized labour and the support for its demands.

Over 100,000 workers took to the streets of Melbourne seeking better working conditions. Photo: Joe Armao/The Age

By Musawenkosi Cabe / The Dawn News / May 14, 2018

When over 100,00 workers took over the streets of Melbourne on May 9, it marked a new stage in the struggle by Australian workers who are seeking a fundamental shift in the nature of their employment. The massive march was part of the ‘Change the Rules’ campaign, which has been on for nearly a month.

The secretary of Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Sally McManus, has described the labour system in Australia as a national crisis that workers must constantly challenge. The demands of the ACTU, which has been organizing an extensive awareness and education drive as part of the campaign, focus extensively on delivering workers the right to unionize across sectors, job security, an end to the exploitation of workers in the name of the gig economy and a heightened minimum wage. The protesting workers are also demanding that the Jobs Ombudsman – the Fair Work Commission – be politically independent and its powers be strengthened.

The rally was marked by a widespread solidarity among workers. The protesters converged near a courthouse where two office-bearers of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union were appearing in a hearing on charges of ‘blackmailing’ industry executives. Construction workers and Port of Melbourne employees, who left work to take part, were among the key participants in the march.

The ACTU’s campaign, accompanied by extensive documentation of deteriorating labour conditions in Australia, focussed on the failure of 30 years of trickle-down policies, which have led to big business gaining too much power, and growing inequality as wages have “flatlined”. The unions have also focussed on how unregulated hiring practices have led to immigrant workers being exploited by being paid low wages, which local workers have been struggling for employment.

The ACTU notes that the minimum wage has only risen by 3.5% in the last decade and has sought 60% of the median wage as the minimum wage. In the State of Victoria, unions have been seeking a hike of $50 a week to the minimum wage, while the government has been willing to concede only a $27 hike. McManus, argued that “at the moment, profits are going up and so is productivity. But wages aren’t.”

Another key demand has been the provision of paid family and domestic violence leave to enable victims to stand on their own feet.

A key to the implementation of many of these demands is the proper functioning of the Fair Work Commission. Workers have alleged that currently, there is backlog of unresolved cases and the ombudsman is politically compromised. Unions say there is a need for a commission that will deal with ‘wage theft’ without political interference. Workers have further demanded that the commission be impartial in adjudicating cases and not be biased towards employers – in cases of gross violation of workers rights.

The mass protests were a reminder of the Your Rights at Work campaign, which played a key role in the fall of Liberal Party Prime Minister John Howard in 2007. Today, another Prime Minister from the same party, Malcolm Turnbull, faces a similar challenge from unions, who are clearly in for the long haul.

Solidarity from SAFTU

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) sent a message of solidarity to ACTU after the shut-down of Melbourne city. Two weeks ago, SAFTU had called for a similar strike, demanding an increase in the national minimum wage. Similarly, both the ACTU and SAFTU have focused on the threat of casualization and outsourcing, which has impacted the bargaining power of workers.

In its statement, SAFTU noted that the struggle against capital and exploitation of workers was international and that workers of the world needed to unite in pursuit of the struggle against capitalism.

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