Day of action to defend the right to strike
AROUND the world, the right to strike is under attack.
Employer groups are ganging up to try to kill off one of the most fundamental rights available to workers: that of withdrawing their labour.
They want a global workforce that is powerless and passive. They intend to change the balance of power in the workplace and in society for the worse, and forever.
But unions are fighting back. Today, the International Trade Union Confederation has declared a global day of action to defend the right to strike.
A bulwark against dictatorship
The right to strike is a powerful and fundamental foundation of democracy and economic justice.
When employers refuse to negotiate with workers, when populations rise up against dictatorship, people can withdraw their labour to balance the dominance and privilege of the few with the power of collective action. Time and again this fundamental right is all that stands in the way of injustice and exploitation.
Virtually every country in the world recognises that workers have the right to take strike action. Some 90 countries have it enshrined in their national constitutions, putting the rights established over many decades at the International Labour Organisation into law.
In Australia there is a limited right to strike as industrial action during a recognised bargaining period is protected by the Fair Work Act.
However, the reality is the Fair Work Act, introduced by a Labor government, retains most of the more onerous restrictions on the right to strike that existed under WorkChoices.
For instance, any workers who attend the 4 March rallies around Australia without the permission of their employer are technically engaging in illegal strike action.
And outside of official bargaining periods, strike action is unlawful. Meanwhile, employers enjoy virtually unfettered powers to lock out workers.
Still, we are better off than many countries.
Globally, employers – including those in Australia – are trying to turn back the clock on over 50 years of international legal recognition of the right to strike, starting at the ILO and moving from there to pick apart national laws that guarantee this most fundamental of legal rights.
Two years ago at the ILO they explicitly rejected the right to strike.
The ILO’s rules say that when there is a dispute between employers, workers or governments that cannot be settled at the ILO itself, then the International Court of Justice (ICJ) must be asked to rule on the dispute. But the employer groups are trying to block the rule of law by opposing the ICJ.
Government intervention would force employer groups to follow the ILO Constitution and take the case to the ICJ.
Here are five key reasons why we need the right to strike:
1. Striking is a last resort but sometimes the only tool for workers to protect themselves.
2. To avoid being at the complete mercy of employers.
3. To give more of a balance between worker and employer power.
4. Without it, more and more governments will ban industrial action and punish people who dare to strike.
5. Most strikes are over pay and better working conditions. Without the threat of strike action, corporations will be able to make bigger profits, while working conditions will get worse.
Source: IndustriALL Global Union
But the Abbott Government is sitting on the fence.
ACTU President Ged Kearney suggests another agenda may also be at play here.
She says the Abbott Government currently has a number of bills before the Parliament which would make it harder for workers to talk to their union and exercise their right to take industrial action.
“The right to strike is one of the pillars of democracy and a crucial foundation for social and economic progress,” she says.
“Generations of Australian workers and their unions have stood together and exercised their right to strike in order to win important workplace rights, including the 8-hour day, weekends, fair wages, better safety and less discrimination at work.
“The ITUC’s global day of action is a good time to reflect on the rights Australian unions have won for workers in this country compared to many others – yet we can never be complacent or take any workplace rights we enjoy for granted.”
WATCH: Ged Kearney on the right to strike
Thin edge of the wedge?
For many people, procedures at UN bodies like the ILO are a long way from the daily challenges they face in their working life or in their quest to get a decent job.
But if the employers succeed in eliminating the right to strike, the consequences will be severe for working people, and indeed for all who oppose despotism and slavery.
Only in the most totalitarian of dictatorships is the right to strike denied. If the employers get their way, it will be denied everywhere. All the achievements gained by organised labour in the past century will be at risk – reasonable working hours, fair pay, holidays and weekends, health and safety at work and freedom from exploitation and discrimination.
Throughout history, when employers and governments have refused dialogue and negotiation and instead imposed their will, workers have still taken the step and faced the risks of withdrawing their labour. That will not change. Workers will continue to take strike action when they have to – but the employer agenda would make them criminals.
Taking away the right to strike would turn us all into slaves.
Today’s global day of action sends a strong message that we will not allow that to happen.
Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.