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22 May 2018
By Matt Hrkac

Change the Rules campaign must be more than just electing a Labor government

On the 9th of May, more than 100,000 union members and supporters took to the streets of Melbourne's CBD proclaim that the rules around workplace rights are broken and to demand that they be changed. It was the biggest mass mobilisation organised by the Australian trade union movement in more than a decade.

It was very impressive, especially given the declining union membership density in Australia being driven by federal governments who have taken the hatchet to the union movement over the last couple of decades. However, the Change the Rules campaign must not become a mirror to the Your Rights at Work campaign - that is, to merely elect a Labor government and place trust in them to enact the changes that the campaign is demanding.

The truth is, while some marginal change to industrial relations law was made when Kevin Rudd was swept into power - what was known as WorkChoices was replaced with the Fair Work Act, which allowed the Abbott and Turnbull Governments to effectively revive the essence of WorkChoices in all but name and to effectively knee-cap the union movement through targeted legislative attacks. Other anti-union legislation, such as the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), wasn't abolished until Julia Gillard assumed the Prime Ministership in a minority government (though the ABCC would later be reintroduced by the Turnbull government).

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has put out a rather comprehensive policy document outlining some very specific demands. Grouped broadly into secure jobs, fair pay, enforceable rights and backing working people over big business.

Specific demands centre around properly defining casual employment, equal rights for all workers (including those working in the gig economy), reforming labour hire to ensure wages are on parity with other workers for the same job, reforming the temporary working visa system, properly funding tertiary education, ensuring government contracts are awarded only to firms who pay their workers properly, ensuring carers have the right to reduced or part time-hours raising the award wage rates, restoration of penalty rates, a legal living wage, ensuring fair bargaining rules at all levels, paid domestic violence leave, ensuring gender pay parity, a strong independent umpire, ending wage theft, enshrining the right to join a union into law, abolishing the ABCC and the Registered Organisations Commission (ROC) and laws to prevent employers from gaming the system.

Labor, for their part, are talking a more leftist tune as of late and are putting themselves out there as a bigger target. This contrasts from their usual small target strategy and is largely being driven by the fact that Turnbull and the Coalition government are so incredibly on the nose. In short: Labor can afford to talk more baldy than usual because there is no electoral implications for doing so in the current political climate. While the ACTU have more than likely had closed doors consultations with the Labor Party over their demands - Labor have not yet publicly endorsed the campaign but this may change come their National Conference in July. The Greens, on the other hand, have already endorsed the campaign.

However, the Change the Rules campaign must not make the same mistake as the Your Rights at Work campaign - that being, becoming merely a campaign vehicle to get Labor elected into government and then relying on them to make the legislative changes without giving them any accountability or holding them to their word. This is a campaign that must actively continue to mobilise and organise the movement once a Labor government has been elected if it is to show that it is serious. The union movement must be weary about placing their full trust in a Labor government or else, if history is anything to go by, they will wind up very disappointed. The national days of action and the mass rallies must also not be a once-off and merely clapped off as 'job done'.

Lastly, the movement must also be careful about expending its influence in trying to change the Labor Party from the inside. This is a strategy that has been tried and tried again and it has always ended in disappointment, largely due to internal dynamics of the party bureaucracy. There is no reason to think that the history won't repeat in their latest effort.

About the author:

Matt Hrkac is a writer and activist based in Geelong who regularly contributes to Green Left Weekly. He has particular interests in politics, elections and the trade union movement and has had extensive involvement in a number of local campaigns. He is a former member of the Greens.

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The movement around Change The Rules is a lot more organised I think, and the key people involved in this are likely very bitter about the ALP’s sellout post 2007. I’m sure they will be pushing firmly behind the scenes for Labor to come to the table, plus it’s a more concrete set of demands this time too rather than a slogan. In my view, this is putting the union movement on the front foot for once!

What this needs to develop into as well is something that can grow overall union membership in Australia. Union density is still in freefall and there has to be a strategy to arrest that. That includes getting rid of all anti union legislation that has come into force over the last couple of decades, giving unions more power to organise on worksites, as well as mass demonstrations.