Winning back basic industrial rights won’t be easy but it’s time to fight

This is one of the best written summaries of why the ACTU’S campaign – “The Rules are broken – Change the Rules” – is entirely logical (from a worker’s point of view) and should be taken forward in a big way by all of us, not just elected union leaders.

#JeffSparrow says, for example,

“The union movement was founded, almost by definition, by people with no respect for the law – given that the Combination Act of 1799 imposed draconian punishments on anyone who organised against their employer.

“In 1834, magistrates sentenced six agricultural labourers from Dorset to transportation to Australia after finding them guilty of “unlawfully administering oaths”. The so-called Tolpuddle Martyrs – lawbreakers all – are acknowledged as union pioneers in both nations.”

Jeff’s reference to the English “Combination Act of 1799” (1798?) is spot on and entirely relevant to our 21st century challenges.

“Combination” was the world used back then to describe workers meeting together to discuss why and how they could effectively negotiate with their employer for better wages and conditions. Judge made law described such meetings as “conspiracies”. It would lead to imprisonment and also deportation on a convict ship. What the employers did then was “work with” their friends who dominated the parliament to to shift the anti conspiracy laws made by judges into a statutory law.

Creating a union was legally defined as a “conspiracy” against the employer(s). It’s purpose: to prevent workers all over Britain from learning how to combine together to form unions as we know them today.

Yes, the people who created unions were workers who had not yet joined a union. Just like Uber drivers are doing right now, and it appears with the respectful support of the Transport Workers Union.

When workers prevailed and succeeded in winning a better deal – through “combination” not begging for more as a heroic individual as in Dickens’ Oliver Twist – they learned quickly that their “win” might be set back because their bosses’ competitor would be at an advantage. There would be downward pressure on what they had gained if the new standard could not be applied in the “non combined” competitor.

The solution? They had to meet – clandestinely – with the workers employed by the competitor to encourage and teach them how to win the same improvement to wages and conditions.

This is called solidarity organising and the method was learned the hard way by workers’ themselves, although it appears also supported by progressive thinkers in groups like the London Correspondence Society.

Workers had to struggle, not rely on charity, and break the law to create new democratic rights.

The 21st century Australian version of the anti combination laws, contained in Labor’s Fair Work Act, in its own way represses and penalizes workers who seek to act in solidarity with other workers.

That’s the whole framework of bargaining and associated activity that gives a huge advantage to employers over their work forces. The Fair Work Act, and its special oppressive extension in the Australian Building and Construction Industry anti worker and anti solidarity police force, can impose on workers who act in solidarity as in the late 18th century, statutory fines, common law damages and jail terms.

That’s why a fully fledged strategy – including industrial action – is necessary to educate about these rotten laws, to build active workers’ defiance against them, and struggle for new 21st century democratic rights of workers to industrial and other action that can challenge the powers of their employers.

Thats another reason why Jeff Sparrow’s take on this is interesting: the eventual defeat of the anti combination laws of the early 19th century was achieved by the growth of unionism off a very low base. Just like today.

In the 1967 an Australian union campaign that stretched over 10 years defeated the anti worker penal powers that were created by the Menzies government and governed by the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission of the day. That workers’ victory – that culminated in national strikes in 1967 – was achieved on a foundation of relatively high union density especially in big productive workplaces, although the unions themselves were divided with the right wing unions backing a yellow and Arbitration driven approach to workers’ problems.

The only new restrictions in 21st century democratic labour laws that should be introduced are those that prevent employers going on strike with the capital they have taken from the wealth generated by workers in Australia, as many are currently doing.

In our history there is a uniquely Australian way in which respect for solidarity between workers, especially solidarity bargaining for improved wages and conditions, can be restored in a 21st century form.

We will be continuing our discussions of this on 3CR radio’s Solidarity Breakfast this coming Saturday morning.

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