Australia’s Penal Powers for the 21st Century

White Australia was born as a penal colony. And throughout its history since there have been plenty of laws that fine, impose financial damages and lock up both the original inhabitants of the land and the working people of all nations who came here to make a living. Those laws swing into play whenever landowners and employers needed a government instrument to protect their profit making and wealth accumulation from the collective action of aboriginal communities and their supporters, and also combinations of workers whether members of unions or not.  (For more on this read Jack Hutson’s From Penal Colony to Penal Powers.)

This story (click here) describes how Labor’s Fair Work Act of 2009 replicates that history so that it systematically prevents workers from exercising their collective power in the twenty first century.

Some of us who have been around for a long time know very well that there is NO END to the hypocrisy of employers when it comes to the exercise of their power. Employers like Bluescope Steel, in their own right and through their associations like the AIGroup, AMMA, and the Business Council of Australia, constantly whinge about the role of outside third parties in industrial relations.For them, “outside third party interference”means unions, especially those that coordinate effective worker action across industries, and a Fair Work Commission with genuine democratic powers to ensure that workers human rights to organize and take collective action are protected.

But, they made sure, when they negotiated the Fair Work Act to replace Howard’s Workchoices in 2008-9, they kept and re-energized that extra third party power that would punish workers for exercising the only power they have – collective industrial action. And, what is more, new ALP negotiators and certain (not all) union leaders let them have it.

What we see here, as we have seen in other disputes, is the PENAL PROVISIONS OF THE TWENTY FIRST CENTURY.

The penal provisions of the 20th century were neutralized in big disputes through the 1960’s that culminated with the national strike when Tramway Union official Clarrie O’Shea was jailed for refusing to pay fines imposed by the courts because union members were taking industrial action in defiance of the so-called “bans clauses” of the day.

The industrial strategy that led to that great union and democratic victory was ten years in the making.

The Australian workers of the twenty first century need a strategy that defeats the penal powers of the twenty first century. It is all about a deeper meaning of democracy than the very limited form that too many of us are sort of comfortable with these days.

Electing a genuine reforming Labor government backed up by the Greens and genuine pro worker and democratic independents to get rid of these undemocratic industrial laws will make a difference.But this was never on the radar in recent Federal elections.

So, that will not happen unless it is part of a conscious strategy that creates a massive and independent movement of workers that makes it impossible for Labor and Green politicians to dodge their responsibilities.

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I am a retired left wing and labour movement activist. Before that I worked for a long time in the Australian union movement in union education, Australian and international solidarity and organising. I am also active in Cuban solidarity, the SEARCH FOUNDATION, and promoting discussion, debate and action about green socialism based on workers control and social ownership.

Posted in Australian union movement, Common Action, Corporate behaviour, Engineering Services: metal workers- fitters, mechanics, boilermakers, electricians, techicians, TA's, labourers, Labour and union history, Solidarity
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