Campbell Newman’s Liberal National Party government was elected in Queensland in March this year. Their cuts to public service jobs have provoked 10,000-strong rallies and public anger is growing at cuts to service that were not mentioned before the election. Newman’s popularity has dropped quickly since March, creating space for people to mobilise against his austerity-lite agenda.
At a symposium yesterday, organised by the Brisbane Labour History Association, it quickly became obvious the first barrier to effective strike action against the Queensland government is the threat of huge fines for strikers and organisers who ignore court orders to return to work. Two different approaches to that threat were presented at the symposium: defiance of court orders, or working to elect an ALP government in the hope they will repeal anti-strike laws.
In 1976 Queensland introduced injunctions with civil penalties that could lose you your house and car. The Federal Trade Practices Act, which bans secondary strikes, was mirrored in Queensland law in 1984. In 1985 strikes were made illegal in the electricity industry, as was any strike without 7 days notice
These powers were quickly used in 1985 to break a strike of South East Queensland Electricity Board (SEQEB) workers (Get the pdf file directly downloaded here). Barbara Webster of the Central Queensland University explained that when plant controllers at the massive Gladstone Power Station cut electricity supply by 50% in support of sacked linesmen, the Government ordered them to return to work. When all but one operator refused, half of the operators were threatened with fines. Young men, with families, cars and mortgages to support, they submitted, and without their backing the wider strike was doomed.
We can be sure that any widespread strike action will be met quickly with similar threats. In fact it already has: the symposium heard from Bob Carnegie, who is associated with the Socialist Alternative group. Carnegie helped with organising a recent successful strike of workers building a new Queensland Children’s Hospital. When the strike was declared illegal and union officials were ordered by courts to not go near the strike site, the workers defied the court orders. Carnegie did too, and now faces up to $400,000 in fines, and a jail sentence.
Towards the end of the symposium, ALP member and Queensland Council of Unions Secretary Ron Monaghan spoke. He said that workers in the private sector will not support sacked public servants, and that it’s no good telling workers that they “got it wrong” when they voted for Campbell Newman. Monaghan said the union movement should not split from the ALP as the ALP will then completely ignore it. He said this after describing how the former Queensland ALP government accepted the union movement’s vital support in the 2009 election, and then announced major privatisations of State assets months after being re-elected.
ALP member and official of the United Voice union, Michael Clifford, also spoke, saying a strategy of working to elect an ALP government is the best one. He said his union wanted ALP candidates who would stand up for trade union voices, and said legislation that supports the rights of workers to organise is the key. Earlier in the day, Howard Guille, a former Queensland secretary of the National Tertiary Employees Union, said that a right to strike might be enshrined in the Constitution, as it has been in South Africa. However he did not mention the recent deaths of striking miners in South Africa, killed by police despite the words of their Constitution.
Later Ron Monaghan was asked if the unions should make themselves strong enough to defy any government, ALP or LNP, by calling a general strike. He spoke of the dangers of this, but then said “we” were doing so already, claiming credit for the defiant actions of Bob Carnegie, although Carnegie is not an ALP member.
The first speaker of the day perhaps should have been the last. Sue Yarrow, once involved in the Right to March movement in Queensland and later a ministerial adviser to the Goss and Beattie ALP governments, spoke about how the old Trades Hall Group, authoritarian and socially conservative ALP members who once dominated the ALP and the union movement, lost control when they did not realise how much public support the Right to March movement had. As society shifted beneath their feet, they fell. If working people are pushed by the current government to defy anti-strike laws, and if all the ALP can offer is the chance to vote them back in and hope things will get better, something similar might happen again.