Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Right to Strike (and the right to shelves...)

So ... it's been a while since the last post here. Blogging has taken a bit of a back seat to various things, including Enterprise Bargaining at the University where I work. In Australia, working conditions in large workplaces like universities are regulated by Enterprise Agreements struck between employers and unions. Our Agreement has expired, and I'm on the National Tertiary Education Union's bargaining team for the negotiations over our next Agreement.

It's been a protracted process, and I won't go into details here (I'm determined not to let this blog become a place where I navel gaze about working at a university!). If you're interested in the issues, you can check out the Branch website here.

Suffice it to say, after 8 months of negotiations which have not reached agreement, our branch today voted to take industrial action, in the form of a 24 hour strike. And for a blog focused on the right to the city, the right to strike is an issue worth posting about ...

NTEU How to Vote Flyer + Completed Ballot Paper

In Australia at present, workers do indeed have the right to strike. But that right to strike is severely curtailed. Only some forms of industrial action are 'protected' - that is, only some forms of industrial action are protected by law and do not open both individuals and unions to be fined and/or sued for damages by their employer.

So, what do you have to do to make your industrial action 'protected'?
  • You can only take 'protected' industrial action during negotiations over enterprise agreements (which usually only occur once every few years).
  • If negotiations are going nowhere and you want to go on strike, then your union must request a ballot with Fair Work Australia. 
  • If the ballot is granted by Fair Work Australia, it is conducted as a secret ballot by the Australian Electoral Commission, who send ballot papers to all union members. 
  • If more than 50% of members vote, and if a majority vote in favour of industrial action, members of that union can then take protected industrial action.
We've just had our ballot. And we got the result we wanted (ie we now have the right to take protected industrial action).

Today, it was back to union democracy. We had a branch meeting to decide on whether or not to take industrial action. The matter was settled by a good old fashioned debate that concluded with a show of hands.

This whole process has taken a couple of months.

Keep in mind, this system is part of the Labor government's industrial relations reforms. While some of the nastier aspects of the previous Coalition government's 'work choices' policies were repealed by Labor, they did bugger all to lift the restrictions on industrial action and strikes.

While unions themselves seem loath to campaign publicly on this issue, I think the right to strike ought to be something that we campaign on. Strikes are essential to unions' collective ability to challenge management prerogative in the workplace ... and as such, the fate of the right to strike matters greatly to our collective ability to make the economy political. Yes, of course our political repertoires have developed considerably over the years ... but I think withdrawing labour is still a pretty essential part of that repertoire, and one that's worth fighting for anew.

The contrast between our experience of the Fair Work Act and the situation in the early 1970s period I've been looking into for my green bans research is striking (hah! sorry about that...). One of the first folders I opened in my archival research was a folder full of dispute summaries kept by one of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) organisers for six months during 1972, a time of widespread industrial conflict in the building industry over a wide range of issues. The BLF was battling employers over safety, amenities, union hire, and wages among other issues. In contrast to the above process, industrial action was decided through collective decisions by workers on the job, often at very short notice ... and often in the middle of a concrete pour.

BLF NSW Disputes, July-Dec 1972 (Folder at Noel Butlin Archives, Canberra)

Of the dispute summaries in the folder...

One of the more memorable disputes I read about involved workers walking off the job at a building site one morning because the foreman had installed a clock in their amenities shed intended to 'help' them keep their breaks and shifts to time. They finally returned to work several hours later when the clock was removed, and promises were made to make other improvements to the shed that made it more comfortable/useful for the workers.

So, the right to a shed without a clock - what's that got to do with the right to the city? It seems trivial, and this kind of industrial action was fodder for politicians, employers and the media in their campaign against the union. But in its wider context, this dispute was symbolic of a wider struggle that the union was fighting over management prerogative more generally -- a struggle which began at the workplace scale, and eventually widened to the scale of the city itself, with construction workers asserting their right to play a role in deciding what kinds of things they built through green bans. They were making building sites public rather than private spaces, in the sense that they were taking away the rights of developers to decide what got built and the conditions in which building took place. And strikes were one of the essential tools in their repertoire. We're much less powerful without it.


I'll finish with a little video about one of our current issues ... casualisation in higher education. Someone close to me had a giggle after watching it ... "bookshelves for all!". Not exactly the kind of thing that would take most people to the barricades, granted! :-)

But like the clock in the amenities shed, the fact that a growing number of my teaching colleagues don't have desks or shelves in the workplace is indicative of some more profound changes in the university, with more and more work being performed by people with very precarious employment conditions indeed. Of course, we're much less militant than the BLF were in both our aims and our tactics. But here's hoping the strike and our broader campaign is successful in making a difference on casualisation and several other issues that are threatening the university as we know it...

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