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Opinion Piece

What to do if it’s worse the Workchoices

Originally published in New Matilda on 2 June 2011 (http://newmatilda.com/2011/06/02/what-do-if-its-worse-workchoices).

As Barry O’Farrell prepares to get stuck into the entitlements of public sector workers in NSW, what lessons can be gleaned from the recent surge in union action in the US, asks Simon Copland

This February, tens of thousands of union activists took to the streets of Madison, Wisconsin to protest a budget bill proposed by Republican Governor Scott Walker.

Walker argued his budget was essential to reduce the state’s deficit. Controversial measures included capping wage increases, requiring State employees to contribute 5.8 per cent of their salaries to cover pension costs and putting another 12.6 per cent towards health care premiums.

The bill was also set to weaken worker’s rights — essentially eliminating collective bargaining rights for State employees. On top of the cap on wages increase, other measures include requiring collective bargaining units — unions — to take annual votes to maintain certification. Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and contracts for state employees would be limited to one year, with wages frozen until the new contract is settled.

Sound familiar? In NSW, Barry O’Farrell has tabled legislation which will limit the rights of public sector workers in ways that Paul Howes described as “worse than WorkChoices”. It looks likely that the union movement in NSW will mobilise against O’Farrell’s new industrial relations laws with talk of industrial actions. Are there lessons to be learned from the Wisconsin experience?

Wisconsin’s legislature is dominated by Republicans and initial forecasts predicted that the protests would be a blip in the history of the state. Workers would take to the street, organise a couple of protests, and ultimately yield once the bill was passed. How wrong these predictions were. Walker’s budget proposals were met with nation-wide protests.

The first protest led to more actions. Soon, activists were taking to the streets daily, climaxing in massive rallies that attracted over 100,000 activists at the end of February and in the beginning of March. In a dramatic escalation, all Democratic Senators from Wisconsin left the state in an attempt to deny the chamber a quorum to vote on the bill. It was this move that brought the union fight to a national stage, setting off a national debate and similar protests around the country.

Similar protests erupted in New Hampshire, Ohio, Michigan, Maine, Kansas, Oklahoma, Idaho and Indiana. The energy of the Wisconsin movement spread around the country, bringing with it activists who were willing to take to the streets to defeat a string of anti-union bills.

The Wisconsin Republicans were forced to use a technicality to bypass the quorum requirements and the bill was eventually passed. In spite of this, the movement is continuing to grow.

The unions have been using two methods to continue to campaign against the attacks on workers. First, they have taken the fight to the ballot box. With the ability to recall elected members in Wisconsin and Michigan and legislation in Ohio, unionists are running massive recall drives. Essentially these are petitions which force re-election of a sitting member, or take a piece of legislation back to the ballot box. In Wisconsin, they have successfully forced the re-election of six Republican Senators (a net gain of three seats is required to take back the House).

In Michigan, a petition-drive has been initiated to force the re-election of Republican Governor Rick Snyder. In Ohio, unionists look certain to force legislation restricting collective bargaining rights to a vote later in the year.

Second, unionists are campaigning on the ground for a growth in union membership and activity in the workplace, as well as influence in the lead up to the 2012 presidential and congressional elections. After years of falling union membership and declining union power, one of the biggest unions in the US, the Service Employees International Union, has dedicated significant resources to building a campaign on the back of the momentum built in Wisconsin. The campaign, Fight for a Fair Economy, is focused on key economic issues, raising the profile of the union movement and making an argument for increased union involvement in the American political system.

The campaign is using upcoming national flash points, such as corporate shareholder meetings, the presidential debates and the Party Conventions to raise the profile of the movement.

The strategy has a lot in common with the Your Rights at Work campaign mounted by Australian unions in response to WorkChoices. Your Rights At Work achieved the defeat of both the Howard government and WorkChoices. But the campaign has not driven many long-term benefits for the Australian union movement. Since the passage of the Fair Work Bill, union membership has again declined, although a few unions are bucking the trend. Further industrial relations reform is nowhere to be seen on the political agenda and O’Farrell’s mooted changes show how easily ground can be lost.

Australian unions can build on the American experience. Although the American movement is focusing heavily on the election of new Democrats to defeat anti-union bills, they are also mounting an on-the-ground campaign to win people over to the importance of unionism itself. Using the momentum of the Wisconsin protests, they have initiated a national discussion on key economic issues and the value of unions in society.

Unions in the United States may have few other options when it comes to asserting their agenda — there is not as strong an institutional alignment between the union movement and Democrats as there is between unions and the ALP in Australia. But doing what is necessary can also work in the interests of the movement. Australians unions can learn from this.

By initiating a broader discussion about broader economic issues and the role of unionism, American activists are acknowledging that they cannot rely only on politicians to get what they want. They must win the American people first. It is about time we had a real discussion about the value of unions in our society, one that is not just focused on specific policies and laws, but rather on the importance of unionism itself.

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About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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