Why do most Australian workers have a standard of living with a minimum wage that keeps fully employed people out of poverty? It can be answered most simply by the long history of our forebears joining unions and going on strike.
We have always needed to strike
Have you ever stopped work to show your dissent in an organised way with your colleagues? If you have, you are now in a small minority of people in Australia. But if I asked your parents or grandparents this question they would probably have said yes, or would certainly have known someone who had.
Even the phrase ‘on strike’ is probably one many younger people didn’t know until the global climate strikes of recent years. And yet the right to strike – to take industrial action, to stop work – is at the heart of the rights we need to create a good life for everyone, where we share the wealth of what we produce as a society and protect what is valuable for all of us.
We have been going on strike for a long time. There are records of skilled craftsmen in Egypt going on strike in 1152 BCE, so workers realising our collective strength is nothing new!
The word strike seems to come from 1768 when sailors in London joined city workers and refused to work and removed (struck) the sails from the ships they worked on. Strikes and other forms of industrial action became commonplace throughout the industrial revolution in all countries. Initially ‘combinations’ of workers – unions – were banned as a ‘restraint on trade’. However as the labour movement grew it forced legal recognition from the ruling class in various countries as a way for the elite to avoid potentially revolutionary struggles. The Trade-Union Act 1871 in Britain informed colonial law in pre-federation Australia.
By then skilled stonemasons had already joined together to go on strike in Sydney and Melbourne to win a standard eight-hour day of work, with no loss of pay in the 1850s. Reducing hours of work were won until the 1980s by going on strike. Mass industry-wide strikes happened in the Australian colonies in the 1890s, in shipping, in shearing and in mining, but employers and colonial governments were mostly successful in defeating these workers’ demands with a combination of brutality, imprisonment and hunger. The formation of the Labor Party came on the back of these defeats, recognising that political decisions made in parliaments have a major effect on the likelihood of strikes being effective.
Then in the first few years after federation Australia developed a highly regulated and constrained system of compulsory conciliation and arbitration, creating a state-based process to try to ensure a more predictable process to resolve disputes between bosses and unions, with a system of ‘awards’ (wage rates and conditions with the force of law) for each trade or industry. Following this Harvester judgement of 1907 all workers in Australia have had minimum wages and conditions.
But the secret of the historic success of the labour movement in Australia is not about specially designed courts and talented lawyers with clever arguments, important as these can be. Without groups of workers being prepared to go on strike – to stop work – there is no real pressure on corporations and governments to raise wages, improve conditions and strengthen rights.
Ask for a pay rise, he says
Fundamentally, in capitalism all the new value created by workers goes either to the owners of capital (bosses and corporate shareholders) or to the workers. Hopefully some is paid in corporate profits tax too! Capitalism is a competitive system and corporations must always look to maximise their sales revenue and minimise their costs to return the highest profits to their shareholders. Otherwise they run the risk of failure (losses not profits) and takeover by a rival. So if workers want a pay rise, or better pay at weekends, or more generous leave, they have to organise for it and put pressure on their boss to get it. Capitalists don’t give it away for free.
In fact most workers have had no pay rise or minimal increases in recent years. Even conservative figures like the governor of the Reserve Bank, Philip Lowe, is saying wages growth is too low. Helpfully he hoped workers would soon be confident to “ask for larger wage rises”. But that isn’t usually what happens at work, is it? Usually individual workers don’t even know what colleagues are paid. Wage and salary transparency isn’t that common in small or large businesses. An award only sets the minimum rate that you can be paid, and this will usually also depend on your classification, which is linked to your specific skills and tasks, and to years of experience at the company or government department. Lack of transparency helps promote a culture of competition between workers, making divide and rule easier for bosses.
Rather than thinking individually – something that neoliberal ideology encourages (look after yourself, be better than the others, strive to succeed even if it hurts others, if you work hard you’re sure to get ahead) – improvements at work require workers, who are already cooperating to produce or deliver services, to begin to think as a collective, then to decide together what changes they want, then to plan how to win what they want. It’s not easy. There are risks. You may lose income temporarily. You may be bullied. But if you don’t struggle you definitely can’t win.
Bookstore workers, wharfies, ballet dancers and nurses
For the past year workers at a bookstore in Sydney called Better Read Than Dead have campaigned because they decided their minimum wage and casual status just wasn’t good enough. Paying the rent is getting harder and harder on the minimum wage. They organised via the new Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU) and decided they wanted an enterprise agreement with better pay and conditions. The owners of Better Read Than Dead refused to negotiate, so the new union members decided to begin a campaign of industrial action, following the cumbersome steps that the misnamed Fair Work Act requires so that the action is ‘protected’ (legal). The owners still refused to negotiate and even threatened to ‘lock out’ (temporarily suspend without pay) the workers. But with a strategy of community pressure by writers and by people who usually shop at the well-known bookstore, and determination by the workers, the bosses quickly backed down. Some history was made.
Meanwhile, at the same time in a very different environment, in the highly unionised maritime industry, workers at the Victoria International Container Terminal in Melbourne also won their struggle to get pay increases and to allow casual workers to become permanent. There is a long history of strike action in the ports and every port employer knows that MUA members will go on strike if reasonable demands aren’t met.
In fact all sorts of workers have gone on strike to reduce workloads, increase pay and stop bullying and intimidation. Dancers at the Australian Ballet struck in 1981 for 26 days because they were being forced to work too hard. Victorian nurses overthrew gender stereotypes to win after 50 days on strike in 1986 against a Labor government. Workers strike to try to improve their situations all over the world. Two hundred and fifty million Indian workers took action in a general strike last year against the anti-union and privatisation policies of the far right Modi government. There are strikes happening throughout China, including recently by food delivery workers against insufficient pay.
Why are strikes effective? They threaten, and sometimes, then go on to stop production or services, impacting profits, causing disruption and knock-on effects in other sectors of the economy. For example, when teachers go on strike they don’t stop production, but those kids not at school need to be cared for by parents, which means those workers are no longer available to work. Crucially, when they are effective, strikes encourage other groups of workers to look to this method – and to realise that it is much more effective than protests that don’t disrupt profits. Strikes give workers a glimpse of their potential power, at the heart of the economic system, raising expectations, learning new skills and tactics, and building confidence.
So if striking and other industrial action (such as work to rule (refusing extra duties), go-slows, refusing overtime, and coordinated sick days) are so effective, why is there so little of it in Australia at the moment? While the Australian government signed the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of 1966 in 1975, in which Article 8 requires governments ensure that workers have a right to strike, this has never been written in Australian law. However for most of the 20th century workers could take strike action without being fined. When the Liberal government tried to gaol the Victorian Tramways Union leader Clarrie O’Shea in 1969 for refusing to pay fines it led to a rapidly spreading national general strike. O’Shea was quickly freed. Workers had a massive victory, perhaps the most important in Australian industrial history so far. They had strength in numbers, strength in union organisation, strength in solidarity across industries, and so they had great strength to disrupt. Australian big business faced immediate chaos and the Liberal government had to retreat, abandoning its policy to penalise unions for striking.
Since then, successive federal governments, Liberal and Labor, have made it very hard for unions to operate effectively. In general workers do not have a legal right to strike in Australia. It was the Hawke-Keating Accord between the Labor Party and the leaders of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) from 1983 that most disorganised workers. The Accord cracked down hard on strikes in the name of raising profits and modernising the economy. The ACTU agreed to try to end the worker militancy that had raised living standards for the previous 15 years. As a result the number of strikes collapsed and a whole generation of new workers learned to see unions as almost part of the Labor Party government and never participated in industrial action. It was in this period that enterprise bargaining began, breaking up industry-wide bargaining and the way that strong unions protected less-organised workers. While there are many reasons for a decline in union membership, through the Accord period, 1982-1996, union density (the percentage of workers who are union members) fell from 49% to just 31%. Then the Howard government made it easier for employers to bypass unions altogether, worked with aggressive bosses to try to destroy the MUA, and encouraged individual ‘WorkChoices’ contracts that undermined the award system.
The last Labor government, with Kevin Rudd as prime minister and Julia Gillard as the responsible minister, strengthened the award system, but failed to undo the restrictions that Howard placed on the right to strike. Only when workers take careful steps to begin an enterprise bargaining process, or when an enterprise bargaining agreement expires and is renegotiated, can those workers take ‘protected’ industrial action. Industrial action at any other time, for any other reason than imminent physical danger, is illegal. Workers going on strike to support other workers is also illegal. This was done specifically to weaken worker-worker solidarity and Labor refuses to change the law to permit this happening. Striking workers and unions face serious fines for taking ‘unprotected’ industrial action.
It is not only the anti-strike provisions of Labor’s misnamed Fair Work Act that need overthrowing. The minimum hourly rate for a permanent (non-casual) adult worker in Australia is currently $20.33 per hour. No adult is supposed to earn less than this, but so far the system has failed to recognise that gig economy workers also need protection, considering the imbalance in power between corporations and workers so far classified as contractors. Unions are trying to help these workers organise, but legal changes are needed.
One way or another the anti-strike laws need to go. It is a key task for union militants and leaders, and for the whole of the left. The Greens continue to call for a legislated right to strike. However Labor in government is very unlikely to change the current laws without enormous pressure. If it were easy it would already be done, but any serious strategy for improving living standards and rights needs to include a pathway to breaking and destroying the Fair Work Act’s anti-strike provisions.
Social movements that really strike at the heart of the system
Unpaid workers can strike too: 90% of Icelandic women refused to work for a day in 1975 to protest lack of recognition of unpaid work at home and a massive gender pay gap in the paid economy.
Refusing to work can be a way to extend solidarity to other social movements. This is what NSW builders’ labourers did in the 1960s and 1970s when their ‘green bans’ allied with local communities against projects that threatened heritage, bushland or working class housing. The Builders’ Labourers Federation (the BLF) acted in solidarity with communities in The Rocks and in Woolloomooloo-Kings Cross to save their homes, and played a major role in saving harbourside bushland and Centennial Park, helping give birth to the urban environmental movement, one of the wellsprings of the Australian Greens. As well the BLF took action to support the first women’s studies course at Sydney University and to defend a gay student from expulsion from student housing at Macquarie University. Taking community solidarity actions like these is also now illegal in Australia, greatly reducing the power of unionised workers to support community struggles, and pigeonholing unions as only being about wages and conditions, the opposite of what can be true, as the NSW BLF shows.
When enough people, enough workers – usually supported by others such as unemployed workers, students, and retired workers, and sometimes with elements of the professions and the self-employed – decide that the prevailing situation is simply unacceptable, extraordinary things can happen. Whole towns, cities, regions or even countries can be paralysed by work stopping until their demands are met. Conceived of by William Benbow in Britain in 1832 as a Grand National Holiday, as industrialisation conquered Europe and the United States the general strike became a tactic to pressure governments to grant reforms or face the consequences of total economic stoppage. The communist leader Rosa Luxemburg theorised its power to change whole societies in her 1906 book The Mass Strike, the Political Party and the Trade Unions. In 1905 a general strike was the highest phase of the first, unsuccessful, Russian revolution. There was a lot to learn for revolutionists. In countries with sharp social crises general strikes occur, for example in Paris in May 1968, in Poland in 1980 against the Stalinist regime, in the Sudanese revolution of 2018-2019, and in Belarus trying to overthrow the dictator Lukashenko.
While ever taking ‘legal’ strike action in Australia is so difficult, and ‘illegal’ strike action can be punished by steep fines designed to deter workers and union officials, it will remain difficult for other forms of dissent and protest to be effective. I have been able to go to most of the climate strikes in the last few years and the large numbers of people with awesome youthful energy show the potential not just to change government policy, but to redesign our relationship with nature. Climate strike participants recognise that we are quite literally destroying our own ecological niche, and fast. Yet the climate strike strategy, so far, is to pressure these same governments with one-day street parades or filling parks to overflowing, where most people who are on strike are on strike from school (excellent!), but not from work. Congratulations to everyone who has attended, and please organise and keep attending. Yet without the participation of workers, from the public sector, the community sector and the private sector, we will, I fear, remain ineffective. We are showing our dissent, and expressing our moral indignation, but it doesn’t change the way the system works. We are not forcing system change. Profits are not disrupted. There is business, as usual.
In this (I won’t say our) socioeconomic system, a system literally addicted to profit, the most powerful action most of us will ever be able to take will be to go on strike to stop, even for a while, the flow of profits to the corporations that dominate society. If we do it in one workplace – like the RAFFWU members at Better Read Than Dead bookshop – we will improve our own work situation. If we do it all together as a general strike – like Australian workers did in 1969 – then we open up the chance to change the future of the country, whether that’s a general strike for climate sanity, or for treaties with First Nations, or to stop a war, or for a right to a home for everyone, or all of these together.
Join your union. Vote for a party that is committed to giving all workers in Australia the right to strike whenever we need to. Spread the word.
Bruce Knobloch is an activist and educator, an ecosocialist in The Greens. He has a particular interest in labour movement struggles, class consciousness and internationalism.
Image source: 25,000 women gathered in Reykjavik for the Women’s Strike, October 24, 1975. Icelandic Women’s History Archives