The power of working people to take action was central to the initial discussions around the Five Pillars. My apologies for failing to write up those concerns. In light of why the environment is not a Sixth Pillar, it is necessary to say why the issue of ‘Rights’ deserves separate mention, though also not as a Pillar.
In what way are ‘rights’ different from the Five Pillars but like the environment? ‘Rights’ are a practical element that runs through the struggle to win any aspect of all the others. The more we struggle, the more our ‘right’ to do will come under attack. Hence, to do anything practical about anything is to campaign for the right to exercise our call for a working-class agenda. Hence, the struggle for civil liberties is not an extra layer of skin. It is the spine for every contest. The truth of that comment is being brought home to us by the actions of governments at every level and of all shades.
The Victorian government’s drive to criminalise protests is but the latest instance of why the battle for civil liberties is pivotal to all the everyday needs of working people as sketched in the Five Pillars. Consider recent protests that the law would outlaw:
i. the community pickets on several workplace disputes; these cover a range of conditions and wages and relate most obviously to the Pillars of Work and Health;
ii. the Grocon dispute over health and safety reps; this highlights workplace safety as a basic human right and also that OH&S is part of the struggle for a livable environment;
iii. the picket on the East-West tunnel connects to the Pillars of Housing and Transport.
iv. the action against the McDonalds incursion into at Tarcoma brings together the built environment and healthy food as a keys to Health;
v. the sustained battle waged to picket the East Melbourne clinic in support of a woman’s right to choose is part of the Pillar of Health.
The drive to block street marches and picketing will apply to anti-war protests, rallies in support of refugees, and for Lock-the-Gate. The crack-down has already been rolled out to squash protests against conferences of war-mongers and of the G7 and the G19 whose job it is to pass the costs from the economic crisis onto working people.
No right to strike
The attacks on picketing and on protecting health and safety on-site are instances of a centuries-old sweeping assault on the power of free labourers to combine.
On top of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, the Royal Commission on trade union, three-year ban on wages rises in the Commonwealth public service..
Surrounding particular attacks is space in which workers are allowed to take ‘protected’ industrial action under the ALP’s un-Fair Work Australia. A corporation can exercise its right to sack thousands of workers at any time of the day or night. Think QANTAS. Its victims can strike back only if they are sacked during a period of ‘protected action’ – and only if they say ‘pretty please’ to the Commission.
Of course, there has never been a ‘right’ to strike. The right to withdraw one’s labour. It is still possible for individuals. We have the right to ‘liberate’ ourselves into unemployment and exercise our right to starve. However, this is one more freedom that does not apply to 457-Visa workers who are deported if they leave the exploiter who brought them here. The worst cases are sex-workers.
A ‘right’ to strike exists only when working people are well enough organised to put their needs into practice. That happened for a period after the 1969 O’Shea dispute made the penal powers of the Arbitration Act unenforceable. Nonetheless, the agents of the boss class immediately swung into reaction with the NSW Summary Offences Act and civil actions for damages (tort) in South Australia. Then came the Trade Practices Act with bans on secondary boycotts to dis-organise collective action. Collective action is what is ‘agin’ the law.
Get the ‘Return of WorkChoices’ out our heads and headlines. The agents of capital have learnt from that mistake. The government won’t begin another root-and-branch attack in one hit. First, it has hardly any need to do so given the ALP’s gift of Fair Work Australia (WorkChoices Lite) Secondly, a barrage of targeted weapons to give capital what it needs: absolute control of labour-time. TAKE IN FROM PRODUCTIVITY
Who is being
‘protected’? Clearly, it is not the rights of wage-slaves to protect our jobs.
The answer is clear if we ask ‘what?’ is being protected by limiting pickets
and protests. The answer is the need that capital has to expand.
That the Great Barrier Reef is alive at all today because, early in 1970, the Queensland Trades & Labour Council banned drilling there, an action which Judith Wright called ‘magnificent and unprecedented’. Five years later, building unions banned mining on Fraser, which they called ‘the anchor of the Reef’. Were a union to do either today, Gillard’s Fair Work Act could impose fines of up to million dollars, and several thousands of dollars on each member, – as it could if they refused to refuel South African Airlines against Apartheid or if they were to stop work to stop the war against the peoples of Indo-China. So it has gone under the ALP. Because it is unlawful to act for the social good, it has become again almost ‘unprecedented’ for union leaders to think that they should.
These instances underline that our struggles for the space to struggle applies to every issue of daily life. As a result, the struggle for what we call human rights and civil liberties offers opportunities to bring together a wide spectrum of activists.
Moreover, the limits on rights and liberties are imposed by the state acting as the agent of corporate capital. Hence, the question of protesting, picketing and striking inserts a political dimension into what might seem no more than tussles to patch over this or that weak spot. The confrontation with state agencies lifts each battle into an example about the operation of power in a class society.
Every worker therefore does experience some degree of repression. Understanding its wider significance is – as always - a matter of education, agitation and organisation. (Those three arms of activism take us into the issue of the differing levels of propaganda discussed in a separate commentary.
It’s too easy to say that these limits exist because we live under a bourgeois democracy. Freedom of the press, speech and assembly or trial by jury were not given to us by the bourgeoisie. Our class had to wrest them away. Never trust the state to defend our liberties. Any protection it offers will be used to the advantage our enemies. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the war on terrorism. Those laws became the template for fresh incursions into privacy by the NSA.
To me on Individualism as the enemy of individual liberties
Democracy at Wheeler Centre
Civil Liberties Australia Newsletter www.