Friday, July 31, 2009

Unionist faces jail for not answering ABCC questions — abolish anti-union secret police!

Lisbeth Latham

On August 11, Ark Tribe, a member of the South Australian Branch of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), will appear in court charged with refusing to answer questions from the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

If he is found guilty he faces a maximum six months in jail.

Tribe is the second member of the CFMEU to face trial for refusing to cooperate with the ABCC. In November, the ABCC dropped a similar case against CFMEU Victorian branch assistant secretary Noel Washington.

Despite union opposition to the undemocratic powers of the ABCC, the ALP government, under PM Kevin Rudd, plans to keep most of the ABCC's powers under a new body — the Building Industry Inspectorate.

Unions, particularly blue-collar unions, have pushed for the total abolition of the ABCC since the election of the Rudd government in late 2007.

The ABCC discriminates against building union members by treating them as criminals and takes away many of their rights, including the right to silence.

The ABCC’s coercive powers are designed to intimidate building workers. It can order any person it deems to have information relevant to an investigation to face interrogation or face six months’ jail.

Ironically, the penalty for an individual failing to cooperate with the ABCC is far worse than the penalty for many of the “violations” the ABCC investigates.

Unions have also said the ALP has a mandate to remove all of the Howard government's anti-worker legislation. Most who voted for the ALP did so in the belief the ALP would abolish all of the anti-union legislation of former PM John Howard.

A ruling by the International Labour Organisation in March has increased the pressure on the government. The ILO said the ABCC and the associated Australian Building and Construction Industry Improvement Act breach Australia's commitments as a signatory to the ILO's conventions.

Yet the government is trying to justify keeping most of the ABCC's powers with the argument a “tough cop” has to deal with “lawlessness” in the building industry.

The Rudd government is employing the same false argument the Howard government used to justify the introduction of the union-busting ABCC.

Howard set up the ABCC in 2005 under the cover of recommendations made by a royal commission into the building industry led by former judge Terence Cole. The government launched the Cole commission, with $60 million in funding, to investigate “unlawful activity” in the construction industry. Unions condemned the commission as a blatantly anti-union exercise.

When the commission was launched in 2001, the ALP described it as a witch-hunt against the militant construction unions, in particular the CFMEU.

Ninety percent of the commission's time was devoted to allegations against building unions. Little or no time was devoted to investigating allegations against employers. Unions were denied the right to cross-examine witnesses who made allegations against them.

Despite the commission’s anti-union terms of reference, Cole was able to find only 392 cases of possible unlawful behaviour in the industry over a seven-year period. The vast majority of these “unlawful” acts were instances of unions holding on-site union meetings; union attempts to ensure all workers on sites were union members; and work stoppages over unsafe working conditions.

Although 30 of the incidents were associated with employer behaviour, these were largely instances of employers paying strike pay.

The commission failed to make any recommendations to stop employer breaches of occupational health and safety laws, despite the shocking one work-related death a week record of the industry.

The commission’s terms of reference did not include an examination of employer’s schemes to rob workers of their lawful entitlements.

The ABCC, with its power to initiate prosecutions, was created by the Howard government to crush the industrial muscle of the building unions and help drive down wages and conditions in the industry.

The Rudd government's commitment to transfer most of the ABCC's powers to the Building Industry Inspectorate reflects that the ALP, like the Liberals, is committed to attacking the rights of workers to organise in order to protect bosses’ profits.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly Issue #804


Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Honduran Unions Call General Strike

Honduras's Labour movement continues to oppose the government installed following the military coup against President Manuel Zelaya. Morning Star has coverage of the delegates meeting that called the strike.

Honduran unions call general strike
Tuesday 21 July 2009
by Morning Star Reporter in Tegucigalpa
Printable page Printable

In a direct challenge to Honduras's military dictatorship, the country's three main trade union federations have called a two-day general strike, beginning on Thursday.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Wage rises don’t mean job losses

Lisbeth Latham

Almost immediately after the Rudd Labor government’s Fair Work Australia came into effect on July 2, the Australian and other News Ltd newspapers launched a sustained attack on the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union’s (AMWU) wage claim for the manufacturing industry.

Business associations, the government and corporate media have been running a concerted campaign for more than year to convince working people that they have to show wage restraint if they want to avoid losing their jobs.

This is part of a campaign to foist the brunt of the global economic crisis onto working people and protect the interests of big business. However, the historical lessons the Australian draws on to back up its claims do not show a necessary relationship between wage rises and job losses.

On July 2, the Australian featured front-page headlines reading: “Unions defy PM Kevin Rudd’s restraint call as New IR Era Begins” and “Lost lessons of the 100,000 `dead men'”.

These articles followed a statement by AMWU national secretary Julius Roe, reported in the July 1 Australian: “If companies are performing well, workers should get some share of those outcomes. In some cases, yes, we are achieving (6 per cent), and we will achieve that in the future.

“The fairest thing to say is where companies are performing well, we should be able to achieve real wage increases. Elsewhere, we want to at least maintain real wages. This year, it's probably around [a] 4 per cent [pay rise].”

Pattern bargaining
The articles raised fears of a return to pattern bargaining — under which unions lodge identical claims across industry and campaign for employers to provide minimum improvements in conditions by using sites of union strength to support workers in less well organised or less strategic workplaces.

It also raised the potential of a broader “wages breakout”.

The Australian quoted former head of the Metal Trades Industry Association Bert Evans, saying that the AMWU’s claim, if successful, would lead to jobs going overseas.

The articles further argued that the huge job losses in Australian manufacturing during the recession of the early 1980s were a result of the AMWU’s (then the Amalgamated Metal Workers and Shipwrights Union — AMWSU) 1981 campaign for pay rises and a 35-hour week with no loss in pay.

The Australian’s articles are part of a wider campaign to shatter the confidence of AMWU members in pursuing collective bargaining and undermine support for the AMWU. The campaign aims to build and reinforce the argument that wage rises during an economic downturn would result in job losses, and the AMWU, in pursuing its “unreasonable claim”, is threatening the livelihood of all workers.

But did the AMWSU’s 1981 wage campaign really cause the collapse in employment? And, more broadly, is there really a connection between wage levels and employment?

What happened in 1981
After its election victory in 1975, the Liberal Coalition government of Malcolm Fraser moved to “fight inflation” by, among other things, seeking to cut real wages by limiting the extent to which wages were indexed with inflation in the centralised national wage cases.

As a result, real wages fell through the late 1970s, but the government’s policy was unsuccessful in reducing inflation.

In response to falling real wages, debates began to emerge at the 1979 Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) congress to move away from centralised wage fixing. At the 1981 congress, the militant pace-setter unions, led by the AMWSU, won support for a partial break from centralised wage fixing.

In July 1981, the Conciliation and Arbitration Commission abandoned wage indexation entirely as unions began to win wage increases outside of indexation.

In 1980, the AMWSU launched its campaign to “defend and extend working and living standards, workers’ rights and quality of life”. This campaign included a push for a 35-hour week with no loss in pay. The AMWSU’s claim was aimed at defending workers’ buying power and creating jobs through the reduction in the working week.

It was also motivated by the Fraser government’s predictions of a looming minerals boom. Employers and the government united to reject outright reducing ordinary working hours below 40 hours a week.

Despite this, the AMWSU led a wide-reaching campaign, which included a 48-hour strike in 1981 involving 400,000 manufacturing workers. As a result, the union won an increase of $20 a week and a 38-hour week. The agreement also allowed for a second increase of $14 in 1982, based on projected inflation for the next six months.

However, part the deal was that, in exchange for the improved conditions, the AMWSU agreed to a 12-month “no extra claims” clause, through which all future claims for increased wages or reduced hours were held back for 12 months.

One year after the AMWSU won its new agreements, the global economic downturn hit in full force, driving down demand for consumer and capital goods. This downturn had already begun to be felt in Australia before the wage campaign, but the AMWSU had been protected from it initially due to residual demand for skilled workers.

In response to the crisis, manufacturing employers started to rapidly shed jobs, and about 90,000 workers were sacked. In the face of this assault the AMWSU’s leaders abided by the “no strike” agreements and did not take industrial action to try to protect jobs.

At some shops, workers tried to secure jobs by agreeing to reduce their hours to a four-day week at four days’ wages.

While this experience would appear to support the Australian’s claim that wage rises lead to job losses, it only indicates that a wage rise occurred at about the same time as large-scale job losses during an economic downturn.

To sustain the Australian’s argument, there would need to be a consistent pattern that wage rises during recession result in job losses while wage restraint during recessions result in job creation.

No link
The pattern of wages and employment in manufacturing over the past 30 years does not indicate the direct link argued by the Australian and other supporters of a wage freeze in the current period.

Indeed, there are periods of significant job losses during the downturns of the late 1980s and early 1990s. During this period, real wages remained at best stagnant, and what wage rises were won were tied to productivity gains or loss of conditions, which limited the cost for capital for wage gains.

Moreover, if the decline in jobs was a result of wage gains and economic decline, as the economy recovers you would expect to see a significant recovery of jobs. However, such employment recovery has been more limited.

This reflects the extent to which capital has used periods of economic decline to restructure and force through increases in labour productivity at the cost of employment.

The Australian’s articles are part of a broader offensive in Australia and internationally to ensure that workers bear the brunt of the current economic crisis and to ensure bosses are in a position to reap the greatest share of the next recovery.

With this in mind, workers and unions must struggle to maintain and extend wages and conditions, and they should be supported by all working people.

This article was originally published in Green Left Weekly Issue #803


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The campaign against the closure of Ford in Bordeaux

The campaign against the closure of Ford in Bordeaux: A history
Philippe Rouffigne

The Ford factory in Bordeaux has been the subject of a long struggle between the managers, intent on closing the plant, and the CGT union. Successive actions mean the plat remains open, but there are hard lessons for workers in similar positions.

The Ford factory at Blanquefort (near Bordeaux, France), which employs 3,500 workers, has been threatened with closure since 2000. It manufactures automatic gear boxes for the U.S. market and manual gearboxes for the European market. It is the part of the plant manufacturing automatic gear boxes and employing 2500 workers that has been under threat.

The automatic gear boxes are an ageing product nearing the end of their life, and production has been declining until today. The speeches from the company directors about the future of the plant were sometimes contradictory reassuring, and at other times threatening.

The first struggle was conducted on the works committee (Comité d’Entreprise) to sound the alarm to the workforce. The management was formally requested to provide more information on the future of the plant. This proved to be of little value. In 2005, the company announce a programme for the reduction of posts (Plan de Suppression d’Emplois). Five Hundred employees take-up offers of early retirement and voluntary redundancy.

The official reason given for these job losses was to ensure the survival of the plant. The CGT was the only union that attempted to organise opposition to this round of job losses, but mobilisation and industrial action was weak. We were in a factory which had not seen any action during the previous 20 years, and the idea that these job losses were unavoidable was widespread. The offer of early retirement and voluntary redundancy was made to buy peace and avoid conflict, and management announce that the future of the plant is safe until 2014. But in November of that same year, there is another offer of 165 early retirements. The CGT tried to fight to improve the offer, but the mobilisation of the workforce was still too weak.

From then on, the CGT steps up its campaign against the job losses by warning that management was gradually going to empty the plant of workers until it closed it down completely. In February 2007, we organised a demonstration in defence of jobs in the town of Blanquefort. No other union joined the demonstration, but it was a success because 250 employees from the plant were on it. This was the beginning of our campaign.

From then on, other unions join in the campaign, creating a joint union committee that lasts 12 months. We then have two years of actions and mobilisations which were eventually successful.

In 2007, there are several demonstrations: 500 in March in Bordeaux, then 1000 in the same month. We organise a conference on jobs in April with local councillors and state organisations. The aim was to warn the local community and to put pressure on the state organisations so that they intervene. It took a very long time, but eventually they do respond.

The first outcome of the demonstrations was the creation of a working party convened by the Prefecture, and including Ford management and local elected officials. Ford had announced earlier that year that it would withdraw from the plant in 2011, and this working party was trying to develop a plan by 2007 for the future of the plant. Each time the working party met, we organised strikes and demonstrations.

Ford gave virtually no information and continuously tried to stop mobilisations. It denounced “agitators”, but was nevertheless wrong-footed because it had never had to deal with such a campaign. The management argued that it was trying to find solutions, but never mentions closure. Gradually, the feeling develops amongst the workforce that there is a grave threat.

Furthermore, the working party offers no perspectives as it claims that despite trying it had no solution for the plant. We step up the pressure, and in October 2007, we organise a strike that is supported by 800 workers. For the first time ever, the union for technical and supervisory staff supports the action. In November, a one-day strike closes the factory and 1400 demonstrate in Blanquefort.

Reports in the local media are widespread, the local population is informed and pressure is growing on local elected officials. From the beginning, we argue for the defence of all the jobs inside Ford, but also of all those indirectly employed which is about 10,000 in the whole region.

The working party meets for the last time in December, and we organise a demonstration in Bordeaux. The mood is angry as the working party has nothing to report and inside the plant the atmosphere is tense. The next two days, there is a spontaneous strike just before the Christmas break. Management seem unable to control the situation.

The return to work in January 2008 is difficult. Management try to take the initiative by announcing the closure of the site for April 2010. The atmosphere becomes again fatalistic, but we try to relaunch the mobilisation with pickets at the end of January. We are relatively few, but the media is there and management realises that there is still a determined group of union activists.

There is a discussion that starts amongst the activists about whether the fight is for jobs or for generous terms for early retirement and voluntary redundancy. This is a debate that continues to the end. Management attempt to get us to abandon the fight for jobs, while the other unions have an ambiguous position as they say that it is utopian to try to save jobs.

The determination of the CGT allows the struggle to be re-launched with a new strike organised by the joint-union committee. Because some unions are hesitant, preparations are clandestine. We start a strike on Saturday 16 February with 30 pickets at 5am. This is the beginning of a 10-day strike during which we block all gates, and organise food, patrols and braziers (it was very cold). During 10 days, the workers are mobilised, although some don’t go on strike. The strike is picked up by a national and regional media, with mobile studios outside the gates. This gets the local population informed who come to support us and start to establish support/solidarity committees that are key to building a bridge between the workforce and local people.

During the strike, the reports in the media increase as Olivier Besancenot (LCR) and Segolene Royal (PS) turn up to show their support.

This strike had one important effect: to force the management of Ford Europe to get involved who up till now had kept clear. Twice they come to Bordeaux to get us to stop the action and to calm us by making a ridiculous financial offer. The strike is ended following legal proceedings that threaten us with heavy fines. But in any case we would have been unable to keep the action going for much longer. Management go again on the offensive as they saw the strike as an insult to them.

During the strike, there were two demands: save all jobs and also generous financial offers (although at the CGT we were not in favour of the latter). Management will use the demand for a financial offer to break up the joint-union committee, and to sow confusion and demobilise amongst the workforce. They are partly successful as the joint-union committee breaks up.

Management proposes an agreement for financial compensation in case of redundancies in the next three years. We continue fighting against this attempt to make job cuts. Four unions sign up to this deal, but the CGT and the CFTC refuse. As these two unions represent the majority of the workforce, we are in a position to get this agreement cancelled. Management attack the CGT and tries to bribe the workforce by making an offer of a minimum of 50,000 Euros in case of redundancy. We faced hostility from some workers and a declaration of war from the unions that had signed up to the deal.

We go through a difficult period as management with the unions that had signed-up organise a referendum to isolate the unions that were fighting. We called for a boycott, which may have been a mistake, but as more than a third did not vote, the small majority for the deal was meaningless.

From July 2008, we plan with the local support committees for a demonstration in Paris at the Car Show. We finance the transport with bingos, meals, and a concert organised by the Council of Blanquefort. We eventually organise 600 people to go up by train to invade the Car Show, resulting in a big splash in the media and the exasperation of the management with this campaign that never ends.

In the summer of 2008, the possibility of the plant being taken over becomes a serious option as pressure is beginning to pay-off. We have no faith in the statements from management, but those of the government and local public bodies indicate the possibility of a take-over with at least 500 jobs safe.

At the end of October, management announces the closure of the site for ten weeks. This is a shock to the workers and we demand full-pay as compensation during the close-down period. On the eve of the closure there is a meeting of the works council were management refuse to improve compensation. We invade the meeting and block management in the car park. There is a physical confrontation and the atmosphere is very tense. It was only the CGT there with 200-300 militants. Management is shaken but denounce political manipulation by the extremists and refuses to make any improvements. The CGT is now alone as the CFTC break-off, repeating the criticism of management against this demonstration.

During the closure of the last two months of 2008, the CGT organises weekly union meetings, and two demonstrations in Bordeaux. We keep up the pressure and a presence in the media, with the objective of saving all jobs.

Finally, there is an official announcement on the 2 February 2009 that the plant will be taken over by HZ, a German holding company, in co-operation the German industrial group Hay. It is a strange return to work, which gives the impression that Ford is trying to stop the mobilisation, to make itself forgotten and to sub-contract out the closure. Nevertheless the promise is that all jobs will be safe. The local public bodies and elected officials declare that they have worked hard over the last two years but forget to mention the campaign by the workers that forced them to find a solution.

From the 1st May, the plant has officially be bought up by another company, but Ford is still has a presence on the board. Ford finances everything until 2011, and we carry on with the same production while we wait for new products to be brought in over the next three years. We have little confidence in management, and most workers don’t believe them, but the campaign has stopped.

It is both a victory and a trick by management. The CGT is alone in continuing to keep up the pressure, and argues that to really defend jobs we need to be vigilant and continue the struggle as soon as there are new attacks.

Philippe Rouffigne is a militant of the CGT in the Ford plant outside Bordeaux, this article was originally published in the June edition International Viewpoint


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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