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Why we must fight for the right to strike

Since January, hundreds of Hunter workers have joined the The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU).
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I want to welcome them to a union with a proud history, and a movement that has won important victories for working people.

I first joined my union as an apprentice fitter at Tubemakers, now part of OneSteel.

I joined because I wanted to change the way apprentices were treated and being a union member gave us the strength to win better pay and conditions.

You don’t join a union so things stay the same.

We organise to create change, whether that’s better pay and conditions in your workplace or a better deal for working people in our society.

Across the country, the union movement is leading a campaign to end trickle-down economics and rewrite our workplace laws to give power back to working people.

The Change the Rules campaign is set to be the largest and most significant union campaign since Your Rights at Work.

Which is why I think it is time that our country has a conversation about the right to strike.

The simple fact is that the right to withdraw your labour, to go on strike or take other forms of industrial action, is the most effective way you can create change in your workplace, and our current laws are designed to prevent you from using it.

The debate about the right to strike is really about who gets to make the decision to take industrial action.

We believe that that decision belongs to the workers, not to a commission that is stacked against us and certainly not employers and their representatives in parliament.

Our current system takes that decision away from workers, instead giving them a bureaucratic system that strips workers of their rights.

Even when workers have gone through the appropriate steps to go on strike they can be overruled by the courts on the basis that they might “cause economic damage”.

The result of this system is that we currently have one of the lowest rates of industrial action in Australian history.

And while some may say that this is a good thing, especially employers and their friends on the conservative side of politics, there are larger consequences of preventing workers from going on strike.

Strikes are often inconvenient.

They are difficult, especially for the workers who decide to go on them.

But without them, workers never show employers how powerful they really are.

I think of strikes as a tool: a way that working people can shape the world around them.

More than that, they are a way for working people to think about the kind of world they want.

In most cases that will mean changes to their workplace: better pay and conditions, better safety standards or better job security.

And anyone who has gone on strike knows that it changes the relationship between you and your bosses, how they talk to you and how they treat you on the job.

That power has an effect that goes beyond your workplace, because strike action can create change outside our factory gates.

The 38-hour week for metal trades, won by the AMWU in the early 1980s, was won through strike action.

So was the eight-hour day, won by stonemasons in 1855.

So was long service leave, superannuation and just about all of the workplace conditions that we take for granted today.

Unions have even held strikes to support social or political demands.

Australian Unions have taken industrial action to support the end of nuclear weapons, enforce boycotts against apartheid South Africa, to defend public housing and historic buildings through the Green Bans, and for the universal healthcare system we now call Medicare.

This idea seems radical because we are told by many parts of the media that working people shouldn’t think or talk about the big picture, that it should be left to men and women in suits who went to the right schools and have the right jobs.

But that has never benefitted our working-class communities, only the very wealthy.

Workers have the right to think about issues that affect their lives.

They should be able to use their industrial strength to change it.

And if that appeals to you, you should join your union.

Steve MurphySecretary of the AMWU NSW and ACT Branch

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