Lock me up! I won't pay a fine for striking

Appeal by Grant Morgan of the New Zealand Workers Charter and Socialist Worker

"I'm prepared to do a jail term," says father of four John Pes. "There's no way my kids are going to be living on Vegemite sandwiches while I pay a fine to the government for sticking up for a principle."

The principle John is talking about is a worker's right to strike.

John and his construction workmates went on strike in West Australia earlier this year to enforce a health and safety agreement being broken by their company and to demand the return of their sacked job delegate.

Their bosses turned to anti-union legislation recently passed by John Howard's conservative government. 107 workers were charged under the new laws. Each one faces a $22,000 fine.

These workers belong to the Construction, Forestry, Mining & Energy Union. The CFMEU's local secretary, Kevin Reynolds, says Howard's government is "hellbent" on destroying unions across the Tasman.

The Socialist Alliance in Australia says their government is "trying to abolish the right to strike altogether, passing laws that impose huge fines and jail terms on workers and unions who take any sort of industrial action, no matter what the reason".

A prominent figure in the Socialist Alliance is Tim Gooden, secretary of Geelong Trades Council and a longtime CFMEU activist. Tim is calling on the Australian Council of Trade Unions to organise "a national campaign of strike actions, protests and blockades" against the anti-strike legislation.

Freely admitting that "all this is illegal," Tim declares: "Bad laws need to be broken." He points to how waves of mass mobilisations in France a few months back killed off a "sack at will" law aimed at young workers.

But a different strategy is being followed by the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Resisting mass mobilisations, the ACTU is instead fronting a propaganda campaign on behalf of the Labor Party - even though its politicians won't promise to legislate the right to strike.

Meanwhile, government politicians, state officials and corporate bosses on both sides of the Tasman are quietly negotiating a Single Market with common immigration, taxation and commercial regulations.

When this Single Market gets off the ground, which may be sooner rather than later, common political regulations will follow ­ just like the old European Economic Community morphed into today's politically centralised
European Union.

Increasingly, what happens to workers in Australia is going to directly influence what happens to workers here. The destinies of the working classes on both sides of the Tasman will become more tightly interlinked.

The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions has condemned the Howard government's anti-union laws. The NZCTU is supporting its ACTU counterpart. At first glance, trans-Tasman workers' solidarity appears to be alive and kicking.

On closer inspection, however, you can see the shape of problems to come. The Howard government's legislative attack on the right to strike is remarkably similar to Helen Clark's harsh restrictions on the right to strike in the Employment Relations Act, passed in 2000 by the NZ Labour government.

The NZCTU praises the Employment Relations Act as a "new ERA" of union rights. Yet this law forbids NZ workers from striking over unfair sackings, government policies, other strikes, unjust wars, racism or sexism, ecological crises, dishonoured job contracts, mass redundancies, price rises, community concerns or anything else falling outside two narrow areas: first, settlement of your own collective employment agreement, and second, escape from an urgent health and safety threat.

The right to strike has yet to be won in Labour-run Aotearoa. Despite the rhetoric of trans-Tasman solidarity, the NZCTU could not legally deliver any strike in solidarity with Australian workers. To do that, they would have to defy Labour's unjust law.

Most union leaders in New Zealand refuse to criticise Labour's anti-strike legislation even though it threatens NZ workers with the sort of heavy fines, property confiscations and jail terms that Australian workers are now facing.

It's time to break this uneasy silence. NZ union leaders are countering the National Party's "sack at will" bill with a "Work Rights Our Rights" campaign. If this is going to be a serious campaign, as opposed to a pro-Labour propaganda stunt, then it must include the most serious work right that we lack ­ the freedom to strike.