At RAFFWU we talk a lot about the impact of direct collective action by workers on employers.

In other sectors, this action has delivered immensely superior wages and conditions.

Workers are paid double (or more) of the minimum Award wage and have rights to consultation before changes are decided. Rosters are set and changed only by agreement. There are enforceable rights to training, development and progression. Superannuation is higher. Rights to fair performance management are enshrined. Secure work is guaranteed.

These things were won by workers taking direct action in years gone by – for example, nurses won nurse to patient ratios by going on strike. An 8 hour work day was won by stonemasons going on strike.

Striking is not the only form of industrial action. Sometimes other action can be effective and deliver the outcome we need. Sometimes just the threat of industrial action is enough to get workers what they want.

Before 2005 the Industrial Relations system provided that workers could engage in industrial action through much simpler and accessible steps.

Workers could commence bargaining once an agreement expired and a union committee of management could authorise workers to engage in industrial action. Of course, it was always workers engaging in industrial action – stopping work or banning work functions – which was central to the process.

Enterprise Bargaining was about locking workers out from industrial action and locking in conditions for the duration of the agreement. That was all it was about.

The Liberal Government in 2005-2007 changed the laws to require workers to undertake a protected action ballot to get access to industrial action. This meant a process had to be completed which took months to access industrial action. Workers would have to run a case in the Commission and then have the AEC conduct a postal ballot with paper ballots. More than half the ballots had to be returned for the vote to be successful. It took time, energy and resources. It delayed workers while bosses planned how they would use scabs to stop action. It was anti-worker and anti-union.

They said it was about democracy but even a yes vote in a ballot compelled no-one to do anything. Every worker makes a choice about participating in industrial action no matter whether there was a ballot or not. It was always about stopping action, stopping workers and stopping unions.

In 2007 the Labor Government was elected and made it worse. They put a structure in place which kept these rotten ballots but then also required another step. Where an employer refused to bargain, workers would have to prove more than half of the workforce wanted to bargain. It didn’t matter that a worker wanted to bargain, they could nothing about it if they couldn’t prove more than half of all workers in the enterprise wanted to bargain.

We have won a number of these cases – majority support determinations. RAFFWU members at Better Read Than Dead bookshop took the first industrial action in retail in over 50 years in 2021 and won higher wages, 6 months parental leave, automatic casual conversion to ongoing work and lots more. We know when workers take industrial action they get much better workplace conditions.

However, the systems become impossible when dealing with massive continent wide employers who have many hundreds or thousands of stores and 100,000 (or more) workers. Workers would need 50,001 petitions from across Australia to prove to the Commission workers wanted to bargain. The petitions would have to be collected in a few months or else they are ‘stale’. This is what happened at Coles Supermarkets. Since May 2020, Coles has refused to bargain despite the old agreement expiring.

RAFFWU took almost 2,500 petitions to the Commission but it refused to even conduct an electronic ballot of workers.

Without a majority support determination at Coles, workers cannot take industrial action.

This is new – in 2004 there was no such requirement. A union simply decided its members could take industrial action for a new agreement.

We still see some workplaces take industrial action but they are small. Less than 1000 workers.

The larger workplaces taking industrial action are almost always government employers – where their refusal to bargain would draw public condemnation. Even they will eventually start refusing to bargain unless they face a very large militant progressive union with workplace power (such as public school teachers or public hospital nurses.)

Workers in massive private enterprise do want to take action for better wages and conditions but the laws prevent them.

Their right to strike – to take industrial action – is stripped from them by the actions of their employers and by the laws of Labor and Liberal Governments.

The laws are clear – each worker decides whether to participate in action or not. Therefore, there is absolutely no basis for all the impediments in front of workers and unions to engaging in industrial action. Restoring the right to strike should be the fundamental priority of the union movement and the working class.