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Issue 576, 7 December 2007 - Union Campaign Smashed Howard

Union mass protests crucial to anti-Howard campaign

Howard's demise should be dated back to the mass delegates' meetings called by Victorian Trades Hall Council and Unions NSW in April and May 2005.

The way the mainstream media talks about the election, the Rights at Work campaign was just an advertising war funded by the unions. Some unions even talk about simply educating people about the laws as the key to changing votes.

In fact the union campaign of mass demonstrations and delegates' meetings laid the groundwork for Howard's defeat.

It was clear in 2004 that Howard intended to use his Senate majority to pass drastic anti-union laws. The building and metal workers' unions in Victoria were in the government's sights first - so they called for union delegates' meetings to start the campaign. The left organised petitions calling for resolutions for mass action to be put at the meetings.

The size and militancy of the delegates' meetings surprised the union officials. Workers responded because they were desperate for a fightback against Howard's attacks.

The Victorian meeting overwhelmingly endorsed a day of action on June 30 (the day before Howard got control of the Senate). So strong was the national mood to defy Howard that NSW and Queensland union councils were forced to join the Victorian action.

On June 30, 2005 over 100,000 unionists marched in Melbourne, and the following day stop work meetings were held across NSW where attendance was estimated at over 40,000.

Then on November 15 the ACTU called a nation-wide day of action. Over 600,000 people left work to protest against the WorkChoices legislation which was about to go into the Senate. It was passed on December 2.

While the ACTU called more mass rallies in 2006 and 2007, the emphasis shifted to community education and TV advertising against the laws�and calling for a vote against the Howard government.

The mobilisations of delegates were crucial to the success of the ACTU campaign. It was the delegates who led the discussion in workplaces and the wider community about the industrial relations laws and built the sense that it was possible to defeat Howard. As a result 60 per cent of the population opposed the laws by the time they were passed in 2005 - and Howard was never able to undermine that opposition no matter how much he spent on taxpayer funded advertising.

Without the mass union rallies the ACTU advertising and marginal seats campaigns would not have had the same impact. It was the huge union rallies which stopped Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane that made workers realise they had the power to stop Howard if they acted together.

Howard took his ideology of individualism way beyond most people's notion of basic fairness. In doing so he generated his nemesis, the very thing he feared most - collective mobilisation by the working class both on the streets and at the ballot box - and laid the basis for his own humiliation.

Anne Picot