Civil & industrial rights I

Geoff Derrick

There is, and always has been, an inextricable link between workers rights and civil rights, from the days of the Tollpuddle martyrs, hanged or deported for organisng an attempt to collectively bargain in the 19th century, to today, following the proclamation of the Howard government's WorkChoices legislation.

Unions have not always been prepared to engage in the broader debates about civil liberties, and have paid a significant price for this position in terms of their subsequent capacity to mobilise and join with broad based community action on matters of central importance to working people and their families.

"Australia's unions have a chequered history when considering the response to social movements."

In the USA, for example, the organised labour movement through the AFL-CIO opposed the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, because it was seen as a threat to the jobs and living standards of poor white workers.

Then when the mass movement against the USA's involvement in the Vietnam war took hold, organised labor opposed it to the point of violent clashes between protesters and unionists, on the basis that the anti-war movement was considered to be anti-American, as part of a spin off from labour's own internal debates and the McCarthyist era.

The feminist movement, which had great success in the late 60s and 70s, did it without the support of organised labour, again, because of a fear for the jobs of working men.

By the 1990s, another social movement had taken hold in the US, this time around environmental concerns, but, again, organised labour stood apart from the community on the issue because of job security concerns among manufacturing workers.

Australia's unions have a chequered history when considering the response to social movements; we supported the White Australia Policy and many unions, including my own, were reluctant to embrace women's rights until the second half of the last century.

On the other hand, unions opposed Japanese imperialism in the 1930s, supported the land rights struggle, opposed conscription and the Vietnam war, and introduced the Green Ban as part of its commitment to social change and civil rights.

In 2005 the Commonwealth parliament passed legislation providing for abolition of the right to silence under threat of imprisonment; imprisonment for breaching confidentiality provisions regarding the parties to a dispute, fines for people who asked for their existing rights to be respected into the future, and abolition of a grievance procedure that had worked for 100 years.

These breaches of civil rights are just one part of the anti-union, anti-civil rights legislation crunched through the parliament by Howard in the second half of 2005.

In the same six months, he also pushed through new so-called anti-terrorism laws that also represent a serious attack on long held legal and moral principles of civil and political rights in this country.

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