The International Handbook of Labour Unions
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The International Handbook of Labour Unions

Responses to Neo-Liberalism

Edited by Gregor Gall, Adrian Wilkinson and Richard Hurd

Since the 1970s, the spread of neo-liberalism across the world has radically reconfigured the relationship between unions, employers and the state. The contributors highlight that this is the major cause and effect of union decline and if there is to be any union revitalisation and return to former levels of influence, then unions need to respond in appropriate political and practical ways. Written in a clear and accessible style, the Handbook examines unions’ efforts to date in many of the major economies of the world, providing foundations for understanding each country.
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Chapter 5: Neo-liberal Evolution and Union Responses in Australia

David Peetz and Janis Bailey


David Peetz and Janis Bailey INTRODUCTION It’s the first national general strike in Australia. Around the country, on 12 July 1976, union members are pounding the streets, carrying placards proclaiming ‘Hands off Medibank!’, loudly protesting the new conservative government’s plans to dismantle the national health insurance scheme established just two years earlier. The demonstrations have limited attendance, because there is no public transport to take people to them. But this is not the biggest problem with the strike. In fact, between a quarter and a half of union members have gone to work anyway, despite the transport problems (Donn 1979). Lasting, as planned, for only one day (quite typical for Australian strikes), it places no ongoing pressure on the government to give in to the union demands. Indeed the government refuses to negotiate with the unions and makes no changes to its plans for health insurance. The first national general strike is a fizzer. So it is also the last. Thirty years later, and union members are on the streets again, in bigger numbers than in 1976 – over 100 000 of them. This is no national strike. People have come here on the way to work or taken time off to attend. It would be illegal to strike over this issue. The leading banners of these very orderly demonstrations read ‘Your rights at work: worth fighting for’. Over 20 years after neo-liberalism took hold in Australia, this is a fight about laws that threaten the very survival of the...

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