Several thousand mining and construction workers staged a wildcat strike yesterday as Australian trade unions launched a week of protests against changes in labor laws which they say will cut pay and rights.
The strike in the Pilbara iron-ore mining center of Western Australia was the first blow in a campaign by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to force Prime Minister John Howard to back down on the reforms.
The decision to stage an immediate strike was taken at a rally attended by some 3,000 workers in the northwestern town of Dampier, who agreed unanimously to walk off the job for 24 hours, national radio reported.
The rally was told by union spokesman Dave Robinson that the government's plan to introduce a national industrial-relations system would take away their basic rights and was the greatest threat to workers in more than 150 years.
"Once everybody had heard what John Howard has got in store for them there was a lot of anger and that's what we've encountered everywhere," Robinson said.
The government wants to expand the use of individual contracts in the workplace, abolish the state-based industrial-relations systems and create a new Fair Pay Commission to set minimum wages.
It also plans to remove unfair dismissal protection for employees sacked from small businesses with fewer than 100 workers -- a move which unionists say will affect 3.6 million workers.
"The government seems to want to create in this country a US-style working poor where people have very poor workplace rights and where they have to work for very low wages," ACTU secretary Greg Combet told a rally at Melbourne airport.
Howard, who will on Friday become the most powerful Australian leader in a quarter of a century when his ruling coalition takes control of the senate, has pledged to press ahead with the new laws.
"I will never want it said of a government I lead that it missed the opportunity of a majority in the senate to do some things that we could never otherwise do without that majority," he told a meeting of his Liberal Party.
The government's senate majority, which reflects Howard's crushing victory in last October's general election, makes him the first Australian prime minister for 24 years to control both houses of parliament.
The new senate make-up means Howard can enact a radical reform agenda that has previously been blocked by minor parties in the upper house during his nine years in office.
The ACTU says hundreds of thousands of workers are expected to take part in the week of protest, with rallies planned for Thursday in major cities around the country.
"The aim of the week of activities is to inform as many people as possible that their basic rights, job security and living standards are threatened by the Howard government's plans to radically change Australia's workplace laws," ACTU president Sharan Burrow said.