Support for the protest was unanimous. The meeting agreed that the protest would highlight the negative impact of Work Choices and other federal government policies on thousands of families. There has been a considerable debate in the union movement this year about whether or not to hold another protest. A motion for a national day of protest was put to the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) executive earlier this year but was overwhelmingly voted down. One of the arguments put forward for not holding a protest is that it would damage the Labor Party’s chances of getting elected because it would project the wrong “image”. Other unions say that a mass protest against Work Choices would take resources from the ACTU’s marginal seats campaign. A similar debate occurred among Victorian unions.
However, some unions are convinced that a mass protest of workers is needed before the federal election. The delegates’ meeting and the proposal for a mass protest was an initiative of the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s (VTHC) building industry group of unions. Independent movement In his speech in favour of the motion, VTHC secretary and VTHC building industry group convener Brian Boyd told the delegates that the union movement needed to mobilise again in another rally. If it didn’t mobilise and relied purely on the parliamentary parties and the elections, then the movement would be giving up its independence.
He reminded delegates that the fight would need to continue after the elections. Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union assistant state secretary Tommy Watson told Green Left Weekly that every anti-Work Choices rally that had been called by the ACTU had been initiated in Victoria before the ACTU agreed to come on board. “Workers need a public forum where they can publicly protest against Howard’s Work Choices, AWAs [individual contracts] and 457 visas. Unions can do press conferences and press releases, but the media doesn’t print half the things that we say or do so I think it’s important that we see members walking around the streets of Melbourne voicing their protest”, he said. Delegates from Geelong, Ballarat, Bendigo and the Latrobe Valley also attended the meeting.
Geelong Trades Hall secretary Tim Gooden told GLW that Geelong workers were very committed to holding another mass protest, and had in fact spent months campaigning for one to be organised. Gippsland Trades and Labour Council secretary John Parker told GLW that there will be a meeting of Gippsland building industry stewards on August 29 where they will vote on a recommendation to endorse the September 26 rally and march in Melbourne. He said that the mass protest is a way of forcing “both the Liberal and Labor parties to understand that these laws allow workers to be intimidated and [they] disempower our young people”.
Parker said it is the role of unions and activists in society to politicise our work force and set the benchmark for people’s rights. “We need to engage ordinary working men and women to get more active and start to take up the leadership role and make sure that the next generation is going to be just as well off as we are. I’m one of the baby boomers' generation and I never envisaged that we would be leaving a world in so bad a condition as we’re leaving [it] today.”
While the rally has been initiated by the building industry unions, other unions are starting to come on board and encourage their members to join the protest. So far, the Maritime Union of Australia; the United Firefighters Union; the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union; and the Australian Services Union have agreed to support the protest. The rally has been scheduled in the school holidays so that workers can bring their families. Australian Manufacturing Workers Union secretary Steve Dargavel pointed out that it is the partners and children of building industry workers who are suffering under AWAs and Work Choices.
Next generation One delegate argued strongly in support of the rally, saying that it needed to be as big as possible, not for the current generation but for the next generation. He said that people’s current working conditions don’t belong to the current generation of workers, because they had been bequeathed to us by a previous generation. Electrical Trades Union secretary Dean Mighell agreed, telling GLW: “We felt strongly that this rally is about building workers caring about the working conditions for their kids. We care about what we’re handing over to the next generation … We don’t want to hand over to them less than what we have now. This is a rally about our kids.” The intention is that the rally involve community groups outside the union movement. Union Solidarity convener Dave Kerin told GLW that the community groups that are networked into Union Solidarity will support the protest. “It’s quite clear that in a time when people are feeling under-confident industrially, that by coming together with others of like minds, that confidence will increase. As confidence increases, people will be better positioned in their workplace to go the next step beyond protest to take industrial action.” A second resolution passed unanimously called on Labor-affiliated unions to pressure Labor to negotiate a preference deal with the Greens for the Senate. Dargavel supported the motion, saying that conservative elements within the Labor Party would use a hostile Senate as an excuse to water down its commitments on industrial relations. Labor has rejected a national preference swap with the Greens. Mighell told GLW that he was “absolutely delighted” with the level of support for that motion. He said that “what workers don’t want to see is Family First in the Senate eroding their conditions, and Labor put them there in the last election. Workers are saying they don’t want any more shifty preference deals. They’re saying, if you’re going to prefer anyone, prefer the Greens because their industrial relations policy is fantastic.”
From: Australian News, Green Left Weekly issue #722 29 August 2007.