Around 120,000 workers took over the streets of Melbourne on 9 May in an awesome display of working class power. It was part of two weeks of action around the country launching the Change the Rules campaign.
Port workers walked out on illegal strike for six hours at DP World and Toll Group. According to the Financial Review, stevedoring companies were fuming with, “maritime union officials allegedly threatening to extend the six-hour walk-out to 24 hours if any warnings were given to the workforce.”
Also on illegal strike were huge numbers of building workers, their fellow members of the newly merged CFMMEU (construction, forestry, mining, maritime, energy and textile union).
“This is going to be the biggest campaign in more than a decade,” Victorian Trades Hall Council Secretary Luke Hilakari said, “The rules are fundamentally broken for working people. Wages are at record lows but company profits are at record highs. We want our penalty rates back, we want equal pay for women, and we want to make sure all Australians get a decent pay rise.”
Around 300 Melbourne University NTEU members joined the march, on strike as part of their EBA negotiations, with placards linking “Change the Rules” to the fight against casualisation. NTEU Secretary Colin Long said that 50 per cent of university staff were now casuals. He called for a fight for the, “real right to strike and unfettered right to organise” and an end to fighting, “with one hand tied behind our back.”
Farm workers marched among hundreds of NUW members. From the stage, one of them spoke of how there were 100,000 like her, paid cash-in-hand at below the minimum wage, many of them on expired temporary visas. The NUW is campaigning for an amnesty so these migrant workers can gain secure work.
Tram routes were disrupted for three hours as the march wound past the Victorian Magistrates Court, to support CFMMEU leaders John Setka and Shaun Reardon, facing a committal hearing over trumped up blackmail charges over industrial action.
Thousands formed contingents behind their union banners—construction, electrical, childcare and metal workers, professionals, public sector, teachers, lecturers, firefighters, cleaners, public transport, plumbers, healthworkers and nurses. Official Trades Hall placards included, “We demand the Right to Strike”.
The size and enthusiasm of the Melbourne rally show why mass stopwork action needs to be a central part of the campaign. In every other state unions simply held the usual weekend May Day rallies.
But even in Melbourne the emphasis was on preparing for an electoral campaign to get rid of Malcolm Turnbull’s government. Luke Hilakari explained that the focus would be, “to have conversations with your neighbours, your community groups and your friends… about the injustices happening to Australian workers”.
He asked the crowd, “Are you ready to campaign with us? Are you ready to knock on some doors?”
Yet it was Labor that introduced the Fair Work Act and created most of the current industrial rules. Simply electing Labor is not going to deliver all the changes unions need—including the right to strike. We need an ongoing campaign of stopwork action, and further delegates meetings to build it.
By Judy McVey