A union push to overturn the NSW government’s privatisation drive failed to materialise at the Labor state conference in mid-November.
A year ago at the state conference a union and rank-and-file member revolt stopped then Premier Morris Iemma’s plan to privatise the power industry. In the wash up from the conference Iemma was forced to resign as premier.
But new Premier Nathan Rees has revived the power sell-off in a new form. The sale of retail electricity companies and trading rights to power from the generators is now well advanced, with expressions of interest from buyers already received.
A spirited rally outside the conference on Saturday morning organised by the Power to the People coalition heard from unionists in the power industry, prisons and ferries who have resisted privatisation.
But despite the wave of privatisations targeting a range of unions including the Prison Officers, Public Sector Association, USU (retail electricity workers), MUA and AMWU (ferries) and ETU (power stations) the unions have failed to mount a united fight. As a result individual unions have been isolated in their opposition to privatisation in their industry. The USU, which had talked about sponsoring a motion against privatisation at the conference, drew back from doing so after securing five-year employment protection after privatisation for workers it covers in electricity retail.
No motion against the power sell-off was even moved at the conference.
The NSW government is also pushing ahead with privatisation of Pillar, NSW Lotteries and will announce a decision about whether to privatise Sydney Ferries in December.
The one spark of opposition was a successful motion moved against a sell-off of the ferries. Any proposal to privatise would have to come back to another party conference for approval.
However the government has refused to say whether it will respect the party’s decision. According to Transport Minister David Campbell, “The government is…getting on with the market-testing exercise that will determine whether the private sector or Sydney Ferries can deliver the best, most efficient service for passengers.”
If the government goes ahead it will set up a similar scenario as over power privatisation, with Labor MPs attempting to defy a formally binding decision of the party conference. But unless Unions NSW and the wider union movement mobilises to support the ferries unions, the government could well get its way again.
By James Supple

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