The campaign against the East-West toll road in Melbourne is ramping up the pressure on the Liberal government and the ALP opposition in the lead up to the November state election.
This campaign has turned the project – once a fait accompli in many people’s minds – into a political disaster for the major parties. Despite months of propaganda from the government, public support for the East-West Link remains extremely low at around 25%. Even Napthine’s strongest supporters in the media such as the Herald Sun and 3AW are now issuing major warnings to the government to fix this mess before November.
Vigorous campaigning – including pickets outside inner city ALP offices demanding they pledge to rip up the contracts – is putting immense pressure on the opposition. The ALP is now disparaging the East-West Link in the media on a daily basis, but still maintains it will honour the contracts if they are signed before the election. This fake opposition seems ridiculous and suspicious when considering Labor’s current lead in the polls and low support for the East-West Link.
A complicating factor in the situation is the wrong position of many trade unions on the East-West Link. Their lack of perspective on how to respond to this unpopular project in the context of both the jobs crisis and the Royal Commission reveals the political weakness of the bulk of union leaders.
Alongside the scrapping of the East-West Link project campaigners have been demanding proper investment in public transport. A massive expansion of the public transport system would see thousands of new jobs created.
According to the government’s own costings, three times as many jobs are created per dollar spent on public transport projects than on road building. Crucially, many of these jobs would be long-term, sustainable jobs for metal workers, electricians, service staff and others.
In the context of the factory closures in Geelong and elsewhere, expansion and investment in public transport highlights the need for idle factories to be brought into public ownership and retooled to build trams, trains and buses.
With this is mind, it is disappointing to see that the main manufacturing unions (the AMWU and AWU) are running campaigns demanding that local steel producers be given work on the East-West Link.
This sits very uncomfortably with that fact that the ALP, the party they are affiliated to, supposedly opposes the project. But worse than this inconsistency is the reality that their support for this disastrous Liberal Party project puts them at odds with the bulk of the community and the progressive forces fighting for long-term solutions to Victoria’s transport problems.
The union movement does not have to merely accept the proposals of the major parties. It can and should develop its own infrastructure plan and campaign around it. In the context of a vicious anti-union propaganda campaign and the right-wing Royal Commission, the need for unions to align themselves with the interests of the whole working class is urgent.
This does not just apply to the manufacturing unions. The construction unions, and in particular the CFMEU, should demand the government invest in important infrastructure projects. By building public housing, public schools, public childcare centres and public hospitals, thousands of jobs would be created, not only for construction workers but also for teachers, childcare workers, nurses and others. It could also wipe out public housing, childcare and hospital waiting lists, which are spiralling out of control.
This type of approach would not only lead to more jobs and services but it would win the union movement public support. The current approach of supporting projects opposed by the majority of Victorians for short-term gain will not inspire the majority of people to support the unions when the Liberals decide to move against them. Nor will it fix the crisis of union membership.
The government is trying to isolate the more militant unions from the public to make it easier to destroy them. Unfortunately some of the unions’ own policies are playing into their hands.
By Chris Dite