Interview with Queensland ETU Secretary Peter Simpson
Peter Simpson, Secretary of the Queensland Electrical Trades Union (ETU) spoke at a community and trade union conference in Melbourne at the end of 2010. He is an example of a long-time ALP member who has found himself in opposition to the party he has actively supported for over 20 years.
Peter and the Queensland ETU have been the most active and vocal opponents of the Queensland ALP state government’s sell off of Queensland’s freight rail stock.
Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has since called on him to resign from the ALP claiming he had broken the party’s rules. Australia Workers Union secretary Bill Ludwig has also joined Bligh in condemning Peter and the Queensland ETU saying he has “a bent against the ALP”. Peter and ETU Organiser, Stuart Traill are now facing the ALP’s Disputes Committee which looks set to expel them and may also move to disaffiliate the union.
To even voice active opposition to privatisation is considered “a step too far” by the Queensland ALP leadership. Meanwhile the majority of union leaders stay silent. This is just another stark example that highlights the fact that the ALP is a political instrument that handcuffs workers to interests of big business.
While Peter and the ETU cannot currently comment on anything to do with the Disputes Committee hearing, they have greatly angered the tops of the ALP by talking about the possibility of setting up an ‘Independent Labour Party’, an idea they plan to put to the Queensland ETU membership in May.
At the recent conference in Melbourne, Peter talked of the hundreds of unionists who joined the ALP to fight Howard’s anti-worker laws. “A year later nearly every single one has left” he said. These and thousands of other former ALP activists would be the natural base for a new workers party.
The idea of political representation for workers needs to be discussed in every state and in every trade union. For too long now the Australian working class has had no significant party of their own. As Peter Simpson and the Queensland ETU have recognised this has to change.
Socialist Party member Simon Millar recently spoke to Peter about the privatisation of Queensland Rail and the effects this will have on working class communities.
SM: The sale of Queensland Rail has gone through, what has been sold and to who?
Peter Simpson: Queensland Rail was broken up into two bits, public transport and freight. The transport side has stayed in public hands while the freight side has been sold off. Forty percent of the public shares are now owned by the Queensland government while the rest has been bought up by major investment funds and individual investors. No buyer is able to have greater than a 15% share. Incidentally share prices have dropped significantly since the floods.
SM: What do you predict will be the long-term consequences of the sell off?
Peter Simpson: One only has to look at results of similar sell offs in other states to see the likely results. Freight trains to small regional areas that are not ‘profitable’ will be cut which will have drastic consequences for those towns and this will be accompanied by big layoffs as the company streamlines in order to maximise profits.
SM: What does the future look like for rail workers under the newly privatised freight company?
Peter Simpson: A series of three year agreements were signed by the unions which preserve current conditions and guarantee no lay offs during this period. But already the company has been calling for voluntary redundancies and once the three years are up we can expect big layoffs in line with the inevitable streamlining of the business.
SM: What role did the Queensland ETU play in opposing the sell off?
Peter Simpson: We were part of rail union group that publicly opposed the sell off and worked with the Queensland community to organise public opposition to the sell off. We organised regional rallies and two major rallies in the city. At the height of the campaign polls showed 93% of the Queensland public opposed the sell off, the lowest that figure has gone is 85%, it remains at 85% even after the sell off.