Upwards of 60,000 people hit the streets of Melbourne in the biggest union protest in over a decade on May 9. Some estimates put the figure in excess of 100,000. Regardless, it was the largest protest I’ve ever been on.
Seeing the streets flooded with union flags was a sight to behold and gave just a glimpse of the potential power of the workers movement. It was clear that many unions had mobilised for the ‘Change the Rules’ rally in a way they haven’t done for years with many unions represented by large contingents.
A few unions even got their members to stop work to attend. The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) shut down their jobs across the city, with many also joining from across regional Victoria. Striking Melbourne University workers and waterside workers who had stopped work were in attendance as well.
Socialist Party members spoke with people throughout the day about the reasons why they had decided to come out. The reasons were varied. Some people had specific workplace grievances while others had industry-wide issues. It was interesting to note that many people were talking about wealth inequality and big business greed.
Despite the fact that Australia has not seen a recession in 26 years, people are feeling the pinch. As several of the speakers at the rally said, we’re living in a time of record low wage growth with inequality at its highest since the Great Depression.
After the first set of speakers, the march snaked its way to the Magistrates Court for a pit stop. CFMMEU officials John Setka and Shaun Reardon were in court facing trumped up charges of ‘blackmail’. The accusation was actually that they had threatened industrial action.
In the days after the rally the charges were dropped. This is a huge blow to the government, and to all the anti-union forces, behind this blatant attempt to criminalise trade union activity.
In his speech out the front of the courts, ETU state secretary Troy Gray made the correct point that while we need change, it isn’t going to happen in Canberra. Socialists agree with this sentiment. If we’re serious about changing the rules we will need to use industrial action coupled with more mass protests.
While every speaker spoke about the problems we face, very few put forward a concrete plan for how to win. There was a lot of talk about getting rid of the Turnbull Liberal government, but by this they meant elect Labor. The problem is that the very rules that need to be changed were introduced by Labor themselves!
Despite the anti-Liberal mood, there was not much enthusiasm for Labor. Bill Shorten is a thoroughly uninspiring right-wing leader, consistently polling behind Malcolm Turnbull as preferred Prime Minister.
There are also less illusions in Labor than the last time the union movement campaigned against anti-worker industrial laws 12 years ago. In 2007, Labor were elected on the back of a union-led campaign. When in power they introduced the misnamed Fair Work Act, which is the legislation that has been used to drive down wages and conditions since.
After such a big turnout people were hoping to hear about the next steps in the campaign. Unfortunately, there was nothing forthcoming from the platform. In fact, the rally ended in such an abrupt way that some people thought the PA had stopped working! Even Channel 10 reported that the rally was lacking in demands and strategy.
The leaflet that the Socialist Party distributed on the day was an attempt to contribute to the debate about the way forward. Our material called on the ACTU to organise mass delegates meetings in every major city that would agree on a list of demands that we put to all the political parties. These meetings should be followed up with workplace meetings that endorse the claims and build for a national day of stop-work action.
The May 9 action was a great first step and it should be replicated, but this time throughout the whole country. The campaign should be prepared to challenge whoever wins the next federal election, as well as capitalism itself. We need to change the system not just the rules!
By Kat Galea