Over half a million workers marched across Australia on 15 November, protesting against John Howard’s new Industrial Relations laws. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) called the national community day of protest with meetings and rallies in all major cities.
The biggest march and rally was in Melbourne, in the state of Victoria with over 250,000 workers marching in city. Regional meetings around the rest of Victoria attracted around 25,000. Throughout the country, other large protests took place. About 45,000 attended rallies in Sydney, New South Wales, with a further 95,000 people in more than 200 venues across the state. 25,000 people attended a Brisbane rally in Queensland, with 35,000 turning out in other parts of the state.
About 40,000 attended a rally in Adelaide, with 10,000 workers at rallies throughout the state. 3,000 were at protests in Darwin and 2,000 in Alice Springs. 5,000 went to a rally at Canberra Racecourse. Around 30,000 protested in Perth, and a further 10,000 throughout Western Australia. Solidarity protests also took place in Auckland and Christchurch, in New Zealand. Hundreds protested at the Australian High Commission in Wellington.
The protests were so big because of the deep anger at John Howard’s unprecedented attacks on workers rights and conditions. The legislation is deeply unpopular. Indeed, Howard introduced the new legislation last week, on the same day as a massive police operation against ‘terrorist suspects’. Many workers believe this was an attempt to deflect attention away from the anti-union bill – a ruse that failed.
The new Industrial Relations laws include attacks on job security by abolishing unfair dismissal protection for millions of workers; changes to the fixing of the minimum wage which will mean the value of minimum wages will fall; the right to collective bargaining will be eroded and bosses will be encouraged to sign up workers on individual contracts.
Howard claims the ‘reforms’ will ‘boost the economy’. But the Industrial Relations legislation will mean further exploitation of workers to boost the super profits of the bosses.
Huge anger from below pushed the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) leaders to call for the action on 15 November. Even though the protest was limited to marches and video link up meetings, the magnificent response from workers and youth across Australia shows the depth of anger at Howard?s laws. This, despite a massive media campaign by the government, in the weeks leading up to 15 November, that saw a sustained attack on workers who planned to go on strike. In some cases bosses threatened workers with fines of up to $22,000 if they took action.
In a shift to the left, at least in words, ACTU leader Greg Combet said he would refuse to pay fines for standing up for workers’ rights. “We must look the Government in the eye and stare them down,” he said. “I will be asking other union leaders to adopt the same stance.”
The Socialist Party participated in the demonstrations across the country, including in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. In Melbourne Socialist Party members taking part in the huge rally sold out of copies of their paper, The Socialist, and sold over 5000 of their popular anti-Howard stickers. Many hundreds of badges and other literature was also sold on the day.
The mood on 15 November was more serious and sombre than during the last day of industrial action against the Industrial Relations laws, in June. The legislation is now in place and it wont be long before the attacks start in the workplaces. SP got a good response on the day especially with the call to take bold and determined mass industrial action to defeat the government’s new laws.
Whilst the demonstrations were a brilliant display of workers’ strength, now is the time for industrial action to be stepped up. SP is calling for a one-day national general strike as the next step in the campaign. But a successful struggle to defeat the Howard government’s anti-union laws, and to kick out the government, poses the question, what is the political alternative to the ruling Liberals?
The ‘Great Debate’
This vital issue was addressed during a public meeting, organised by the electricians’ union, in Melbourne, after the walkouts and rallies on 15 November. Around 150 people packed the Comrades Bar, to discuss political representation for working people. The meeting was entitled, ‘The Great Debate: Howard is against us – Who is for us?, and subtitled, ‘Labour? Greens? Independents? New Party?’
Speakers included leaders of the electricians, postal workers, plumbers and the fire fighters’ unions. Steve Jolly, Socialist Party Councillor in Yarra Council, Melbourne, and the Chair of a huge public housing estate in Richmond, Melbourne, also addressed the crowd. Anthony Main, Socialist Party National Organiser, chaired the meeting.
During the meeting, union speakers gave damning accounts of what Howard’s new anti-union legislation will mean for workers. The public housing representative condemned attacks on social housing. Most of the platform speakers agreed that workers do not have adequate political representation. However, the union speakers said workers have no choice but to ‘reform’ the Australian Labor Party (ALP).
Steve Jolly, on behalf of the Socialist Party, argued the Australian Labor Party is no longer a vehicle for workers’ struggles and carries out pro-market policies when in power, including neo-liberal cuts and attacks on workers’ rights and conditions. He gave examples of what a socialist councillor can do representing workers and youth, on Yarra Council, albeit on a small scale.
Steve got a very good response to his call for a new mass, workers’ party. Such a party must have democratic, federal structures and allow different tendencies and ideas, if it is to attract youth and working people. Furthermore, it must be a campaigning party – a combative party of mass struggles, with bold socialist policies – if it is to grow and be successful.
The Comrades Bar meeting was an important exchange of views on political representation for workers and youth and marked a step forward in the campaign for a new mass party of the working class. The Socialist Party will continue to raise the idea of building a new workers’ party, alongside its campaigns in the communities and workplaces. The idea of a new workers’ party will get a stronger response as workers and youth struggle against the Howard government and come to realise that they need to build a political alternative to all the bosses’ parties.
By Socialist Party reporters