Unions rally across the country to defend workers’ rights
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Thousands of workers rallied around the country on Thursday March 9th. Originally called by the Construction Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) in opposition to the Turnbull government’s re-introduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and introduction of the new 2016 Building Code, the rallies took on a wider dimension just weeks before the planned rally date with the Fair Work Commission’s decision to slash Sunday penalty rates for some of Australia’s lowest paid workers.
Construction workers lead the way
The rallies were supported by other individual unions as well as the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). Melbourne saw the biggest turn out with 15,000 unionists taking to the streets.
The overwhelming majority being construction workers who downed tools and walked off the jobs, despite the threat of hefty fines for illegal industrial action from the ABCC.
Rallies were also held in Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide (see https://www.facebook.com/cfmeusa/) as well as a number of major regional cities.
In Melbourne workers gathered in front of Trades Hall to hear militant speeches from several union leaders. CFMEU Victorian State Secretary John Setka spoke against the ABCC and the need for union right-of-entry to stop the deaths of construction workers on the job. "We're not slaves. If people choose to withdraw their labour and protest at unjust laws that are aimed at desecrating workers' rights, well then so be it.
Brisbane workers out in force
"When we protest against Grocon, we go in front of these Supreme Court judges and Federal Court judges, they fine us millions of dollars because we're trying to stop people being killed.
"Is that justice? That's our justice system. And when it doesn’t work, you defy it.”
Other notable speakers included MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin who reminded the crowd that it was the working men and women of Australia that built this country and fought for the conditions workers enjoy today. It was the working men and women who fought for public housing, public education and affordable medical care, he said.
“We’re not here for a political party, we’re here for the working men and women.” He condemned politicians and political parties who “give rights to multinationals to rip us off of our own gas, our own oil, our own construction; they stand for a country owned by a few and not the many, for the rich and not the poor. Well we don’t, we stand for an Australia we built and maintained, that we and our families want to live in.”
Craig Kelly, AMWU Victorian Assistant Secretary, spoke on behalf of the Parmalat maintenance workers who had been locked out of their workplace by the multinational company in Echuca in north Victoria, because they had refused to accept a cut in their wages and conditions in the new EBA.
The workers, with their supporters in the local community and the broader union movement, set up a picket outside the dairy factory in Echuca and fought for more than 2 months, have now won their dispute with an agreement that improves their wages and conditions.
With the 6 month long CUB55 struggle behind them, Kelly condemned multinational corporations driving the war on workers in Australia.
A great first step
The national rallies should be welcomed as a great first step in the campaign to defend workers’ rights which have come under concerted attack in recent times by Turnbull’s anti-worker government.
With the new ACTU secretary Sally McManus recently coming out in support of unions who are willing to break the law to defend workers, there is plenty of potential for this campaign to become as big and widespread as the campaign against the Howard government’s Work Choices in 2007. More rallies are expected to be held in the near future.
Fight for an independent working class agenda
However, lessons must be learnt from the Work Choices campaign. Workers and unions must look to each other and their members as the greatest strength in the defence of their rights. Allowing the movement to be diverted and funnelled into a “Vote Labor” campaign will not be sufficient to hold back the relentless attacks of big business. Only an independent working class agenda that fights for the best interests of workers and puts them above the interests of parliamentary parties can really start to mount a genuine fight-back. With no federal election expected in the next 12 months, now more than ever is the time to lay the ground work for just such an independent working class agenda.
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