By Joe Montero
By any account, yesterday’s (17 April) meeting of union delegates at the Melbourne Town Hall, was an impressive launch to an active major campaign to bring about an end to what is now widely regarded as an unfair industrial regime in Australia.
The official seating capacity of the hall is 1,500. But many more squeezed in.
Representatives from the Longford Esso-Exxon picket were there. The event marked 300 days they have been out of work, because management is trying to cut their wages by almost 50 percent. Troy, one of the union delegates spoke to the delegates and received a standing ovation.
The main thrust of the meeting was to gain the support of delegates for the Change the Rules campaign and participation to move it forward.
Determination to win overwhelming public support and willingness to fight hard, spells serious trouble for the Turnbull government was evident. The emerging battle was expressed in terms of not only bringing an end to this government. But to ensure that the existing industrial relations regime will be replaced by one that is much fairer to all workers, whether they are members of unions or not.
One part of the strategy is to win over the support of the Labor Party, the Greens and other members of parliament. At the same time, it was understood that victory will depend on the ongoing activity on the ground.
Mention was made of the fact that the problem is not one just made by the current government, but one that has been gradually unrolled over at least 30 years. There is an implied criticism of Labor for having played a part in it, although it was acknowledged that the Howard and now Turnbull government have taken it much further.
Speakers referred to the need to confront and ensure the greed of big business is taken on. Big business avoids paying tax with government assistance, while the wages share of the wealth of Australia is reduced, and the richest one percent hold nearly three quarters of it all.
It was also said that this is a political battle, which must be won in the workplaces, in the streets and the neighbourhoods.
Nor was it left at saying that the rules are broken. Solutions were put forward, such as, the need for fairer wages, the end to the use of casualised labour as a means of increased exploitation, achieving gender equality at work and an end to all other forms of discrimination.
This and much more was spelled out in as report given by Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary, Sally McManus, who also received enthusiastic personal support from the floor. She explained that this is about building a fairer Australia.
She and other speakers, notably Troy Gray (state secretary of the Electrical trades Union) and John Setka (state secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining Maritime and Energy Union), pointed out that it is not enough to give support in words. Action is needed. Action to organise and built the capacity to bring about change, and action to organise and build the capacity to ensure that change is implemented after the change.
Sally McManus said this is about building workers’ power.
Hence the call to bring about the right to be a member of a union and be represented, the right of union officials to enter a workplace, and the right to withdraw labour as an essential protection.
The Melbourne Town Hall meeting was an occasion for union representatives to come together, to make decisions and agree on action, and it was to emphasise union issues. They are central to the change that is needed.
There is a straight link between this and other negative developments, such as the abhorrent treatment of people on welfare, the housing affordability crisis, the inhumanity in the treatment of refugees, the callousness towards the first Australians, the promotion of the politics of hate against sections of our community, the pandering to the fossil fuel industry and developers, the under resourcing of public health and education, and the curtailment of established democratic rights and the gradual rise of big brother government.
A campaign to change the rules will come into confrontation with all these issues, and this marks its wider implications, which provides a huge opportunity for building a broad and unstoppable movement.
Australia is at a crossroad marking an important juncture in our history. The situation will not continue as it is. If the present course is not defeated, conditions will quickly get much worse. The alternative is for enough people to grasp the hour and join in the effort.
The Melbourne Town Hall’s greatest achievement is that those who were there left with great expectations and a feeling that they were part of something big. This is bound to filter more widely, as the thousands take the campaign to their workplaces and elsewhere.
Coming action around Australia will add to the momentum for change, and the culmination of the present phase, with a big rally in Melbourne on 9 May marking its end, will propel the campaign into its next phase.