60,000 march against WorkCover cuts
By Bronwen Beechey and Ben Courtice
MELBOURNE — The campaign against the Victorian government's amendments to the WorkCover scheme has moved into higher gear following a stop-work and rally of 60,000 people on October 29 and a 24-hour stoppage by maintenance workers in the public transport system the following day.
All metropolitan train services were stopped after Public Transport Corporation management decided to turn off the power. Government tram and bus services were also halted for four hours when members of the Public Transport Union walked off.
While estimates of the size of the rally varied, it was certainly the largest trade union-organised rally since the protests against the changes to industrial relations laws following Kennett's election in 1993.
The Victorian secretary of the Communications, Electrical and Plumbers Union, Dean Mighell, drew enthusiastic applause when he revealed that the public transport workers, who did not take part in the rally so that workers could travel to it, would strike in support of their fellow workers.
Mighell was one of several speakers at the beginning of the rally who condemned the government's plan to withdraw the right of injured workers to sue negligent employers under common law, slash WorkCover benefits and abolish lump sum pay-outs.
Mighell pointed out that while progressive organisations such as radio 3CR could be sued because someone's feelings were hurt, employers who caused severe injury or death to their workers would be protected.
Other speakers included Bob Smith from the Australian Workers Union, which has traditionally abstained from anti-Kennett mobilisations. Smith described the WorkCover changes as "a massive pay-out from the state government to their mates — the employers and the insurance companies".
Joseph O'Reilly of Liberty Victoria (formerly the Council for Civil Liberties) described the changes as "returning industrial relations to a master-servant relationship".
After the rally was joined by a large contingent of building, electrical and plumbing workers chanting "We're angry, we're loud, we're union and we're proud", the march set off to Parliament House.
A wide range of unions and community organisations were represented. The largest contingents were from construction, electrical, metal trades and health workers. All unions affiliated to the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) were present.
A 300-strong contingent of workers from the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind received a warm welcome from the crowd. Community and Public Sector Union members from the Victorian WorkCover Authority also marched.
Many workers brought their children to the rally, which was joined along the route of the march by a large contingent of injured workers, their families and carers, who had held an earlier meeting at the Melbourne Town Hall.
When the rally reached Parliament House the crowd stretched for blocks down Bourke Street.
Leigh Hubbard, secretary of the VTHC, stated that the rally was "just the beginning" of an ongoing campaign against the cuts. He invited union delegates to an organising meeting on November 6.
ALP leader John Brumby also addressed the crowd, pledging that a future Labor government would restore the rights and benefits removed by Kennett, and urging the protesters to "remember their anger at the next election".
Shortly afterwards, the rally officially ended with a minute's silence for workers killed in industrial accidents.
Around 200 protesters, mainly building workers, stayed behind and took part in an impromptu speak-out, several workers condemning the union leaders for not taking stronger action and calling for a three-day, rather than a one-day, strike.
The state government and employers had made considerable efforts to avert the strike and rally. Kennett held talks with the VTHC leadership and offered some minor concessions while refusing to budge on the issue of common law rights.
There were also numerous examples given at the rally of employers threatening workers to stop them joining the stop-work. Power industry employers took the Latrobe Valley power unions to the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) after they voted to join the strike and reduce electricity supplies to business and industry.
Predictably, the reaction to the strike and rally from the government, business and the establishment media was hostile. Transport minister Robin Cooper threatened to take the striking electrical workers to the IRC and take legal action against them for alleged breaches of the federal Workplace Relations Act.
The press concentrated on a minor scuffle that occurred when police at Parliament House prevented a group of building workers from setting up their banners on the steps.
While both the Age and Herald-Sun editorials opposed the removal of common law rights for injured workers, they also condemned the strike.
After the rally, the VTHC announced that it will hold stop-works and rallies in the manufacturing and construction industries over the next month. A further protest rally is planned for November 12, coinciding with a statewide teachers' strike.