‘No working person should be allowed to struggle alone’

Coalworkers of the Tahmoor colliery united last year against anti-union attacks by mine owner Xstrata. Wollongong May Day rally,

The Greens Mayor of Marrickville Council Fiona Byrne gave the speech below at the Unions NSW May Day toast at the Cypress Community Club in Stanmore on April 28.

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I acknowledge we meet tonight on the traditional land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and pay my respects to elders both past and present.

Those who don’t read the Oz or Tele, or don’t listen to shock jock radio, I’m the controversial Greens Mayor of Marrickville.

Just as Al Gore was the “almost” president of the US, I was the “almost” member for Marrickville. Some of you will be happy about that, some have commented on how lucky I was not getting elected.

Welcome to the home of the first ever female mayor in Australia — Lillian Fowler was elected Mayor of Newtown municipality on December 7, 1937.

I follow in her footsteps as the first female mayor of Marrickville council, not something I imagined for myself growing up in Casula in south-west Sydney, and I follow in the footsteps of many great women who have represented this local community.

Today we celebrate the history of achievements of working people and organised labour, in particular acknowledging the centenary of International Women’s Day, which was originally called International Working Women’s Day.

We look back on the history of struggle and the proud record of better, fuller lives it has created.

At the first Australian International Women’s Day rally in 1928, the Militant Women’s Group called for equal pay for equal work, an eight-hour day for shop girls, no piece work, the basic wage for the unemployed and annual holidays on full pay.

The history of coming together to collectively resist exploitation is as old as humanity and is as strong today as it has been since the industrial revolution, despite the challenges of an increasingly individualised and alienated economy.

May Day is as potent a force today as it was in 1856 when a victory by Australian Stonemasons triggered the call for an “Eight-Hour Day” public holiday. It continued to be critical when workers and progressive people rallied in 2007 to remind Australians of their rights at work and to be a key part of defeating Work Choices.

And as it was last year and this year when we were battling to stop the sell-off of the state's electricity industry and ferries.

Today the challenges remain as pressing and the need for solidarity as urgent as ever.

For me, reduced security for workers and their families through increasing casualisation and an increasing labour hire sector needs to be addressed.

One in three workers in Australia are now no longer in permanent employment. Having worked many years ago myself as labour hire in Britain, I can say that almost nobody would continue as labour hire if a permanent position were available.

The uncertainty of employment from day to day, the uncertainty of keeping a roof over your head as well as covering living costs when you’re waiting for the phone to ring with the next job, the anxiety of whether you may have to return to an undesirable workplace.

And who do you go to when there is an issue with work and safety conditions? How do you avoid the increased risk of falling through the cracks should your health fail because government no longer invests in the safety net of health, education and housing.

There is a real challenge for the labour movement to ensure the most vulnerable workers are protected and that we ensure the safety net is firmly put back in place for everyone. Reaching out to these more marginalised workers is essential.

And we must not forget that poverty still has a woman’s face. Women represent 70% of those living in poverty. One in three will be the victim of domestic violence during her lifetime.

Globally, women earn just 10% of global income and own just 1% of land. There is still much to be done to improve the opportunities for women to fully participate in the workforce, to empower them through their participation.

Organised labour has much to celebrate too.

Pay and working conditions are better today because of the struggle of working people.

While workplaces could always be safer and there are still far too many injuries and deaths, the long battle to send workers home safely and alive has borne fruit.

The number of my father’s friends in the ’80s who were permanently disabled by accidents on construction sites is frightening. The challenge of so-called harmonisation of occupational health and safety laws poses a threat to this achievement.

With some setbacks, workers compensation remains a significant achievement.

Equal pay for women, once seen as a threat to civil order, is now accepted as a common objective, even if there is still much to be achieved.

I acknowledge the fantastic work of the Australian Services Union on the equal pay case and was bitterly disappointed when our first female prime minister seemed to back away from her support of the campaign.

There have been advances in maternity leave, superannuation and the fight against workplace bullying.

These gains were achieved through the fundamental strength of organising. And to maintain this level of worker security we must continue to organise and resist.

The success of Australian workers when they organise is not limited to wages and conditions, as important as they are.

For much more than four decades, the union movement has asserted its right to express the opinions of its workers on matters that affect their lives and their children.

I represent a party that proudly takes its name from the Green Bans. When the then Builders Labourers Federation stood alongside residents to stop the destruction of Kelly's Bush, organised labour declared loudly that it would not sit by and watch Sydney be covered in concrete.

Much more than just saving patches of green space and important heritage buildings, Jack Mundey and the building workers he led told the world that working people had a conscience and that they would exercise it through how they used their labour.

And that conscience does not end at the shores of the continent.

From the Vietnam war to the sale of pig iron to Japan in the lead up to the second world war, Australian workers have a proud tradition of standing in solidarity with working people anywhere on this planet.

Employers and corporations' push towards economic globalisation has not just thrown Australian workers in competition with the low waged third world, global capital has accidentally created a potent reason why every working person should be involved in the campaigns of their brothers and sisters around the world.

I am proud to have been one of five Greens and four ALP councillors on Marrickville who took the global message to local government.

We believe that we represent citizens who would not want their money being used to support the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinian people.

We led Marrickville into support of the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, a grassroots movement, aimed at pushing the Israeli government to comply with international humanitarian law.

Rupert Murdoch, Barry O'Farrell, and, sadly, some of the leaders of the Labor Party felt differently.

They clearly believe that Australia is best served by the cone of silence on Middle Eastern policy that pervades our politics and our media, whether it is Israel, Syria or any other country where the struggle for human rights continues.

We do not agree.

I’m proud to have recently heard the story from my parents’ homeland of 12 department store workers in Dublin who in the mid-’80s went on strike for two-and-a-half years for the right to not handle goods from apartheid South Africa.

Initially they were vilified, but as the sanctions movement grew their courageous stand gave hope and strength to those fighting for their human rights half a world away.

In the spirit of May Day, in the spirit that has united working people for over 12 decades, we will not turn a blind eye to the systematic denial of human rights, anywhere or by anyone.

No working person should ever be allowed to struggle on their own.

This May Day, like the many before it and the many that will follow it, is a reminder to all of us that we are part of a history and a future of organised labour.

Long live solidarity.

Long live May Day.


What Byrne doesn't mention here is the legal opinion she received that advised her original motion taking her "global message to local government" likely contravened both state AND federal anti-discrimination laws. Is this really a position she is proud of? Its little wonder even the federal Greens opposed her and why the Premier intervened.