170,000 workers shut down Melbourne to demand ‘change the rules’

Photo: Felix Dance

Under the slogan “Australia needs a pay rise”, an estimated 170,000 trade union members and their supporters filled Melbourne’s CBD on October 23 for the Australian Council of Trade Unions-initiated Change the Rules rally.

The protest was organised to address unfair workplace laws that prevent workers from taking industrial action and to fight for improvements in pay and working conditions.

AC/DC cover band Thunderstruck, along with some boisterous drummers, gave the protest a festival atmosphere.

Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Luke Hilakari told the crowd that trickle-down economics had not helped working families. He said that while productivity and profits have gone up, the vast majority of workers have not received a real pay rise for many years.

Hilakari said that while more than 700 large companies have paid no tax at all, 40% of workers are now hired as contract labour, missing out on many of the entitlements that come with permanent work.

Twenty-one workers have been killed on the job so far this year, he added.

The rally was also addressed by Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation Victorian branch secretary Lisa Fitzpatrick, Electrical Trades Union state secretary Troy Gray and ACTU secretary Sally McManus.

Speakers pointed out that the union movement is 1.5-million-members strong — giving it the power to throw out the federal Coalition government and prevent state Coalition opposition leader Matthew Guy from winning the upcoming Victorian elections.

While talking up the need for an uncompromising fight to change workplace rules, none of the speakers called for further strike action or for mobilising workers against the bosses' greed.

Instead, nearly every union speaker said the solution was to vote for Labor at the federal and state elections.

State Labor Premier Daniel Andrews was on hand to pose for selfies and for the media.

Yet, the Andrews government has a mixed record on workers’ rights.

Andrews has pushed through the sale of the Port of Melbourne and has attempted to privatise disability services.

During enterprise bargaining negotiations between the state government and teachers, Andrews refused to fund smaller classes or support improved conditions for teachers.

Andrews also took train drivers to court in 2015 in an unsuccessful attempt to stop them going on strike.