By Anthony Benbow
PERTH — Twenty-five thousand people filled the streets on April 29 in a massive protest against the Court government's "third wave" of anti-union laws — the largest rally for workers' rights here in decades. All unions took industrial action, some for a few hours, some for days. Perth airport was closed for 24 hours as interstate unions joined a goods and services blockade. April 29 was a tremendous beginning to the campaign.
Rain seemed to make no difference to those who marched: state public servants who had a mass meeting of thousands before the rally; construction workers who brought their industry to a halt; and teachers, who were there in force despite a desperate government campaign to declare their action illegal.
Workers attended from every branch of the private and public sectors: nurses, manufacturing, electrical and transport workers, meatworkers and many others. This made a mockery of the Court government's claims that only a "minority" of workers were behind all the fuss. Many country workers travelled to Perth for the rally.
ACTU president Jennie George, and International Confederation of Free Trade Unions representative Dan Gallin addressed the crowd. Gallin pledged international support in defeating the laws.
Greens (WA) Senator Dee Margetts called for the bill to be scrapped, not "negotiated". WA Uniting Church moderator John Dunn highlighted its divisive effects on the community. Incoming Democrats MLC Helen Hodgson spoke, and songwriter Bernard Carney contributed a protest song written for the occasion, as he did during the campaign against the "second wave" of industrial laws in 1995.
The rally marched to parliament, where a "workers' embassy" was set up in a tent. Protestors made plans to stay there until the bill was defeated, but late on April 30 police broke up the embassy and arrested four members of the Builders Labourers Painters and Plasterers Union, who were charged with "unlawfully remaining on premises".
Nevertheless, workers and the embassy were back in force the following morning, enjoying a barbecued breakfast.
A central focus of ongoing action is the power strike, which began again on the April 29. Western Power has enforced restrictions on homes and industry. Deft manoeuvring in the Industrial Relations Commission by power unions has so far dodged return-to-work orders.
WA unions are currently in a strong position. Members are well-informed of the bill's effects and have demonstrated their willingness to take action. More community support is evident than during the campaign in 1995.
In this position, settling for amendments would be suicide. The task now is to use that strength to kill the bill, remove the legislation altogether, and labour relations minister Graham Kierath with it. Such a victory would leave unions in better shape to fight future attacks on workers' rights, wherever they come from.
In Melbourne, 200 workers assembled outside the West Australian Tourist Commission on April 29, in solidarity with the WA workers.
Organised by Trades Hall, the rally was addressed by Leigh Hubbard, secretary of Trades Hall Council; Martin Kingham from the CFMEU construction division; a speaker from the Public Transport Union; and Jan Armstrong from the Health Sector Union.