Bernadette Peters is a part-time cleaner and a full-time activist. She is also the partner of Mal Peters, one of the "Leighton Kumagai 107", who were fined $22,000 by the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) for a strike in February in defence of a sacked health and safety delegate.
Bernadette and Mal Peters have spoken at public meetings and work sites up and down the country, raising awareness and campaigning for the rights of the 107 workers. Bernadette spoke to Green Left Weekly about the campaign and how Work Choices is affecting working families, like hers.
"These fines started with John Howard's IR laws", she said. "The pressure that [the fines] are putting on these families is unfair. A lot of the 107 are only young; they've got young families. What working-class person has that sort of money to hand over?"
Mal Peters, like many of the 107, was served with the writ at his home. According to Bernadette, families of the workers were harassed by the ABCC process servers. They "were showing-up on people's doorsteps at no matter what time of the day or night. My husband had just pulled up in the driveway — it must have been 9pm — and somebody hiding behind the bushes went up to the car and asked: 'Are you Mal Peters?' He didn't know what was going on. He said 'Yes', and they handed him the writ."
Successful prosecutions would be devastating for the 107 and their families. "We don't know what the outcome will be and that is what is upsetting the families. Nobody's got that amount of money, but if they don't pay, they go to jail or they're talking about taking our homes." But they remain defiant. "If we have to go to jail, we'll go to jail. And it's the same for the rest of the men."
Bernadette has some idea how tough life can get. Her father was a coalminer for 30 years in Scotland until coming to Australia with his 11 children.
"He was a staunch union and Labor man all his life. He would turn in his grave if he knew that this was happening. My father and his father before him fought for many of the working rights we have today. And now John Howard wants to take all that away."
Bernadette and Mal have toured the eastern states, with the support of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), to help get a fighting fund set up. "But it's not just for these workers", Bernadette explained. "It's for anyone who faces the same, and it could easily happen if John Howard gets his way."
On returning from their first trip in August, Mal, who had taken two weeks' annual leave, was sacked by Leighton Kumagai. "They said they no longer needed him", Bernadette said, adding, "that's another court case we've got underway". "They sacked him because he spoke up. They didn't say that was the reason, obviously. But there was no other reason."
Bernadette praised the solidarity shown to the 107 and their families. "It's been brilliant, and not just from Australia, but from overseas as well. It means that we don't stand alone." Among the many messages of support featured on the 107 website are messages from LaborStart in the US, Unison in Britain and the Scottish Socialist Party.
[Bernadette and Mal Peters will be speaking in Sydney on October 31 and November 1. For details, see the Activist Calendar on page 23. To support the 107 campaign, visit <http://www.cfmeuwa.com/cfmeuwa/supportthe107/1089>.]