At least 20,000 Victorian unionists defied the federal government's anti-worker laws and risked fines to show their opposition to Work Choices and the Australian Building and Construction Commission on September 26.
They marched from Trades Hall to swamp Melbourne's main intersection at the corner of Swanston and Flinders Streets. When the rally stopped to occupy this major intersection and listen to speakers, the crowd stretched back over several city blocks to Little Bourke Street.
The rally was called by Victorian Trades Hall Council's (VTHC) building industry group of unions after the Australian Council of Trade Unions executive refused to call another national day of action. There were four unions involved in the building industry group: the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), the Electrical Trades Union and the plumbers' union.
Although the rally was initiated by this group of unions, other unions ended up endorsing the rally and sending contingents. These included the Maritime Union of Australia, the National Tertiary Education Union, the Australian Workers Union, one division of the Australian Services Union, the United Firefighters Union and the Australian Education Union.
Placards read "Work Choices — Not my choice" with the lead banner reading "Don't give Howard another shot — protect your kids' future". The rally was scheduled for the school holidays in order to involve workers' families. Many workers took the opportunity to bring their children.
VTHC secretary Brian Boyd said that "young people were whacked very badly by individual contracts and AWAs", because there was nowhere for them to go. "As workers' kids leave school, they get ripped off straight away by AWAs — individual contracts. That's what we've found over the last 12 months." Boyd said legal challenges cost thousands of dollars of manoeuvring just to get a hearing.
Sacked apprentice carpenter Paul Bost told the protesters that he was sacked after he queried his wages and conditions and refused to sign an AWA. He had to call police to retrieve his tools from his boss.
When he addressed the AMWU contingent prior to the main rally, Victorian secretary Steve Dargavel outlined cases where companies had been referred to federal agencies after serious breaches of the law by bosses. Despite millions of dollars spent on government advertising campaigns, the federal agencies had not acted.
This included the cases of Mechanical Engineering Services and Huon Corporation. In one case, a boss put $11 million of workers' entitlements into his own personal trust fund. "Only the union is going to do anything about it. In many cases the agencies can't do much because the parliament has legislated many of those rights away," said Dargavel.
AMWU assistant state secretary Gary Robb highlighted the role of the Australian Building and Construction Commission when he addressed the AMWU contingent. "People need to be aware [of the ABCC] because what's happening in the construction industry is well and truly on its way to our industry, manufacturing and other areas. The more people are aware of this, the more people will be angry."
When the new ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence addressed the rally, he only vaguely alluded to the ALP's recent backflip on abolishing the ABCC: "I know some people are not happy with recent Labor policy ... in the end we all have to focus on the fundamental choice that's in front of us at this election between Work Choices and the alternative, which restores all those conditions that have been taken away," he said.
The day after the rally, workplace relations minister Joe Hockey and employer groups predictably claimed that the protest was a fizzer. Two anonymous union leaders were also quoted in the Melbourne Age, criticising the rally for being too close to the federal elections and too small.
Boyd responded to criticism saying that he was happy that so many thousands of workers had defied the laws and attended the rally.
In the lead-up to the rally, many bosses tried to intimidate workers into not attending. In some cases, this made workers more determined to strike for the day. In other cases, the intimidation meant that only a delegation attended the rally instead of the whole work force.
Seventy workers at Meritor Heavy Vehicle Systems Australia in Sunshine had an injunction taken out against them by their boss to stop them from attending the rally. Thirty construction workers at Austral Bricks in Craigieburn voted reluctantly to work as usual instead of attending the rally after they were told that the company planned to bring in the ABCC.
Despite the intimidation from employers and the ABCC, and despite the fact that the rally had been called by the building industry group of unions without the support of the ACTU or even the support of all Victorian unions, the attendance of at least 20,000 workers was a major success.
The hypocrisy of employers and government is revealed when you compare the threats against workers for attending the September 26 rally with the support employers gave to Tasmanian timber workers striking to attend a rally in support of the Gunns pulp mill. In that instance, the federal government didn't criticise the timber bosses for paying timber workers strike pay to attend. The government clearly applies the law differently for different groups of workers.
There is no doubt that if all of the Victorian unions had supported the protest, the rally would have been double or triple the size. Several workers at the rally told Green Left Weekly that their whole workplace would have walked out to attend the rally if their union had endorsed the protest.
The union movement has been split on the question of whether or not there should be a mass protest against Work Choices this year. The majority of the ACTU and a large number of unions in Victoria are opposed to a mass protest in the election year because they regard it as a distraction that will take resources away from the ALP's marginal seats campaign.
The building industry unions have a different view, believing that a mass protest not only puts pressure on the government and the employers, but also on the Labor Party. They know that the ALP never committed to abolishing AWAs or ripping up Work Choices — even making Work Choices a central issue in the election campaign — until the union movement organised the big nationwide protests against Work Choices.
A major impetus for the rally was the ALP's decision to keep the ABCC until 2010. However, there was no criticism of Labor from the platform at the rally.
Boyd had argued in support of calling the rally at the building industry delegates' meeting in August, saying that unions shouldn't rely on political parties to speak on behalf of the union movement and that if the union movement accepted that it shouldn't mobilise in an election year, then it would have lost its independent voice.
The more than 10,000 workers from outside the building industry who joined the building workers give an indication that many workers wanted another rally, even if their unions didn't support it.
The mood of most building workers at the rally was different to previous union protests when there has been an expectation that the Labor Party would abolish the ABCC and abolish Work Choices. Many building workers at the rally told GLW that "we have to get rid of Howard, but we'll still have to fight if Rudd gets elected".