Ironically, it was the first of May — workers' day — and we were protesting against privatisation outside the NSW Labor Party offices.
Inside was a meeting of the state ALP administrative committee. Correctional services minister John Robertson, formerly the secretary of Unions NSW, was trying to force through a "finding" that Labor Party policy that saying "Labor will oppose the private contract management of prisons" actually allows the Labor government to privatise prisons!
Just last year, Robertson led a campaign against the privatisation of the NSW energy sector. The then Labor premier, Morris Iemma, lost his job as a result of this campaign and the 80% public opposition to the plan. Then "Robbo" was offered a parliamentary seat.
When he entered parliament, Robertson promised: "Well, I can tell you one thing: I won't be supporting privatisation of public assets." Within months, he was leading the charge in an attempt to privatise two prisons.
The logic of the corporate profits-first system demanded yet another sell-out.
Outside the May 1 meeting, the workers cursed their former union chief. Matt Bindley, chairperson of the Prison Officers Vocational Branch of the Public Sector Association, said: "If we lose our jobs, we'll be making sure Robertson loses his."
Shortly after the protest ended, news came through of a tactical victory. The Aapolicy on prisons privatisation, voted to refer the issue the October NSW ALP conference.
The vote came about because the unions aligned with Labor right split. If the votes of those with members in the public sector, such as the United Services Union, had been added to those of the left-aligned unions such as the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, "Robbo's" remaining union supporters would have been left in a minority. The anti-privatisation policy was reaffirmed.
The demonstrations of prison officers and the ongoing community campaign had sealed the fate of Robertson's arrogant attempt to prove black is white.
The only face-saving formula was to handball prison privatisation to ALP conference, where it will likely suffer the same humiliating fate as electricity privatisation did at the last conference.
This is a huge rebuff for the government. The question now is: will Premier Nathan Rees's Labor, like its forerunner, try to ignore its own party's decision? Stay tuned for the next round of this battle against privatisation.
The government has already made a concession. "We will not be proceeding with the outsourcing of Cessnock correctional centre", the Sydney Morning Herald quoted Robertson as saying late on May 1.
Readers might be asking when the trade union movement is going to give up its repeatedly dashed hopes in the Labor Party? Part of the answer is: when it is clearer that the workers' movement has an alternative political vehicle.
Building this political alternative is an arduous and complex
struggle, but if we abstain from it, we're doomed to "choosing" between capitalist party A and capitalist party B.
GLWis committed to building such a political alternative and we need your help to keep up this struggle. Make a donation to our fighting fund at: Greenleft, Commonwealth Bank, BSB 062-006, Account No. 00901992. Otherwise, send a cheque or money order to PO Box 515, Broadway NSW 2007 or phone it through on the toll-free line at 1800 634 206 (within Australia).