By Sean Lennon
and Peter Boyle
MELBOURNE — Industrial action involving a wide range of public sector unions has followed the 200,000 strong November 10 strike and march because the Kennett government is refusing to back down from its plans to slash the public sector and its New Zealand-style Employee Relations Act (ERA).
While Premier Jeff Kennett has called for a "cooling off" period he insists that the essence of his industrial relations reform — individual contracts and heavy restrictions on industrial action — is "non-negotiable".
On November 13 ACTU secretary Bill Kelty promised a prolongued industrial campaign to defeat Kennett's ERA, after Kennett rebuffed his overtures for negotiations on a compromise deal. His sentiments were echoed by Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary John Halfpenny who jointly chairs a special ACTU-VTHC committee organising the industrial campaign with ACTU assistant secretary Jennie George.
In the first major industrial action since November 10 some 18,000 public transport workers struck for 24 hours on November 20 in response to plans by the government to axe 7000 positions and to slash services. Ports, airlines, quarantine sevices as well as public transport. Melbourne's port had been closed for several days before as different waterfront unions took industrial action.
Australian Railways Union state secretary Peter Bourke told Green Left Weekly that participation in the strike was nearly 100%. No public transport operated on the day.
The public transport unions were committed to the "defence of the state public transport system as one of the most important pieces of public infrastructure which was crucial to the economic prosperity of Victoria", he said.
"It is absolutely necessary to convey to those in government that the system is not theirs to alter or take away at their whim or fancy".
Health sector unions have also begun actions which include rolling stoppages and wildcat strikes across metropolitan and country hospitals. In addition the Australian Nurses Federation (ANF) has called a 24 strike and a mass stopwork November 25 to be held at 4pm at the Entertainment Centre.
Industrial action by members of the State Public Services Federation is also continuing despite threats made by Kennett to sack more of them if they don't stop their campaign. They announced a series of rollling half-day stoppages and have taken to walking off the job if a Liberal arrives at their workplace.
The next round of actions will focus on the cuts to education as teachers in different regions strike and rally on different days through the week ending November 27. Major industrial actions by other unions will take place on November 30, the ACTU-called National Day of Action, and on December 9. Metalworkers will strike for 24 hours on November 30 and building workers will strike for half a day. Power unions voted on November 18 to take action on December 9. Essential services will be exempt from power cuts on the day but public transport might close down again.
The government has passed the Vital State Industries (Works and Services) Act which gives it unlimited powers to intervene and ban strikes in any industry, private or public, it deems "vital". But Kennett said on November 19 he would not use the Essential Services or Vital Industries legislation against strikers unless public health or safety was challenged. Instead he would wear the unions down in a prolonged struggle. He sought to play off the 300,000 officially unemployed in Victoria and consumers against the unions.
Kennett warned that there would be more than 7000 job cuts in the public sector this year if industrial action is taken. He also threatened to abolish the public sector positions temporarily vacated by elected union officials. In response State Public Services Federation vice-president Bill Deller has lodge a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Tribunal. The SPSF is carrying out an indefinite vigil outside Parliament House and held a "Snouts In The Trough Silver Service Dinner" on the parliament steps on November 19.
Under pressure from some sections of big business to distance himself from Kennett's policies, federal Liberal leader John Hewson insisted that his industrial relations policy was essentially the same as Kennett's. However he has been forced to recognise that the protests against Kennett are hurting his chances of winning the next federal election. But WA's Liberal opposition industrial relations spokesperson Grahan Kierath said parts of Kennett's strategy were "stupid" and were "causing coalition parties around Australia heartache".
Recent polls have recorded falling support for the federal opposition and the November 17 Australian Financial Review called on John Hewson and John Howard to distance themselves from Kennett's "bumbling attempt to reform the Victorian labour market".
Organised opposition to Kennett in Victoria is not just coming from the union movement. Roman Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Sir Frank Little, defended the right to strike and organise free from sanctions under criminal law and other church leaders explicitly condemned Kennett's industrial relations and workers compensation legislation. The first of a series of meetings of ratepayers opposed to the $100 levy on all properties — hitting pensioners and owners of mansions alike — drew 700 people to Broadmeadows. Several local councils oppose the levy and plan to call ratepayers meetings to consider a response.
The next mass mobilisation in Victoria will be on November 29 at an ACTU and VTHC-organised "Fair Go Jeff Fair" to be held all day in the Treasury Gardens.
"The union movement and the community will continue to work together in a myriad of ways to get our point across", said Halfpenny when he announced the fair. "We believe in a society that encourages people to work together, to socialise together and to join together when they need to, in fun or in protest, to protect our way of life".
Several bands are playing for free at the fair. They include the Painters and Dockers, Barb Waters and the Rough Diamonds, Gentle Persuasion, Kolors, Tbones, Working Class Ringoes, Archie Roach, Jo Geia and the Troubles. n