Joh's attacks on electricity workers


Bernie Neville was an organiser for the Electrical Trades Union during the 1980s SEQEB dispute. Writing for the April special supplement of Neighbourhood News, he explained the role Joh played in that dispute.

In February 1985, the National Party government of Joh Bjelke- Petersen sacked 1100 electricity workers, all members of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), all were employed by the South East Queensland Electricity Board, its aim was to privatise the industry. Bjelke-Petersen's goal was to take away from the power workers' job security, erode their conditions and increase the length of their working week. The workers resisted.

On February 6, systems control, overhead linesmen, underground cable jinkers and trades' assistants withdrew their labour. On February 7, Bjelke-Petersen declared a state of emergency under the State Transport Act 1938, and sacked the striking workers. This action saw the power station operators cut supply in support of the dismissed men. Bjelke Petersen responded by giving his corrupt police Commissioner Terry Lewis "concise, clear directions" for the breaking of picket lines and the gathering of evidence of any threats made against ETU members wanting to scab.

The Bjelke-Petersen government also moved to have the ETU fined and deregistered. Bjelke-Petersen had police maintain a presence outside all SEQEB depots so that any union members who wanted to scab would not be threatened. The dispute could have been settled without the loss of any jobs had Bjelke-Petersen not vetoed a possible solution that would have been acceptable to the Queensland Industrial Commission, but Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen said he wanted the striking workers, members of the ETU to "suffer enormously".

The present Labour government of Peter Beattie talks of giving Bjelke-Petersen a state funeral, why would Beattie want to reward the greatest working class enemy that Queensland has ever seen in this way? The Bjelke-Petersen government was built on union bashing.

In his book In The Arena: Memories of an ALP State Secretary in Queensland, Premier Peter Beattie said that the attack on the SEQEB workers was a brutal and opportunistic infringement on the hard-won civil liberties of all Queenslanders, not just the sacked linesmen who had seen their livelihoods disappear and their lives ruined.

It was not only ETU workers that felt the wrath of Bjelke- Petersen but also power station operators who were members of the Municipal Officers Association. For showing solidarity with the sacked SEQEB workers, members of the MOA were threatened with fines of $1000 every time they refused to follow a directive to increase the supply of electricity (the operators had reduced power in support of the sacked workers).

When the power station operators refused to be intimidated Bjelke-Petersen went even further, and threatened legal action. The men could face fines of $50,000 each and their union $250,000.

The Bjelke-Petersen government tore up the industrial relations rule book when it rammed savage anti union legislation through parliament. The Electricity Bill (Continuity of Supply) forbade strikes and picketing of electricity workers and made provision for confiscation of their property, including their homes if they went on strike. The bill barred union officials from entering workplaces and made provision for the rapid deregistration of unions and seizure of their funds, the laws used by the Bjelke-Petersen government were in violation of the International Labor Organisation charter

What the Queensland government did was replace the Queensland Industrial Commission with a one-man rule. The Qld Electricity commissioner in 1985, acting at the behest of Bjelke-Petersen, had the power to decide what wages and conditions the workers could expect. Any worker that showed dissent at such decisions, however unjust, could be fined $1000 and dismissed.

Under the Electricity Act, workers in the power industry were denied the right to serve a jail term rather than pay the fine.

I would ask any member of the present Queensland ALP government to consider the following before according Bjelke- Petersen a state funeral: in the first weeks of the SEQEB dispute, three of his poorly trained strike breakers were killed — one while working on overhead lines came into contact with 11,000 volts, another died after receiving a low-voltage shock; and another died after climbing a newly placed power pole which toppled on top of him, it had not been installed properly. What kind of a funeral did they receive for doing Bjelke-Peterson's dirty work?

Giving Bjelke-Petersen a state funeral would be just as absurd as was the awarding of an honorary doctorate of law by the University of Queensland senate to a man who turned a blind eye to the corrupt dealings of his police force.

I was one of those sacked SEQEB workers, and I know just how hard it was for my family, the stress it caused them at seeing me go out every day onto the picket lines. But as hard as we had it, it was no way as hard as the strikers who died in the dispute because of the stress and hardship caused by the prospect of having to face a brutal future — and this because they took a stand in the defence of fundamental human rights.

If Premier Peter Beattie decides to give Bjelke-Petersen a state funeral then he will have sided with a man who throughout his whole career showed contempt for the ideals of equality, tolerance, freedom and justice. I'm sure that Peter Beattie as an ex- official of the Queensland Railway Station Officers Union remembers the conditions his members were forced to live under whilst employed by the Queensland government, by his own admission the workers had to endure Third World housing.

I'm sure that no unionist in this state will be saddened by the passing of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The best thing would to bury him in Kingaroy and if Beattie wants to attend his funeral — well so be it.

From Green Left Weekly, May 4, 2005.
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