Million strike against anti-union bill

Wednesday, October 30, 1991

By Steve Painter

SYDNEY — Up to a million workers answered the call for a 24-hour statewide general strike on October 24 against the Greiner government's anti-union Industrial Relations Bill. While official estimates put the number at about half that, peak-hour traffic in Sydney was so light that even breakdowns on the Harbour Bridge didn't result in the usual traffic jams.

Most large workplaces were closed. Public transport was shut down completely, and most schools were unable to run classes. Despite minimal organisation by the NSW Labour Council, which called the strike, there were instances of militancy.

Workers at Sydney's Moore Park voted to change the locks on the park gates and dump piles of dirt on the approaches to prevent it being used for car parking during the strike.

Staff at about 40 hospitals joined the strike despite a decision by the nurses' union not to recommend striking for the second time in a week (nurses had strongly supported a statewide stoppage a few days earlier). About 80% of teachers supported the strike.

All international air flights and most domestic flights were cancelled.

Support was particularly strong in Newcastle, Wollongong and Broken Hill. Christopher Perkins reports that about 2000 angry workers attended a Wollongong Showground mass meeting organised by the South Coast Labour Council. Among speakers at the rally was Greenpeace organiser Alistair Harris. The workers then marched on the Chamber of Commerce, a symbol of support for the anti-democratic Greiner government.

Two resolutions called on the NSW Labour Council to organise further action and threatened bans and limitations against employers attempting to defy the strike by using non-union and scab labour. In Broken Hill, the Barrier Industrial Council also called for further action, including an extension of the general strike.

Unfortunately, the NSW Labour Council decided not to organise a rally in Sydney. In general, the strike served to demonstrate the miserable level of political understanding among the top levels of Labor Party and Labour Council officialdom.

Labor Party leader Bob Carr distinguished himself by refusing to support the strike, though he stopped short of actually condemning it. Even this sorry performance was one better than the five independents in the NSW parliament, who all voted with the government to condemn the Labour Council for proceeding with the action after the state Industrial Commission had declared it illegal.

While this might have been expected of former Liberal Terry Metherell, former National Roger Windsor and Manly independent Peter MacDonald, it put a big dent in the liberal credentials of Bligh independent Clover Moore and the South Coast's John Hatton.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Commission's declaration made a mockery of the main thrust of the Labour Council's campaign against the bill. After years of ignoring, or making only the mildest noises against, attacks on workers' pay and conditions, the Labour Council was finally stirred out of hibernation by the bill's direct attack on the state's trade union and industrial relations structures themselves.

Even then, however, the Labour Council focussed heavily on the aspect of the bill most likely to disturb trade union officials' peace of mind — the threat to greatly weaken the Industrial Commission by dividing it into two parts. The "umpire" in turn showed its gratitude by declaring the strike illegal!

While this was officially NSW's first general strike since 1917, it would be more accurate to call it a general stoppage. The 1917 event was a bitter and protracted struggle which the workers could have won only by bringing down the government. Though they were eventually defeated, their struggle changed the course of NSW and Australian politics.

There was never any possibility that a one-day stoppage could defeat the Greiner bill. It was a purely token performance, though it may have helped to raise consciousness of the bill in some sectors of the workforce.

Unfortunately, it is unlikely the NSW Labour Council will heed the calls from Broken Hill and the South Coast for further action. Its main strategy appears to be to wait for the minority Greiner government to fall.

While this could happen as a result of court challenges to election results in the seats of The Entrance and Maitland, this is a big gamble with the basic democratic rights of NSW's 2.6 million workers.

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