Record attendance at NSW union protest meetings


Susan Price, Sydney

Billed as Australia's biggest meeting of workers, the July 1 Unions NSW Sky Channel-linked protest meetings against PM John Howard's attacks on unions and workers — held simultaneously at 219 venues across NSW — outstripped expectations.

Organisers estimate that more than 103,000 workers participated, with many figures not yet in from outlying venues. The largest gathering was of 20,000 at Sydney's Town Hall. Outer suburban and regional meetings were overflowing, with hundreds unable to get in.

Lively protest marches of more than 20,000 in the city and 3000 in Parramatta took place after the meetings.

In Parramatta, 800 people turned up at the Leagues Club, but only 500 could get into the meeting before the doors were locked. "This left 300 very angry delegates and members in the car park", Australian Manufacturing Workers Union member Liam Mitchell told Green Left Weekly. At the Parramatta RSL, well over a thousand unionists made it into the venue, with many locked outside.

In Liverpool, the club security was told to expect 500, but 2000 showed up to the venue, creating chaos as extra rooms were opened up and additional TVs hooked up.

The Bankstown meeting drew up to 2000 people, including a large contingent from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. Noreen Navin, a local teacher and member of Socialist Alliance, told Green Left Weekly that all but a skeleton crew of staff from her school had attended the meeting. "Ten of them came along for the first time [attending a union meeting] ever."

A Spanish language meeting in Fairfield drew 200 workers. In Sydney's east, meetings held at the Coogee RSL and at Kingsford attracted nearly 300 people in total, including large numbers of young workers, teachers, and staff from the University of NSW.

In the south, the largest meeting venue in Sutherland Shire was not big enough to accommodate the 3500 people who turned up to the Gymea Trade Union Club. Five-hundred couldn't get in.

At the conclusion of the 45-minute Unions NSW presentation, broadcast live from Sydney Town Hall, an official motion was put to all meetings. This commits to taking "strategic industrial action" that protects wages and conditions and that "supports unions and their members under attack for opposing these proposed changes"; raising awareness about the IR changes; maintaining political pressure on all parties; building union membership through organising; and maintaining the NSW Industrial Relations Commission and the state industrial relations systems.

The resolution did not, however, set any concrete plans for a further day of action beyond July 1. It also didn't commit the union movement in NSW to calling mass meetings in response to any union or unionist charged under new workplace laws. When attempts were made in some venues to move amendments to the motion around these points, meeting conveners were under orders not to allow amendments, and in some sites no discussion of the motion was allowed at all.

However, at several regional venues, additional motions were adopted. In Wollongong, at least 6000 workers voted to march into the city after the rally. A motion moved by South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris, to call on the ACTU to organise a national Sky Channel hook-up and stop-work meeting when the bill is tabled in parliament to coincide with a national day of protest, was also adopted.

Simon Butler reports that the Newcastle Panthers Club was overflowing with 3500 unionists. Hundreds were unable to cram into the auditorium and instead followed the proceedings on televisions in the bar downstairs.

A collection at the end of the meeting raised thousands of dollars for the Boeing workers at Williamstown, who are entering their sixth week on strike demanding the right to an enterprise agreement with their employer.

A mass march into the Newcastle CBD followed the meeting. Federal ALP member for Newcastle Sharon Grierson, when challenged from some in the crowd, told the rally she would refuse to be a part of an ALP government that failed to reverse the laws.

Another similar-sized meeting was held simultaneously at the Cardiff Workers Club in Newcastle's western suburbs, where ACTU secretary Greg Combet was the guest speaker. Large turnouts were also reported at Maitland and Muswellbrook.

In Lismore, Nick Fredman reports that a planned protest rally and march was thrown into chaos by the northern NSW floods. Despite this, 300 people met in a hastily arranged venue outside the town and 100 met outside the original venue before marching to National Party MP Ian Causley's office.

In Armidale, 500-600 people packed out the local bowling club. Bea Bleile reports that a wide range of unionists, from shearers to university staff, attended the meeting, which was followed by a march. Amendments to the Unions NSW motions were unanimously adopted, calling for mass meetings when the bill is tabled in parliament, for mass meetings to be called if a union or unionist is charged under the new laws, and for unions to fight for the rights of the unemployed and pensioners.

A meeting in Orange was attended by 500-600 workers and a motion was adopted to march on the local Electrolux company, in solidarity with workers intimidated into not attending the meeting. An ongoing action committee was set up.

Paul Oboohov reports that a meeting at the Queanbeyan Tigers Club was attended by 500-600 people. A meeting organised by the AMWU at the National Press Club, near Parliament House in Canberra, was attended by 150 people (mostly AMWU and Transport Workers Union members. The meeting passed the Unions NSW resolution, as well as a motion moved by Community and Public Sector Union member and Socialist Alliance activist Nick Everett, calling on Unions ACT to organise a rally on the lawns of Parliament House on August 9, outside the first meeting of the new Senate.

From Green Left Weekly, July 6, 2005.

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