The campaign against the privatisation of NSW electricity took an important step forward with a February 26 protest outside parliament. Power workers in Bega and Port Macquarie struck in support.
Estimates of the rally size ranged wildly, from 3000 (Australian Financial Review) to 12,000 (Unions NSW), but there was no mistaking the mood — angry and determined to defeat a proposal that polls show at least 64% of people in NSW oppose.
When the construction union-led feeder march reached the rally outside parliament a mighty chant of "Costa out!" filled Macquarie Street, as the crowd expressed their rage at the main author of the privatisation proposal, NSW Treasurer Michael Costa.
The largest union presence was the Electrical Trades Union, with thousands of their bright yellow placard "Power sell-off: you will pay more", but thousands of unionists from the electricity generation, maintenance and retail sectors joined them — from the United Services Union, the Public Service Association, the National Union of Workers and the Australian Workers Union.
There was also a strong and angry presence of other unions with members in sections of NSW government marked down for future privatisation, like the Maritime Union of Australia, which covers Sydney's ferries.
Fifteen ALP MPs opposed to the sell-off also attended. Blacktown member Paul Gibson said, "I'm a member of the Australian Labor Party and I'm sticking to the Labor platform and policy".
The rally, chaired by Unions NSW deputy assistant secretary Matt Thistlethwaite, heard from a Victorian unionist about the near-collapse of the social fabric of the La Trobe Valley after the privatisation of power in that state.
Kate Faermann of the Nature Conservation Council stressed that public ownership of energy was essential to tackling global warming, and Kevin Manning, the Catholic Bishop of Parramatta, explained that privately owned electricity would make the poor and underprivileged even worse off.
Unions NSW secretary John Robertson said NSW's Labor premier, Morris Iemma, was guilty of "political arrogance at its highest", adding that "what we want is a political leader who has the courage and the strength to admit they got it wrong".
The reaction from the Iemma government has been predictable. According to Greens upper house member John Kaye it will be proceeding with the privatisation without a vote in parliament. The sell-off may even be launched before the May conference of the NSW ALP, at which the anti-privatisation forces presently look to have the majority.
There's an urgent need to boost the campaign against the sell-off in coming weeks. In particular, local groups should be following the lead of Blue Mountains People Power, demanding that their local member come clean about where they stand on the issue, and helping local communities to turn the heat up on their MPs.