Thousands of unionists attended protests around the country on March 9 in opposition to the federal government's new building code, the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and its planned penalty rate cuts.
The rallies were called by the CFMEU Construction Division and supported by the ACTU and individual unions. Community anger against the cuts to wages and conditions was palpable.
Jim McIlroy reports from Sydney that 3000 unionists rallied in Farrer Place under the banner of: “Protect our jobs. Stand up. Speak out. Fight back.”
CFMEU Construction and General national secretary Dave Noonan told the crowd the head of the ABCC had sent a letter to the union threatening workers who walked off the job for the protest with heavy fines. “We have a right to democratic assembly,” he said, to loud cheers.
“At a time when business profits have soared to a 15-year high,” he said, “it is clear the government is siding with the rich and powerful to line their pockets with bigger profits at the expense of working people.
“The ABCC Construction Code promotes casualisation of the workforce; bans restrictions on labour hire; bans limits on overtime. It is identical with the restrictions under the previous Work Choices regime.
“We condemn the ripping off of Sunday penalty rates from the lowest paid workers. It's got everything to do with us in the CFMEU. They're coming after our penalty rates too.
“This is the start of a great movement, a great struggle to defend workers’ rights. We are going to put up a big fight to protect our conditions.”
CFMEU NSW state secretary and rally chair Brian Parker led the crowd in chanting “The workers united will never be defeated” and “When workers’ rights are under attack? What do we do? Stand up, fight back!”
Speakers from several other unions also addressed the rally, including the Australian Services Union, Health Service Union and NSW Nurses and Midwives Association.
CFMEU delegates then led the workers in a march through the streets to Sydney Town Hall. Along the way, they heckled John Howard, the former PM and architect of WorkChoices, who was out to lunch.
Chris Peterson reports from Melbourne that between 15,000 and 20,000 people joined the rally.
The CFMEU’s Victorian secretary John Setka said that unions need to be able to enforce health and safety rules or “more workers will die”. “Right of entry for unions is being restricted. If we had right of entry in Sydney last week, the two workers who died would be alive today.”
Setka also called on workers to take industrial action and not rely on Labor. “The new ABCC, like its predecessor, is an attack on the civil liberties of workers in the construction industry, on job security and on the rights of construction unions to represent their members and to protect health and safety.”
The rally also heard from Parmalat workers who have been locked out for 51 days in Echuca. The AMWU speaker said: “The ABCC is a shit sandwich, and Senator Hinch has removed the bread. Companies like Parmalat don’t pay their taxes properly and rip off their workers. It is all about corporate greed.”
A cleaning worker spoke of the devastating impact of the cuts to penalty rates.
The rally observed a minute’s silence for the six workers killed so far this year. The crowd then marched on Liberal Party headquarters, which went into lockdown for the day.
Alex Bainbridge reports from Brisbane that thousands of workers joined the Brisbane leg of the national day of action.
More than one speaker referred to the large turnout in this first rally in the campaign, prompting comparisons with the campaign against WorkChoices — which helped remove the Howard government — and the campaign against the Newman Queensland government's privatisation agenda.
A rank and file CFMEU member told the rally that “my daughter [in the hospitality industry] has just lost a quarter of her wage, gone at the stroke of a pen.
“The Liberals like to tell us, this ‘trickle down economy’ [will lead to] more jobs, but we know that's bullshit.”
Then he spoke about “erosion” as bosses and governments seek to erode conditions one industry at a time. “How long before the poor firies are gonna cop it?” he asked.
The rally also took a stand against One Nation's support for the Turnbull government's attacks on workers. “One Nation is their name, bashing workers is their game. Every city, every town, Queensland workers don’t back down,” was a popular chant.