A day after the Queensland Liberal National Party (LNP)’s slash-and-burn budget was handed down, huge union rallies — the biggest since the campaign against the Howard government’s Work Choices laws — took place on September 12.
Ten thousand workers marched on parliament house in Brisbane, and marches and rallies were also held in several regional centres, such as Townsville, Cairns, Mackay, Rockhampton, Bundaberg, the Sunshine Coast, Toowoomba and the Gold Coast.
The unionists, all from unions affiliated with the Queensland Council of Unions (QCU) called for job security in response to the LNP government’s axing of 14,000 public sector jobs.
QCU President John Battams said the state’s jobless rate was set to rise to 6% as the impact of the cuts spread throughout Queensland’s economy.
He said: “The budget papers seem to mention this as a throwaway line — that at 6% Queensland’s jobless rate will be the worst in 20 years. But if you are a nurse, or a school cleaner, a rural firefighter, or an apprentice with QBuild, or anyone providing vital services to Queenslanders, you will be very concerned.”
Inside parliament house, Premier Campbell Newman shed crocodile tears, saying: “I feel for those people, I am sorry for those people.” But he said his axe-wielding was necessary to get the economy back on track.
However, the looming decimation of many regional towns as a result of the cuts will hardly boost the economy.
At the Brisbane rally, a speaker from the public sector union Together spoke of the inhumane way many sacked workers learned of their fate, often after the fact.
She said one group of public sector workers was called together that morning and told: “You, you and you are safe, the rest of you are gone.”
She said: “Our workers are not numbers on a spreadsheet for Treasurer Tim Nicholls. They need to treat workers with respect.”
Industrial action in response to the budget has been limited. Prison officers around the state walked off the job on the afternoon the budget was handed down, but returned to work at 6am the next day after an order by the Queensland Industrial Relations Commission.
The commission ordered the prison officers to refrain from further action for 90 days.
There has been no call from the QCU for a concerted industrial campaign to beat Newman’s agenda of job cuts and privatistion of services.
Battams told the Brisbane Rally that this was the start of a "1000-day" campaign to ensure the government understood the pain it had caused. This reflects the limitations of the QCU’s strategy, which is focused on re-electing an ALP government down the track.
This might have been some comfort for the ALP MPs and former MPs in the crowd and aspiring politicians such as Battams himself. But gives little hope to those who have already lost their jobs or will do so in coming weeks.
Battams has said it is up to individual unions to determine what action to take. This is an abrogation of leadership by the QCU and echoes the mistakes made during the South East Queensland Electricity Board (SEQEB) dispute in the 1980s.
The campaign against Newman’s cuts is starting to have an effect. His popularity rating has dropped, LNP-backer Clive Palmer has started white-anting his leadership, and a backbench revolt has forced Newman to rethink the cuts to the Rural Fire Service as the threat of summer fires loom.
Indeed, the rallies on September 12 may be the beginning of Newman’s “summer of discontent”.