On June 25, 330 delegates from 19 unions covering public sector workers met in Sydney to launch Unions NSW's "Better Services Campaign". The launch marked the return of the peak body to the battlefield over privatisation and public services.
The evening before, in the Legislative Council, the latest skirmish in the sell-off wars of the Nathan Rees ALP government had ended in farce.
Faced with an anti-government majority voting for an inquiry into its unpopular sale of NSW Lotteries, Labor's ministers simply walked out, freezing proceedings. The deserted chamber is still formally in session as the MPs take their winter break.
The circus came about after Rees lost the support of the Shooters Party, which made a law allowing the hunting of native animals in national parks its price for supporting the privatisation.
Labor, already vulnerable to the Greens in some inner-Sydney seats, choked. With the Coalition (tactically) and the Greens (in principle) against the lotteries sell-off, the sale was temporarily blocked.
In this context, the Unions NSW campaign can help defeat Rees' privatisation plans. Especially because public sector workers are very angry.
The memory of the Your Rights at Work campaign and the defeat of the last attempt to privatise electricity was strong among delegates.
Recent wins, such as blocking the privatisation of Cessnock jail, underlined the power of campaigns that combine industrial action with community support.
Delegates cheered and laughed at excerpts from Michael Moore's Sicko where the filmmaker explained that France has decent public services compared with the US because "in France the government fears the people while in the US the people fear the government".
The Unions NSW campaign will focus on making decent public services a key issue in the 2011 state election. Parties and individual MPs will be pressured to sign a charter of commitment to public services.
The campaign will focus on the regional and electorate level, looking to build up local activist networks. A series of TV advertisements will be released and a campaign website will allow activists to exchange ideas and information.
It was a weakness, however, that the conference did not feature the struggle of the Parklea prison officers against the sell-off of the jail.
The challenge now is to build a campaign on the ground.
[Dick Nichols is a national co-coordinator of the Socialist Alliance, and is active in the Sydney Power to the People anti-privatisation coalition.]