Victorian socialists make plans

February 29, 2008

The Socialist Alliance held a Victorian state conference in Melbourne on February 3. Around 80 members and supporters discussed how to meet the challenge of global warming and continue the struggle to overturn all anti-union laws, including the much-hated Work Choices legislation, many aspects of which the new federal Labor government plans to retain.

A conference panel on environment issues featured ecologist and anthropologist Hans Baer, Neil Blake from the Port Phillip Eco-Centre and a member of the Blue Wedges anti-dredging coalition, Shaun Murray from Friends of the Earth, and Ben Courtice, a Socialist Alliance union and environmental activist.

Speakers addressed the role of capitalism in creating climate change, the disastrous impact that dredging would have on Port Phillip Bay and the need to build broad, cross-sectoral movements to tackle climate change. Making World Environment Day an important national day of protest was also discussed.

A very passionate debate ensued on how to win over the union movement to support environmental causes, sparked by Victorian Trades Hall Council and the Maritime Union of Australia's support for the dredging of Port Phillip Bay. Blake pointed out that he and other members of the Blue Wedges coalition had spent many hours on the picket line in support of the MUA in 1998 when the MUA was under attack from the Howard government. Socialist Alliance members have committed themselves to campaigning for their unions to take a public position against the dredging.

The conference also included a trade union panel, featuring Tim Gooden, Geelong Trades Hall Council secretary and a member of the Socialist Alliance; Steve Dargavel, state secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union; Michele O'Neil, the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union's state secretary; and Ralph Edwards, Victorian president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. Chris Cain, the state secretary of the MUA in Western Australian, and WA MUA organiser Ian Bray also attended the conference.

Speakers argued that the new federal government is continuing to undermine the political role of unionism and that urgent campaigns are needed to fight the range of anti-workers laws that the Rudd government has indicated it will retain.

Gooden explained that the government's proposed legislative framework for industrial relations is based on "employee or individual rights" and not "union rights". If the federal government is successful in implementing this policy, he said, it will result in the curbing union power, possibly to the extent that the concept of registered unions will be rendered obsolete.

Dargavel called for industry-wide bargaining ("pattern bargaining") instead of enterprise (workplace-based) bargaining, pointing out that the enterprise bargaining system breaks down union members' consciousness of solidarity. He said that a union's strength is across an industry, not just in a single factory or workplace.

Panel participants also highlighted the importance of campaigning for International Labor Organisation convention rights, such as the right to strike, the right for union organisers to enter workplaces and to organise on the job, and the need to get rid of the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission.

O'Neil strongly emphasized the need for the grassroots "Union Solidarity" group to continue supporting unions.

The conference also assessed the 2007 federal election and Socialist Alliance's general political campaigning work. A resolution session set a basic framework for action in 2008, passing motions on environmental, anti-war, trade union and Indigenous rights work in the coming period.

Members of the alliance voted to oppose the construction of a desalination plant at Wonthaggi, the dredging of Port Phillip Bay and the construction of a pipeline to bring water from the water-starved Goulburn Valley to Melbourne. These projects have been rammed through by Premier John Brumby's state Labor government in the face of community opposition.

The Socialist Alliance resolved to link up with the community campaigns against these projects and do whatever it can to build support for them.

It was also decided that the alliance will participate in local council elections at the end of the year. The conference elected a new state executive and working group conveners, and Sue Bolton was elected as the Socialist Alliance's state convener.

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