By Andrew Watson
PERTH — Angry workers under attack from the Court Liberal-National government have forced the WA Trades and Labor Council to call a 24-hour strike for June 17, the opening day of the WA parliament.
About 1000 government sector union delegates and shop stewards met on May 29 to discuss the action. Although still unwilling to lead a concerted fight back against Court the TLC failed in its attempts to limit the strike.
The TLC's motion for a two-hour stoppage and "protest picnic" was amended several times — to widen the stoppage to a 24-hour strike, to have a rally and march on Parliament House and to invite private sector unions on board.
Tom Brady, a shop steward with the Australian Electrical, Electronics, Foundry and Engineering Union, moved the call for the 24-hour strike. He spoke to Green Left about the meeting.
"The frustration and anger at the meeting on Saturday was not only against the Liberals, but also against the Labor Party and the leadership of the union movement. The TLC motion was a joke. Where has the TLC been for the last 10 years? A stack of jobs went under Labor, but nothing was said or done. The truth is that they've forgotten how to fight."
Now more jobs are being cut, and union rights are under attack. The closure of the Midland railway workshops and Robb Jetty abattoir will cost 1250 jobs directly. A further 450 jobs are to go at Westrail.
Rumours are circulating of more job cuts at the Building Maintenance Authority and WA Water Authority. Eighty jobs have been cut at Homeswest. State Print is likely to close with the loss of 200 jobs, and there are possible school closures to follow.
On top of this, the government aims to introduce Kennett-style industrial relations legislation
undermining the "closed shop" and the right to strike in some industries.
Industrial relations minister Graham Kierath has promised that workers made redundant by the cuts will be "redeployed" within the government sector. However, a number of unionists who spoke to Green Left suggested that Kierath can't be trusted.
Bob Christison, an organiser for the Public Transport Union, estimates that at most there are only 100 new jobs available within the system. What about the Midland workers? "Well, what can you say? Kierath had just better hope to Christ that 650 people want to leave their jobs!"
Owen Wood, an organiser with the AEEFEU, says that Kierath's platitudes won't stop his members from taking action on June 17. "We're sick of being pawns in the system. Our people have already been 'restructured' and 'multi-skilled' under Labor. Our productivity has increased but there is just less and less work available. There are already 400 workers on government lists waiting for redeployment — that's before you even consider the workers at Midland."
Bill Ethell, president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, said that in his view the Court government's approach to redundancies is no different from that of the previous government.
"They're just throwing people on the scrap heap. There's no commitment to redeploy people to jobs with similar incomes. Proper retraining has to take place; income security has to be in place. Basically people should be offered four years of training at current income levels. They talk about the 'clever country'. Well, let's make these workers 'clever'."
While the teachers, electrical, railway and construction workers are actively building the strike (they are four of the groups most affected by the cutbacks), some union leaderships — mainly white collar — have not responded favourably to the strike call.
Peter Quinn, general secretary of the State School Teachers Union, said it was important that all unions
strike on June 17. "Some unions have been a bit wobbly on the strike. The strength of our position will influence them in coming with us."
Both teachers and the community have a lot to lose if education minister Norman Moore's "devolution blueprint" is ever implemented. Individual schools will have the right to hire and fire teachers, contract labour will replace temporary staff, and class sizes will increase.
Moore's proposal for community control of schools, including the setting of school fees, will produce two types of schools — those for the rich and those for the poor.
Bill Ethell says that the decision of the TLC to leave the decision to strike up to individual unions was an act of deliberate misleadership. "The white collar unions have been allowed to escape, so there is clearly no commitment to involve all workers. The TLC's strategy is designed to split the work force", Ethell told Green Left.
How does this serve the TLC? "The TLC wants to get back to its previous position when the ALP was in power — in a comfortable boardroom with government bureaucrats to negotiate the jobs away."
Tom Brady agrees. "I think that the ACTU and the TLCs — not just here but in all the states — are so used to doing deals with politicians that they've forgotten who they represent."
The strike call is gathering momentum. Kierath has threatened to cancel the redundancy pay of those who take part. How should the unions respond?
"The TLC should say, 'Go ahead and do it'", said Tom Brady. "He knows full well he can't. His threats are just that — threats — and should be treated as such. The rank and file want to fight, and Kierath's threats want to make them fight even more."