Will Labor let health workers fight the cuts?

Melbourne, February 3.

It was great to see all big health unions in Victoria hold a joint community rally on February 3 to protest against the state and federal governments’ slashing of health funding in Victoria. But any casual observer couldn’t help feeling that a re-elect Labor strategy was lurking.

It was true that all of the secretaries from the key health unions roundly condemned the state Coalition and federal Labor governments for the $107 million cut to be implemented by June this year. The cut will result in more than 300 beds closing, elective surgery delays and job losses in many hospitals.

In fact, most people did not think it was alarmist when the Victorian secretary of Ambulance Employees Australia, Steve McGhie, said that unless a solution was found, ''people will die''.

It was good to see that Greens Senator Richard Di Natale was asked to speak. He said he would move to establish an inquiry to end weeks of dispute between federal health minister Tanya Plibersek and Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu as each blamed the other for the growing crisis.

But the political conclusion of the rally was inescapable. The main chant was “One Term Ted” and placards read “664 Days To Go”. When former health minister and current opposition leader Daniel Andrews got up to speak, the message became even clearer: vote the ALP back in and all our problems will be fixed.

Andrews made no commitments to restore health funding or even raise it if he was elected at the next election. Indeed, he was the ALP health minister who in 2007 bullied nurses during negotiations for an enterprise bargaining agreement. Many nurses still recall their treatment at the hands of that Labor government with its history of failed promises.

The whole event was a suspicious reminder of the “Your Rights at Work” rallies in 2007. It began with the slogan of “Your Rights at Work – Worth Fighting For”, when hundreds of thousands of workers illegally took strike action in opposition to then prime minister John Howard’s anti-union laws.

Then as we got closer to the election, mysteriously, the slogan changed to “Your Rights at Work – Worth Voting For”, and dozens of ALP hopefuls stampeded towards the platform to speak at every rally.

Well, what did they get for their loyalty to Labor? A kick in the teeth with “Work Choices lite” and no real change for the average worker.

Health workers and the community can’t fight these cuts if they hitch their wagon to the fortunes of the ALP. Labor uses workers’ rallies to make itself look pro-worker, when in reality they bend over backwards for the corporate sector.

This rally was superficially about health cuts. But on closer inspection it was clear that Andrews was positioned centrally, surrounded by the crowd, in a strategic move to get a 15-second headline grab.

And that’s exactly what was seen on all TV stations that night. This is the formula Victorians are likely to see over and over again in the coming months.
In reality, it’s out there on the streets where it really matters.

Workers need a determined and forceful response to reverse these cuts and demand instead that the state and federal governments raise spending for public hospitals.

To be effective, the campaign needs to be led by the entire union movement and broadened to include community groups. It needs statewide rallies, cross-union protests and community rallies, stalls, leafleting at shopping centres, door knocking and public meetings.