Worker and community action can stop Iemma\'s power sell-off

April 26, 2008

The longer the debate about the proposed privatisation of New South Wales electricity goes on, the more people are convinced it's wrong and the less Premier Morris Iemma and treasurer Michael Costa care what we think.

Why are the premier and treasurer ploughing ahead? Not because of the economic and social needs of NSW workers and communities, but to help their government survive. They dream of a $15 billion pot of gold from the privatisation — to be splurged over the next three years in the hope of buying scandal-ridden Labor a fifth term.

The fact that the NSW public sector will be poorer in the long run from the sell-off, and crippled from implementing a seriously unsustainable energy policy, doesn't worry them: they will have moved on to plum jobs with the likes of Macquarie Bank by then.

Iemma also knows that this is a make-or-break fight for their privatisation plans for the rest of NSW public services. Kevin MacDonald, CEO of the NSW Business Chamber, explains the stakes for business: "If privatisation is abandoned, the question will correctly be asked, 'Who is running NSW — the trade unions or the democratically elected Government?'."

The movement against electricity privatisation must face this fact: regardless of the result of the May 3 NSW ALP conference vote, Costa and Iemma are determined to privatise and show corporate NSW that they can stand up to the union movement.

Their tactic is to get the groundwork done as quickly and quietly as possible, carrying out the job behind the backs of parliament and the public. In the public power generation companies, special "separation" units are already beavering away at the mechanics of the sell-off.

Iemma and Costa will then submit only unavoidable issues to a vote in parliament, hoping ALP caucus discipline will hold and that, if there's a backbench revolt, the Coalition opposition will give them the numbers by abstaining or even voting in favour of the privatisation.

This means that it's practically impossible for this sell-off to be defeated inside the ALP. Since the privatisation was announced, the struggle has involved thousands of unionists, ALP rank-and-filers, Greens, socialists and many others. Its basic direction has been towards a repeat of the 1997 ALP conference result, when premier Bob Carr bowed to the vote against privatisation.

Within the ALP, those fighting the sell-off are pulling out all stops, drafting conference resolutions that would dictate to the MPs that conference decisions override parliamentary caucus discipline and would give the party's administrative committee powers to enforce the conference decision on Iemma. The ALP Alexandria branch has even brought charges against Iemma and Costa for breaking ALP rules!

But what if Iemma ignores all that and succeeds in threatening and bribing a majority of their careerist MPs into submission?

What if, as appears to be the case, there is no stomach within the ALP and union hierarchy for expelling Costa and Iemma from the party? What if, despite the blocking tactics that Greens MPs are committed to, the sell-off passes through parliament?

What's Plan B?

The only practical answer is for Unions NSW to organise total union resistance to the sell-off, starting with an industrial campaign of complete non-cooperation with the privatisation plans.

That campaign won't work if it's just restricted to the power unions, or the public sector unions. The whole union movement has to be organised to block the sell-off, taking whatever industrial action is necessary.

Only the combination of serious industrial action with ongoing mass public protest can win. That also means building on the anger that has already seen hundreds rally outside Labor MPs' offices, and calling further mass protest rallies now.

Many unionists compare this fight to the Your Rights at Work campaign that ended Howard. But there's a vital difference: there's no way any imaginable NSW government elected in 2011 will reverse privatisation if it gets through in 2008. It's now or never.

Unions NSW should be preparing delegates' meetings of all affiliates. That way all workers can be organised and prepared to play their part, making sure that power industry workers receive the solidarity and financial support they will need.

It's also the best way to spread the campaign deeper into the community, building the "people power committees" and other campaign groups that have been so useful in spreading the message and pressuring the recalcitrant ALP parliamentarians.

2008 must be the year we keep NSW electricity in public hands. If your union isn't actively supporting the Stop the Sell-Off campaign, now's the time to get it moving.

Move the motion below where you can.

"This meeting of the [name of union] calls on Unions NSW to immediately call an all-affiliates delegate meeting to plan the next steps in the campaign to save publicly owned electricity generation and retail distribution from the sell-off proposed by the Iemma government. We also call on the union to organise industrial and financial support for power industry workers, and to call delegates' meetings to plan this work and involve the membership in it."

[This is an edited version of the Socialist Alliance's leaflet for May Day 2008 in New South Wales.]

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