BY LISA MACDONALD
SYDNEY — Chanting "Hands off workers' comp!", 2000 construction workers and their supporters brought lunchtime traffic to a halt as they marched through the city on May 29. The rally was smaller than originally expected due to a torrential downpour which flooded some city streets earlier that morning and drove many workers home.
The action was called by the construction division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) after a NSW Labor Council rally, which had been scheduled for that day, was cancelled.
The Labor Council called the combined-unions rally off when the state Labor government agreed to negotiate on the details of its proposed changes to workers' compensation law. The CFMEU is calling for the proposed legislation to be withdrawn, not merely amended.
Carrying CFMEU, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and Electrical Trades Union flags, and supported by small contingents of officials from the NSW Teachers Federation and the Public Sector Association, the majority of marchers were city construction site workers who went on strike to join the demonstration.
Before the march, at Town Hall Square, Iggy Kim, who has recently returned from South Korea, spoke about the Daewoo workers' struggle there. His appeal for solidarity from workers in Australia was strongly applauded and the protesters gave generously to a bucket collection.
Outside Parliament House, where the march ended, the crowd was addressed by the state secretary of the CFMEU's construction division, Andrew Ferguson, who condemned the Premier Bob Carr's Labor government for blaming workers for the blow-out in workers' compensation costs rather than targeting employers' failure to pay proper workers' compensation premiums. He then called on unionists to vote for the ALP in the upcoming federal election, to stop the Howard government's attacks on workers' rights.
Greg Combet from the ACTU, while pledging the peak body's support for NSW unions' campaign against the proposed workers' compensation changes, also focussed his fire on the Howard government. "We need to change the federal government", he said. He did not address the issue on the minds of most of the workers present: that Labor is not much better.
The next speaker, Labor Council secretary Michael Costa, received a muted welcome, interspersed with booing. He spouted a lot of left rhetoric, including threatening to "call a general strike, if that's what it takes", but limited his criticism of the Carr government's attack on workers' compensation to its failure to consult with the union leaderships about the content of the attack.
With unabashed hypocrisy, Costa congratulated the CFMEU and those present on going ahead with the rally and march, and urged them to "continue the struggle".
A 20,000-signature petition calling for the draft legislation to be scrapped was presented to ALP MLC Ian West, before CFMEU construction division national secretary John Sutton addressed the crowd.
After the lukewarm reception given to most of the speakers, the very supportive response to the last speaker, former rigger Todd Philcott, who lost a leg many years ago while he was a safety representative in the industry, reflected the disgruntlement that many workers feel with, not only politicians, but also their union officials.
Philcott described horrific workplace accidents he had witnessed 25 years ago and stated that safety conditions are no better today. Two Sydney construction workers have been killed on the job in the last fortnight alone. He finished up by spelling out what none of the officials had mentioned: that since all of the employers' profits are created by the workers, the employers, not workers, should pay when workers are injured or killed. We need a world which puts "people before profits, workers before profits", he declared.
If one thing was clear by the end of the rally, it was that the Labor Council's defeatist strategy of shifting this fight away from industrial action and public demonstrations to an "independent" inquiry and behind-closed-doors negotiations is out of sync with the desires of many trade unionists.