"What do we want? Safe sites!" chanted 7000 workers marching to state parliament on September 1. The rally demanded best practice national occupational health and safety (OHS) laws.
Workers called on Victoria's ALP government to pressure its federal counterparts to make the strongest OHS laws possible through the national "harmonisation" process now under way. They demanded the federal government incorporate the best laws from each state into a new national minimum standard.
A teacher, OHS representative and Australian Education Union member spoke. She said although teachers may not face the likelihood of serious injury or being killed at work, there were real health and safety issues. Years of physical lifting for early childhood workers and dealing with aggressive student behaviour were physically and psychologically stressful.
Victorian Trades Hall secretary Brian Boyd condemned any moves by politicians to water down Victoria's OHS laws because "healthy workplaces help make happier families and healthier communities. OHS is everyone's business", he said.
Maitea Medina is a mother of five and the widow of Tony Medina, a construction worker who died at the age of 43 from asbestos-related Mesothelioma. She reminded the crowd that "what happens at work does indeed come home to our families".
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Geoff Lawrence spoke of the 8000 workers who die annually from work-related deaths. He said those deaths were on top of the 700,000 workers injured each year, and that we must "never stop fighting for occupational health and safety".
Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union national OHS officer Martin Kingham asked what sort of world it was when it was more likely that a construction worker would die at work than an Australian soldier would die in a combat zone.
Kingham said deaths and injuries had increased on building sites since the Australian Building and Construction Commission was established in 2005. The ABCC was set up to destroy the industrial strength of construction unions. It has targeted many workers for taking "illegal" action on OHS issues.
A rally delegation presented a letter of protest to parliament.
In Geelong, more than 1000 workers marched behind the banner "Defend Ark Tribe", taking their demands to the offices of federal MP Richard Marles and state MP Gail Tierney. Ark Tribe is a South Australian construction worker and CFMEU member who is facing jail for refusing to attend an ABCC interrogation related to a health and safety concern on his site.
The "Defend Ark Tribe" banner was in the spirit of a resolution unanimously passed at the 800-strong Melbourne OHS representatives meeting on August 19. The resolution invited Ark Tribe or his representative to the September 1 Melbourne rally to talk about his case and the campaign to abolish the ABCC.
Geelong and Region Trades and Labour Council (GRTLC) secretary Tim Gooden told the crowd the new OHS laws would end up killing workers, not saving them. He said the ABCC was bad for workers' safety and must be abolished.
Gooden called for support for Tribe. The protest also passed a resolution calling on GRTLC to hold a mass delegates' meeting for a report on the campaign.
Protests and actions were also held in cities across the country. The actions reiterated that workers cannot allow an attack on the right to safe workplaces. The next step is to build solidarity between unions and communities, because improving health and safety is everybody's business. The campaign must be actively extended to all industries.
Union officials said the rally was the beginning of the campaign to defend and extend strong OHS laws. If we want to win we need even greater numbers next time.