Workers protest war

Issue 

BY GRAHAM MATTHEWS
& ANTHONY BENBOW

Militant unionists in Melbourne and Perth have offered a lead to others by walking off the job to protest the war at union-organised rallies following the beginning of the war.

In Perth, construction workers walked off in protest as soon as war broke out on March 20, closing all of the city’s building sites. At 3.30pm, they joined other unionists in a 500-strong rally in Forrest Place, called by Unions WA.

At noon on March 21, 5000 unionists walked out of their workplaces in answer to the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) call to “stop work to stop the war on Iraq”. They assembled outside the Trades Hall building in Carlton.

Banners representing a wide variety of unions, from the Australian Nurses Federation, the National Tertiary Education Industry Union (NTEU), Community and Public Sector Union and Victorian Independent Education Union festooned the rally, while the majority of participants were made up of construction workers.

The rally was chaired by Michele O'Neil, VTHC vice-president and state secretary of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union. O'Neil condemned the US and Australian war on Iraq and reminded the crowd that many of those who will be killed by US bombing will be factory workers.

The rally was addressed by a range of speakers, including Dave Oliver, unelected administrator of the Victorian branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union. Oliver's speech was ironically full of rhetoric demanding that Howard respect the democratic will of the Australian people (Oliver was installed as Victorian administrator by the AMWU national office, deposing elected state secretary Craig Johnston).

The unionists marched from Trades Hall to St Paul's Anglican Cathedral on Swanston Street, where they heard from more speakers before dispersing.

One of the unions that has organised the most workplace discussions about the war is the construction division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. When CFMEU state secretary Martin Kingham addressed the crowd, he acknowledged that in many workplaces there was a raging debate about whether or not to oppose the war.

Although there were many CFMEU members who had stopped work to join the protest, Kingham said that some building sites had voted not to support the protest. But this debate was good to have he said, because the media and the government are subjecting workers to a lot of lies and propaganda about the war. It is important, Kingham argued, for unions to protest about the non-dollar issues as well as the dollar issues.

ACTU secretary Greg Combet indicated that the ACTU would have had no problem with the war if had been endorsed by the United Nations. However, Combet did say the ACTU would campaign for the withdrawal of Australian troops.

Final speaker for the rally was VTHC secretary Leigh Hubbard, who condemned the war outright and reminded the crowd of the nature of the 35 countries that are supporting the US-led war. “Human rights abusers like Colombia and El Salvador are among them”, he said.

Unions had a strong presence at many of the other protests held since war broke out. In Sydney, a 100-strong contingent waving CFMEU flags was cheered as they joined in with the Sydney University contingent making its way to the March 20 protest. Around 15 unions had banners at that protest. Four unions, the CFMEU, the AMWU, the NTEU and the Australian Education Union, mobilised for the March 20 rally in Geelong.

The Newcastle Trades Hall Council held an emergency delegates meeting on March 20, which voted to support a symbolic 15-minute strike across the Hunter region, but ruled out taking any industrial action that would “directly affect Australian defence personnel”.

Sixty public servants gathered on March 20 in Canberra to hear former Office of National Assessments officer Andrew Wilkie explain his opposition to the war. The protest was organised by Public Servants Against the War

From Green Left Weekly, March 26, 2003.
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