100,000 rally against Workplace Relations Act

May 13, 1998

By Ben Reid and Michael Walker

MELBOURNE — More than 100,000 people rallied against the Howard government's Workplace Relations Act (WRA) and attack on the maritime workers here on May 6. The rally was part of a day of action adopted by 4000-strong Trades Hall Council delegates' meeting on April 16. Smaller gatherings occurred in Ballarat and Geelong.

The rally was much larger than expected, reflecting the anger of unionists and other community members about the Howard government's attacks on working people. The crowd chanted "MUA, here to stay, Howard and Reith, on ya' way".

Beginning at Trades Hall, where there were a number of speakers, the march swept through the streets to finish at the intersection of Flinders and Swanston Streets.

The speakers' list reflected the breadth of the opposition to the Howard government attacks. Bishop Hilton Deakin spoke on behalf of an ecumenical grouping of church figures. Melba Marginson, speaking on behalf of the Ethnic Communities Council, called on the union movement to resist the WRA. "The WRA strikes at the weakest links of the working class: migrants, women, young workers and older workers. If we can defeat this legislation, the trade union movement can grow in strength and build support amongst these new layers of the working class", she said.

Aboriginal speaker and a veteran of the 1995 Weipa miners dispute with RTZ, Richard Arland, said, "The MUA always supported us in our struggle. In 1995, we stood united. In 1998, we stand united."

Trades Hall president and CFMEU construction division secretary Martin Kingham told the throng: "This rally was called in defence of the MUA workers and their families. It was the culmination of a tremendous campaign and demonstrates the unity of the unions, and the formidable alliance between unions and the community." The crowd cheered when Kingham announced that union members would strike for the rest of the day.

A pleasing aspect of the rally was the array of rank and file speakers from different unions. A member of the state division of the CPSU spoke about the Kennett government's attacks on the public sector. On top of 500 job cuts resulting from the state budget, the government is to pass its Public Service Management and Employment Bill that will strip public servants of job security and conditions.

Sue Morero from the Australian Education Union spoke about the effects of contract employment in the education sector. Randolf Gehan, a part-time cleaner and Miscellaneous Workers Union member, informed the crowd that award stripping would result in workers losing $25 from their $180 weekly wage.

Patrick magnate Chris Corrigan's brother, Derrick, reminded the rally that the MUA struggle was far from over. "The High Court decision was a moral victory but the fight hasn't been won. It is not a dispute about productivity, it is a challenge to workers' conditions and workers' rights."

Despite the range of speakers at the rally, a common theme was the need to support the ALP. Rather than calling on workers to continue to struggle to defeat the WRA, most speakers suggested the answer was, in the words of ACTU secretary Jennie George, "to put an end to this by electing a Labor government". George went on to say, "we need to remember the old slogan of the Builders Labourers Federation — 'Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win'."

In the mid-1980s, the state and federal Labor governments conspired to smash the Victorian BLF because it sought pay and conditions above those permitted by the ACTU-ALP Accord. This union-busting was similar to the current attack on the MUA. The federal ALP employed similar actions against the airline pilots in 1989.

Earlier, Labor speaker Barry Jones said the role of an ALP government in future disputes would be to "mediate" and not "take sides". Jones did not commit Labor to the repeal of anti-union laws.

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