In the biggest union mobilisation in Australia in more than a decade, up to 120,000 unionists and supporters descended on the streets of Melbourne on May 9.
The protest was organised as part of the Change the Rules campaign. The rally followed a mass delegates meeting in April and was the conclusion of nearly a fortnight of union actions across the country to launch the campaign.
Addressing the massive crowd, Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus declared the Change the Rules campaign “is about changing the rules that lead to record inequality”.
“This is about changing the rules of neoliberalism and trickle-down economics. Those ideas are about this — there is only one group of people who should make all of the decisions: employers, the very rich, and the very powerful.
“They have to get the trade union movement and our rights out of the way.
“Now it is time to stop defending [our rights] and to start advancing.”
Construction, Forestry, Mining, Maritime and Energy Union assistant secretary Elias Spernovasilis told the crowd “two senior union officials” John Setka and Shaun Riordan “are sitting in the Melbourne Magistrates Court charged with blackmail”.
“Both [Setka and Riordan] were arrested, on a Sunday, in front of their families like common criminals and for what? An alleged industrial matter? They are going to be [in court] for the next two weeks in a committal hearing. We are going to walk past them today and show them our support.
“We [also] have legislation just hanging in the winds in parliament regarding who can and can’t lead a union. What makes a government think they can turn around and tell you who you can elect as union leaders? That is your right; that is your choice. Not theirs.”
Electrical Trades Union Victorian state secretary Troy Gray said the “pendulum has swung too far”.
“Big business has too much power. It is time [for workers] to take back the power; it is time to change the rules.
“This is our time. [It] isn’t going to happen in Canberra. It happens here, it happens today and it happens with you.”
United Voice Victoria president and early childcare educator Kerrie Devir said: “We were told to play by the rules, and we did, but the rules have failed us every time.”
Devir said despite hundreds of thousands of families relying on her and her colleagues to provide “the very best education and care in this country”, they remain underpaid and undervalued.
“We need a pay rise. Educators are paid as little as $21 an hour, half the average wage. We are trapped on an award system that has failed us.
“The current system, where we have to negotiate with over 7000 employers one by one makes [negotiating a better pay deal] impossible.
“[Fair Work Australia] instead of backing female workers, has slammed the door in our face.”
Victorian state secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union Karen Batt declared that she “will fight” with everyone across the union movement.
“We will fight to change the rules and for the interests of all of our members across the national and state tiers of government.
“[The Coalition’s] extreme agenda has always been consistent across the three decades I have been involved [in the union]: to abolish the independent umpire, making access to dispute resolution conditional on their consent and to remove organised worker representatives, in other words unions, from the bargaining table by introducing the concept of non-union bargaining.
“[They are] using their legislative powers to abolish conditions they don’t like and replacing them with inferior terms and cancelling pay rises unless workers agree to sign away their protected entitlements.
“CPSU members have fought ... election after election to change our employer and to change the rules. We have won [in the past], and we will win this time.”
National Tertiary Education Union Victorian state secretary Colin Long said: “As unionists, we know what solidarity means. It means caring for our fellow workers. It is a sentiment that is entirely alien to the bosses who run Australian companies and those who increasingly run our universities.
“Where is the care of our workers in the levels of casualisation and other forms of insecure work that plague our workplaces? Casuals perform 40-50% of undergraduate teaching in our universities.
“It should be a scandal that the majority of our teaching and research staff in our universities are in insecure work. The situation has become so bad because we, like all unions, are under attack.
“We are fighting back, but make no mistake: the Coalition and their mates are out to destroy us as a movement. They will not succeed. We will change the rules.”