Tuesday, July 26, 2005

'What do we want? Howard out!'

Lisbeth Latham

Despite heavy showers, 20,000 people joined the Unions WA-organised rally in Perth on June 30 against PM John Howard’s proposed industrial relations laws. Union contingents converged on the Perth Cultural Centre with chants of “What do we want? Howard out!”


The largest union contingents came from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). Thousands of workers from the state’s public sector joined the rally, after the state Labor government decided that public sector workers would not be docked pay if they took an extended lunch break to attend.

Rally speakers included ACTU president Sharan Burrow, Western Australian Premier Geoff Gallop and ALP federal industrial relations spokesperson Stephen Smith. The rally heard greetings from the Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights conference that had been meeting in Bangkok and had led a protest at the Australian embassy to condemn the Howard government’s attacks on workers’ rights.

A series of protests across regional Western Australia began on June 27, when 3000 workers rallied in Karratha. Workers voted to follow the rally with a 24-hour strike. On June 28, 100 workers rallied in Geraldton, while 500 workers attended each of the protests held in Albany and Bunbury on June 30.

Chris Cain, secretary of the Western Australian branch of the MUA, told Green Left Weekly “The rally here in Perth was absolutely fantastic!”, noting how the “tremendous turnouts” in the regional centres “really inspired workers all around WA and here in Perth to get on board”. Cain said “the way the unions, churches, politicians, unemployed and the community came together was great”.

Unions WA secretary Dave Robinson described the rally as “a phenomenal display from the community in Western Australia”. He told Green Left Weekly that people “do not accept what John Howard is proposing for them” and that Howard has “no mandate to continue down this path”.

Jim McIlroy reports that around 20,000 workers crammed into the King George Square in Brisbane on June 30, spilling over into nearby streets. Large contingents of up to 2000 each from the ETU, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), the construction union and the Transport Workers Union (TWU) marched from separate rallying points.

According to Queensland Council of Unions general secretary Grace Grace, the rally was the largest industrial mobilisation in Brisbane in a decade. A weekend of protest is being planned for July 30 and 31.

Labor Premier Peter Beattie pledged that his state government would introduce legislation to protect workers’ conditions, but conceded that the Howard government could move to override any state laws.

AMWU member Andrew Martin told Green Left Weekly that the feeder rallies held by the AMWU and ETU at Roma Street Forum were “very impressive and militant”.

“This is just the beginning. Howard doesn’t realise what he’s in for. We will fight till we win”, AMWU organiser Tracy Bradley told the rally. There were numerous calls for a national strike from the rank and file.

Susan Austin reports that at least 3000 people attended an indoor rally in Hobart’s City Hall on June 30.

Simon Cocker, secretary of Unions Tasmania, encouraged everyone to speak to their workmates and others, to complete petitions, and “work to influence the moderates and the decent conservatives to convince them that these proposals are wrong”. The mood of the rally was defiant and many people took away campaign material and pledged to organise their workplaces.

Tasmanian MUA secretary Mick Wickham told Green Left Weekly that 500 people rallied in Devonport on June 30. Members of the Australian Nursing Federation, the Health and Community Services Union, meatworkers and the MUA all walked off the job to protest.

According to Wickham, “This was a great turnout and considering a lot of people aren’t even aware yet of how these laws will affect them, it means the campaign is off to a very good start, and will grow a lot in the next month”. He said that unions in the north of Tasmania are meeting weekly to organise the campaign and are planning actions every three weeks.

More than 2000 workers protested in Darwin on June 30, reports Kathy Newnam, including a large contingent from the Bechtel Gas plant at Wickham Point. The rally heard from Unions NT’s Nadine Williams, who welcomed the protest as the “beginning of a long campaign”.

NT treasurer Sid Stirling, who joined the rally along with all members of the territory Labor government, declared that his government would “stand with every unionist in the NT and see the fight through and see it won”. He promised that employees in the NT public sector would be spared from Howard’s industrial relations changes, because “as an employer, we won’t have it”.

Stirling told the crowd that the NT government’s legislative power is limited, as territory legislation can be overruled federally, but that the government is seeking constitutional advice on “whatever laws are necessary to protect workers”.

The rally also heard about 30 contract workers at the alumina refinery on Gove peninsula who held a 24-hour stoppage after Alcan attempted to prevent them from joining the Gove rally.

James Caulfield reports that more than 500 unionists descended on the Hyatt Hotel in Canberra on June 26 for a rally outside the federal Liberal Party council meeting.

From Green Left Weekly issue #632

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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

WA Labor returned to government

Chris Latham, Perth

Geoff Gallop's state Labor government held onto power in the February 26 Western Australian election, albeit with a reduced parliamentary majority. While there are still a number of seats undecided, the ALP's majority in the lower house looks likely to fall from 11 to nine seats.

Prior to the poll, it appeared that Labor's unpopularity may prevent it from returning to government. However, following a series of embarrassing Coalition policy releases — particularly the proposed $2 billion Kimberley-to-Perth canal plan — big business became increasingly unconfident in the Coalition's ability to deliver a stable and reliable government. This was reinforced by the ALP's promise to deliver fiscal responsibility, demonstrated by its refusal to be drawn into a bidding war with the Coalition over the Australian Nurses Federation's determined push for a decent enterprise agreement for its members.

Both major parties experienced large swings towards them in both the lower and upper houses. In the Legislative Assembly there was a swing of 4.63% to Labor, bringing its vote to 41.87%. In the Legislative Council a swing to Labor of 5.42% took its vote to 43.36%. The Liberal Party's primary vote increased by 4.47% in the Legislative Assembly and 3.15% in the Legislative Council, to 35.63% and 37.11% of the vote respectively.

The growth in the vote for the ALP and Liberals came at the expense of the minor parties, particularly the Australian Democrats and One Nation, who had swings against them of 2% and 8% in both houses. The Greens also suffered a swing of 0.48% against them in the Legislative Council, down to a vote of 7.52%, representing a loss of 1200 votes. In the Legislative Assembly the Greens' vote increased by 0.31%, to 7.58%.

One Nation lost all three of its seats in the Legislative Council to the Liberal Party, and the Greens lost three of their five seats to the ALP. However, the Greens continue to hold the balance of power in the upper house.

The Socialist Alliance stood in three upper house seats and gained between 0.06% and 0.28% of the vote. The Coogee Coastal Action Coalition, which has been campaigning against the construction of the Port Coogee marina, won 0.5% of the vote in the South Metropolitan Region.

From Green Left Weekly #619.

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Wednesday, February 9, 2005

WA nurses battle heats up

By Chris Latham

Just three weeks before Western Australia goes to the polls, the nine-month-long nurses dispute over a new certified agreement has come to a head. The Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) is considering an offer made by the Coalition opposition.

The offer matches the Labor government's, which includes a pay rise of 14.7% over three years, but goes further with an additional $50 million in improved working conditions.

Both the state government and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) have condemned the Coalition's offer. The CCI fears that the offer could lead to improved working conditions across the industry. In the February 1 West Australian, CCI policy director Bruce Williams said the Liberal Party should not have been drawn into a bidding war by the ANF to settle a pay claim because it would add to the cost of running the health system. He also predicted that such a deal would flow on to the private sector by forcing it to match these conditions in order to attract nursing staff.

UnionsWA secretary Dave Robinson told Australian Associated Press on January 31: "The decision made by [state Coalition leader] Colin Barnett to intrude into the wage bargaining process between public sector employees and their employer ... is highly inappropriate."

Media reports have suggested that the ANF is endorsing a vote for the Coalition. ANF state secretary Mark Olson clarified in the January 28 EBA News: "The ANF has never and will never tell members how to vote in a state election. We have said the Coalition $212 million package will encourage nurses to vote for them." What is not clear, however, is how nurses who are running as independent candidates, primarily in marginal seats under the slogan "Nurses for health", will be directing their preferences.

Whilst the Coalition is offering better conditions to nurses than the government, there is no escaping the Coalition's anti-worker agenda. The election of a Coalition government would impact adversely on future bargaining outcomes for all WA workers.

The Labor government's approach to negotiations with the ANF has been one of open hostility, leading to the current stalemate.

In October 2004, the government insisted that any ballot on its offer ordered by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) be voted on by all nurses rather than only ANF members and that the ANF be prevented from commenting on the offer.

In November, the government applied to have the ANF's bargaining period suspended, which was granted by the AIRC in December in order to force the ANF into arbitration. Following the ANF's refusal to accept the offer, the government cut the union out of negotiations by conducting a ballot of all nurses offering a non-union agreement, in which 70% of nurses rejected the government's offer.

The ANF has not been the only union targeted by the government. In 2003, during both the State School Teachers Union (SSTU) and Civil Service Association (CSA) enterprise bargaining campaigns it adopted hostile negotiating tactics, including threats to suspend bargaining periods. Labor MPs crossed a CSA picket of parliament and the government ran a costly two-page advertisement in the West Australian to publicise its offer to teachers while in a conciliation process.

In November 2004 the ANF disaffiliated from UnionsWA, which, according to the November 12 West Australian, was due to its "failure to support the ANF in its battles against the state government over pay and other issues ... and its failure to take the fight up to the government on key issues such as workers' compensation".

UnionsWA and other public sector unions have challenged the Coalition to similarly improve the working conditions of all workers in the public sector. They have also raised concerns over the effect of the agreement on the ALP's electoral prospects in the February 26 poll. UnionsWA secretary Dave Robinson told the Australian on January 28: "Apart from being a Faustian pact, I think [the agreement] is potentially damaging to Labor."

However, the ALP government's hostile attitude to public servants reflects its commitment to a neoliberal agenda, exercising fiscal "responsibility" by limiting spending on social services, pay and conditions and instead heavily subsidising business development. These policies have only served to further alienate the ALP from working people.

Without a strong and united labour movement that is willing to fight for the interests of workers over and above the interests of any political party, it should come as no surprise that some unions will seek to negotiate with and support whichever party they think will best answer their immediate demands.

In the lead-up to the state election, the union movement and the wider community need to apply maximum political pressure on the ALP government to support the nurses' claim. It is this sort of solidarity and action that can force the government to make a just settlement with the nurses.

At the same time it would be a political mistake for nurses to support the election of a Coalition government. Workers will already have a major battle on their hands to defeat the new wave of anti-worker legislation that PM John Howard's Coalition government has flagged. This fight will be made even harder for WA workers — including nurses — if the Coalition wins the state election on February 26.

From Green Left Weekly #614.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Construction workers stop work

Chris Latham

On January 18, construction workers on a number of Perth building sites walked off the job over fears that a heavy haze that has been affecting Perth was hazardous to outdoor workers.

The stoppages caused outrage from construction companies and the West Australian. The Master Builders Association accused the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union of seeking excuses to flex its industrial muscle. The CFMEU's success in winning improved conditions for workers building the southern rail line was a particular focus of the anger.

According to the Department of Environment, the haze, caused by the bushfires that began on January 16 and burnt out more than 25,000 hectares in the hills east of Perth, had released the highest ever recorded levels of smoke particles in the air. The department's four monitoring stations reported air particle levels that exceeded the allowable level of 50 micrograms per cubic metre during the week. While there is no monitoring in the Perth central business district, the department estimated that on January 19 and 20 the level was 100 micrograms per cubic metre.

From Green Left Weekly #613\.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Nurses reject non-union agreement

By Chris Latham

In a ballot of nurses employed in Western Australia's public health system, two-thirds voted to reject the state Labor government's offer of a non-union agreement. The clear rejection of the government's attempt to sideline the Australian Nurses Federation occurred despite ongoing public attacks on the ANF.

To help build support for the non-union offer, which was initiated on December 13, state health minister Jim McGinty wrote a letter to all WA nurses. The letter quoted sections of Australian Industrial Relations Commission deputy president Brendan McCarthy's December 8 decision to terminate the ANF's bargaining period, which accused ANF state secretary Mark Olson of not genuinely trying to reach an agreement and of being more interested in conducting a political and media campaign.

UnionsWA secretary-elect Dave Robinson initially appeared to support the government's move. He told the December 14 West Australian: "We don't approve of any of this in general but there appears to be a special case here. We expect the government to negotiate with unions in the future, no ifs and no buts". Robinson then told the December 14 Workplace Express, UnionsWA's online journal, that the West Australian's report was incorrect and UnionsWA was totally opposed to any attempt to bypass the ANF.

According to the Workplace Express, Robinson had "initially believed (incorrectly) that the government was merely conducting a straw-poll ballot to gauge nurses' reaction to its offer — a move he would also normally oppose but for the levels of frustration on all sides of the protracted dispute".

Grahame Armstrong, in a December 19 Sunday Times article entitled "Nurse demands a sick joke", described Olsen as a "headline-hunting, ambitious unionist" who was seeking to use state elections to "squeeze more money" out of taxpayers.

The ANF opposed the government's offer because it failed to address nurses' demands for reduced workloads. According to the ANF, the final offer included a number of setbacks both on previous government offers and existing conditions. These include roster changes no longer requiring the approval of the majority of nurses, loss of accumulated days off for clinic nurses (in lieu of overtime) and changes to the definition of shift worker, which would have reduced some nurses' leave by up to a week.

After the defeat of the non-union agreement, the government will take the dispute into arbitration. However, according to a January 12 enterprise bargaining update to members, the ANF is continuing to push for the government to negotiate further.

There is likely to be ongoing pressure on the Labor government to deliver a better deal for nurses. The ANF has been threatening to campaign against the ALP outside polling booths in the state election.

From Green Left Weekly #611.

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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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