Close to 150,000 people attended a mass demonstration in Melbourne as part of the June 28 national day of protest against John Howard’s government’s Industrial Relations (IR) laws. Large contingents of workers from both blue and white collar unions were in attendance. Many families and young people also attended due to the fact that it was school holidays in Victoria.
The mood of the demonstration was notably more sombre than the previous mass protests of June and November, last year. The turn out was also somewhat smaller especially compared to the demonstration last November. Industrial Relations Minister Kevin Andrews jumped on this point saying that the smaller than expected turn-out was a disappointment to the unions and reflected their irrelevance to most ordinary Australians.
Whilst this is obviously not the case, 150,000 people on the streets in Melbourne and 300,000 nationally is nothing to be scoffed at. But the reasons as to why the protests were smaller need to be discussed in the movement. Discussions with workers on the march revealed that many workers were somewhat disillusioned with the current campaign strategy of Trades Hall and the ACTU. Trades Hall secretary Brian Boyd said three more rallies were scheduled for the next 18 months, with up to five possible before the next federal election.
Many workers are asking, “Will continued protests be enough to defeat the laws?” Many more seem to have already concluded that this will not be enough and decided to stay at work. Mass demonstrations are a key part of the campaign but these alone, held every six months, and linked to a marginal seats campaign to re-elect the opposition Australian Labor Party (ALP), is, by no means, enough.
ALP leader, Kim Beazley, and Victoria State Premier and ALP member, Steve Bracks, both got a reasonable response from the crowd when they spoke from the main platform in Melbourne. This was mostly due to Beazley’s recent announcement to scrap individual contracts should the ALP win the next federal [national] election. Beazley’s back flip on individual contracts has, without a doubt, increased support for the ALP, in the short term. But still many workers are not comfortable with the idea that the ALP will save us. Memories of the previous Labor federal government, and the fact the ALP state governments continue to attack workers, leave a bad taste in the mouths of many trade unionists.
This was highlighted by the contingent of fire fighters who were less than impressed with Bracks’ hypocritical speech. Bracks said he was there to speak up for the rights of Victorian families, declaring that penalty rates, annual leave and overtime entitlements were all under threat. At the same time, the state government is in dispute with the fire fighters over pay parity for country and metropolitan workers.
By far the best response on the day was for the rank and file speakers who shared their horror stories about the IR laws in effect.
While Labor has received a short term boost in support, amongst active trade unionists and more generally throughout the working class, support for a principled left opposition to the ALP is still growing.
The demonstration on 28 June was a fantastic show of workers’ strength. The bosses’ organisation, VECCI, said the rally cost $30 million in lost trade and absenteeism. But the workers’ movement now needs to seriously discuss how to best take this campaign forward. If the campaign is not escalated, workers will quickly become demoralised and withdraw from activity. To succeed in defeating Howard’s IR laws the good work done so far publicising the effects of the IR, and the mass demonstrations, need to be linked to a serious campaign of escalating industrial action, uniting all workers and the communities until the IR is scrapped.
Socialist Party (CWI) members participated in the mass workers demonstrations on 28 June. In Melbourne, party activist sold many anti-IR stickers and also sold copies of ‘The Socialist’.