‘Many grievances, one solution!’ – huge union rally in Melbourne, Australia

Upwards of 60,000 people hit the streets of Melbourne, on May 9, in the biggest union protest in over a decade. Some estimates put the figure in excess of 100,000. Seeing the streets flooded with union flags was a sight to behold and gave just a glimpse of the potential power of the workers’ movement. It was clear that many unions had mobilised for the ‘Change the Rules’ rally in a way they have not done for years, with many unions represented by large contingents.

A few unions even got their members to stop work to attend. The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) members stopped working across the city, with many also joining from across regional Victoria. Striking Melbourne University workers and waterside workers who had stopped work were in attendance, as well.

Socialist Party members spoke with people throughout the day about the reasons why they had decided to come out. The reasons were varied. Some people had specific workplace grievances while others had industry-wide issues. It was interesting to note that many people were talking about wealth inequality and big business greed.

Despite the fact that Australia has not seen a recession in 26 years, people are feeling the pinch. As several of the speakers at the rally said, we are living in a time of record low wage growth with inequality at its highest since the Great Depression.

After the first set of speakers, the march snaked its way to the Magistrates Court for a pit stop. CFMMEU officials, John Setka and Shaun Reardon, were in court facing trumped up charges of ‘blackmail’. The accusation was actually that they had threatened industrial action.

In the days after the rally the charges were dropped. This is a huge blow to the government, and to all the anti-union forces, behind this blatant attempt to criminalise trade union activity.

In his speech out the front of the courts, ETU state secretary, Troy Grey, made the correct point that while we need change it is not going to happen in Canberra. Socialists agree with this sentiment. If we are serious about changing the rules we will need to use industrial action coupled with more mass protests.

While every speaker spoke about the problems we face, very few put forward a concrete plan for how to win. There was a lot of talk about getting rid of the Turnbull Liberal government, but by this they meant elect Labor. The problem is that the very rules that need to be changed were introduced by Labor themselves!

Little enthusiasm for Labor

Despite the anti-Liberal mood, there was not much enthusiasm for Labor. Bill Shorten is a thoroughly uninspiring right-wing leader, consistently polling behind Malcolm Turnbull as preferred Prime Minister.

There are also less illusions in Labor than the last time the union movement campaigned against anti-worker industrial laws 12 years ago. In 2007, Labor were elected on the back of a union-led campaign. When in power they introduced the misnamed Fair Work Act, which is the legislation that has been used to drive down wages and conditions since.

After such a big turnout people were hoping to hear about the next steps in the campaign. Unfortunately, there was nothing forthcoming from the platform. In fact, the rally ended in such an abrupt way that some people thought the PA had stopped working! Even Channel 10 reported that the rally was lacking in demands and strategy.

The leaflet that the Socialist Party distributed on the day was an attempt to contribute to the debate about the way forward. Our material called on the ACTU to organise mass delegates meetings in every major city that would agree on a list of demands that we put to all the political parties. These meetings should be followed up with workplace meetings that endorse the claims and build for a national day of stop-work action.

The May 9 action was a great first step and it should be replicated, but this time throughout the whole country. The campaign should be prepared to challenge whoever wins the next federal election, as well as capitalism itself. We need to change the system not just the rules!

Blackmail charges dropped

Anthony Main, Socialist Party (CWI Australia)

In a major blow to anti-union forces, trumped up blackmail charges laid against two construction union officials in Victoria have been dropped.

Police had alleged that Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) leaders John Setka and Shaun Reardon had ‘blackmailed’ executives from concrete supplier Boral during a dispute with the construction firm Grocon.

Prosecutors alleged that the union officials wanted to cut off Grocon’s concrete supply and that they had warned Boral bosses to cooperate or face industrial action during a meeting in 2013. Setka and Reardon faced the prospect of 15 years jail if they had been found guilty.

The decision to drop the charges came after a mass demonstration of workers marched to the court in early May. In addition, accounts from Boral executives during the case were described as a “train wreck”.

It was revealed that one of the executives made 18 different drafts of his statement while the other one made 41 drafts! “We’re almost thinking of bringing Guinness Book of Records down here.” Setka said outside court.
In essence, this case was an attempt to criminalise industrial action, or even the threat of industrial action. Has an employer ever been dragged before the courts for threatening job losses or pay cuts?

A coalition of anti-union forces had hoped to land a significant blow on the CFMMEU and to discredit the wider union movement.

The prosecutions arose from the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption. That the state was unable to proceed with this case after spending $80 million on a politically motivated witch hunt is a major setback to their agenda.

Setka correctly described the whole ordeal as a “conspiracy”. This is no hyperbole as during the court proceedings evidence was heard that representatives from the government had been liaising with Boral executives.
The union’s lawyer, Peter Gordon, said that an “entirely innocent” conversation had been “exaggerated and distorted” into a false claim of blackmail after the company’s lawyers got involved.

“All of these lawyers were given their riding instructions by men who were on a mission for the extreme right of our politics.” Gordon said. The notorious anti-union law firm Freehills represented Boral in the case.

As we go to press the union is considering pursuing legal action against the company’s lawyers, as well as against state and federal police.

For more information:

Strike now to change the rules


We need mass action to ‘Change the Rules’!


Link up the struggles!





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May 2018