Close to 150 000 people attended the mass demonstration in Melbourne as part of the June 28 national day of protest against Howard?s 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 of 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 needs to be raised 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 have decided to stay at work. Mass demonstrations are a key part of the campaign but these alone every six months linked to a marginal seats campaign to re-elect the ALP is by no means enough.
Kim Beazley and less so Steve Bracks received a reasonable response from the crowd when they spoke from the main platform in Bourke Street. This was mostly due Beazley’s recent announcement to scrap individual contracts should the ALP win the next federal election. Beazley’s back flip on individual contracts should be welcomed and 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 leaves 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 June 28 was a fantastic show of workers strength, even the bosses’ organisation VECCI said the rally cost $30 million in lost trade and absenteeism. But the 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 on the propaganda front and the mass demonstrations need to be linked to a serious campaign of industrial action.