GED KEARNEY is the head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, better known as the ACTU. She’s heading to Fremantle this weekend to present the keynote speech at the May Day celebrations on the Esplanade.
IT is a great privilege to be the keynote speaker at the May Day celebrations in WA.
By tradition Fremantle has, for many years, hosted the WA May Day march and fair on the Esplanade, which this year will fall tomorrow, Sunday May 1 with festivities beginning from 10am.
This year the first of May also marks the beginning, 70 years ago, of the Pilbara strike here in WA — the longest strike in Australian history.
I doubt that many Australians know the details of the strike that began on May 1, 1946.
On that day, more than 800 Indigenous pastoral and station workers unlawfully walked off in protest over very low wages — many were paid only in goods.
With support from unions, peak union bodies and some church groups, the strike lasted more than a year and resulted in wages being paid widely to indigenous workers for the first time.
Several leading indigenous workers and a key unionist were jailed as a result of their actions, typically under the Native Affairs Act 1936 which greatly restricted the rights of indigenous West Australians and made it unlawful for non-indigenous people to address gatherings of indigenous people.
Today, according to a recent Roy Morgan Research poll, the vast majority of Australians believe that it should be lawful for working people to have the right to strike.
However, just as too few people remember the Pilbara strike, too many Australians don’t realise that working people do not, in fact, have a right to strike protected under law.
One of the lessons from the Pilbara strike and other similar milestones in the history of the labour movement, is that organising in workplaces is rarely enough.
Politicians and governments, often urged on by business interests, have time and again used laws to limit pay, turn a blind eye to unsafe work practices and to prosecute unionists.
And although the worst cases of governments trampling working people often seem to be from the distant past, conservative governments and big business are still trying to cut corners, to strip conditions and to lower pay.
We’re celebrating May Day this weekend as business are running a national campaign to cut the pay for many low paid hospitality and retail workers. These are among the lowest paid workers in Australia and they rely on penalty rates to meet basic costs of living. They make ends meet by forgoing the opportunity to spent time with family or friends.
The Abbott Government established a the highly politicised Royal Commission into unions, the Turnbull Government has abolished the safe pay rates for our truckies and now has proposed to recreate, in the ABCC, a standing royal commission against construction workers. These are all contemporary examples of how conservative governments govern against the interests of working people.
Of course, day in and day out, volunteer union delegates and union members supported by elected officials and staff work together seeking to raise the wages and ensure the health and safety of working people.
Whether it is annual leave, the weekend itself or fair minimum wages, May Day is a celebration of past victories that have resulted from working people working together.
Like any good celebration there will be chatter, food and entertainment for all the family.
A celebration of what it is that workplace and community organising seeks to achieve – a better life. So come along and enjoy.
Now, more than ever, it is important that working people come together and talk about issues that are important to all of us. There is, after all, a federal election looming.