SALLY McMANUS is secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. In this week’s SPEAKER’S CORNER, she calls on people to attend a May Day rally for Change the Rules, a campaign fighting for more secure work and fairer pay for Aussie workers.
THERE’S a conservative government in Canberra that’s walking hand-in-hand with big business intent on cutting the pay and conditions of working people through attacks on unions.
This is as true today as it was 20 years ago when the Patrick dispute was fought in Fremantle and at ports across Australia.
That dispute moulded a generation of trade union activists.
Right from the start the dispute was significant—the Howard Government was looking for its Thatcher miners’ strike moment.
It thought it could take on the strongest union and win—and then crush the rest of us.
They tried to demonise wharfies in the media and there were several skirmishes before we woke up to the news that security guards with dogs had locked out the Maritime Union of Australia Patrick workforce across the country.
I was 26, an organiser in Sydney. I along with thousands of people across the country were to spend long hours over six weeks on the community picket lines, all playing a role in what was a national drama.
This was before mobiles, email and social media. We collected names and numbers by hand and created spreadsheets and what was called a phone tree.
It was my job to activate the phone tree to alert the thousands of people on our list if we thought trucks were coming to try and break the picket.
I would call the first five people on the list, those five people would call five people each and so on. Everyone needed to know the five people they had to call on the list and the list grew every day.
If everyone played their part we could activate the entire network in an emergency.
The emergency did come at 5am one morning. The police tried to break the picket here in Fremantle and Melbourne and failed. Now it was our turn.
I got the call: “The trucks are coming”. I leapt out of bed and made my five calls and then I was down at Port Botany picket.
There were only 17 of us. How could we stop the trucks?
Then a stream of cars arrived…then there were 50 of us…then the police came.
As the calls went out it grew to 100, 200, 300. Soon 1000.
Everyone linked arms and faced down the police. Eventually the phone tree delivered 3000 people who all answered the call and we managed to turn those trucks away.
Today, we’re at another critical juncture. Our Change the Rules May Day rallies across the country are calling for better and stronger rights for working people.
In WA, wage growth is at a record low, unemployment is at a 16-year high, youth unemployment is 17.1 per cent—the highest in the country—40 per cent of working Australians face insecure work and household incomes are falling.
Working people across WA have had their pay and conditions stripped by unfair laws that allow big business to terminate enterprise bargaining agreements, contract out to labour hire, use exploited workers on work visas and to engage in wage theft.
Maintenance workers at Griffith Coal had their EBA axed in 2016, which triggered a 40 per cent pay cut, and Murdoch University launched a bid to terminate a pay deal in favour of an award that could allow for staff wages to be slashed by up to 39 per cent.
Thousands of workers across the country are hitting the streets as part of the Change the Rules campaign to call for more secure work and fairer pay.
This will be the largest mobilisation of working people since Your Rights at Work Campaign over a decade ago and we want you to be a part of it.
I will speak in Fremantle on May 6 at the Change the Rules rally at Esplanade Park, between 10am and 2pm.