A large and important rally at Parliament House, in Sydney
This isn’t an end but a beginning, Unions NSW president John Robertson told the protest against electricity privatisation at the opening of state parliament for this year.
The rally drew about 12,000 people, and it was clear this rebellious movement is not about to go away, nor is Robertson. The estimate of 12,000 came from the platform, and it seemed accurate.
He said, to enormous applause, that the anti-Work Choices campaign, which was important in federal Labor’s strong performance in NSW in the federal elections, was now the campaign to defeat electricity privatisation.
The meeting was ably chaired by Matt Thistlethwaite, the assistant secretary of Unions NSW, and the organiser assigned by Unions NSW to the anti-privatisation campaign.
There was substantial community participation and all the socialist groups were present, but the main component was the organised working class, with a very substantial spread of trade unions represented. The biggest contingent was from the Electrical Trades Union, while the Centre Unity AWU and the left metalworkers union (which cover similar areas of the work force) marched together in a single contingent. Left unions with a notable presence included the National Education Union, the firefighters, the Public Service Association, the CFMEU (construction union), the maritime union, while the more industrially militant right unions had large contingents, particularly the National Union of Workers, the rail and bus transport union and the united services union (which includes the old Municipal Employees Union).
The large union turnout was clearly indicative of an obvious but important fact: that the officials of many unions had put a lot of effort into mobilising their members.
The chants were vigorous, angry and constant. About a dozen Labor backbenchers, a number of Greens upper house MPs, and a lower house independent from Newcastle identified publicly with the protest. The smallish size of this parliamentary representation was a clear indication of one of the political problems facing the anti-privatisation campaign: the disinclination of much of the left in the Labor caucus, particularly the left ministers, to seriously oppose the privatisation.
To add insult to injury, the left deputy premier was on the radio this morning (Tuesday) supporting the privatisation, which is extremely unfortunate. It’s also reported that the left minister for agriculture and energy, Ian Macdonald, will be speaking at a $2000 a seat business conference on Thursday, talking up the privatisation.
The trade unionists at the protest were in a very angry mood. They are no respecters of persons or governments. They’ve just torn down a Tory government that attacked the interests of the working class and they’ll think nothing of doing the same to a bad Labor government if it doesn’t respond to their demands.
John Robertson correctly channeled the anger towards a vigorous campaign to force the government to back off. This is the appropriate strategy. The working class in struggle, when it’s given positive leadership by its trade unions, is a very powerful force.
There’s not a hint at this stage that the powerful and healthy coalition of unions, left and right, and their officials and the Unions NSW leadership, are going to back away from this struggle, and if they decided they were it would be very hard to put the genie of working class discontent back in the bottle. The union leaders are all experienced people and it’s becoming clear to almost all of them that this is a political fight to the death, and they have to win.
This is also clear to the ranks. The speakers at the meeting, which was short and sweet, were first-class. A very articulate electricity worker from the La Trobe Valley in Victoria explained very clearly the devastating impact of electricity privatisation on workers’ lives, jobs and communities. He said he couldn’t even begin to guess why a Labor government would consider such a proposal after the disastrous Victorian experience.
Kate Faehrmann from the Nature Conservation Council said that organisation opposed the sell-off and spoke frankly to the rally, including the large number of electricity workers present, about the problem of climate change, and got an extremely good reception.
These workers are vigorously defending their jobs and the interests of the community, but they’re not opposed to careful plain speaking about the problems of climate.
Kevin Manning, the Catholic Bishop of Parramatta, spoke carefully and movingly in a pretty bald and extended exposition of traditional Catholic social theory of the sort outlined in Papal encyclicals about the rights of workers.
He almost paraphrased the encyclicals, saying the didn’t oppose all privatisations, but basic public services and natural monopolies should be in the public sphere, because when they were privatised the inevitable pursuit of profit bore down hardest on the most underprivileged sectors of society. He was extremely forthright in opposing the electricity privatisation and a breath of fresh air compared with the Tory cardinal down the road in the diocese of Sydney.
Bishop Manning got enormous applause from this, it seemed to me, rather secular assembly of Australian-born and migrant workers. One rather rough-looking bloke wearing an ETU T-shirt made a bit of a joke: “How can we lose with god on our side,” as he and his friends vigorously applauded the bishop.
The bishop’s useful contribution underlined a fact about the Australian labour movement and the Labor Party. This movement consists of two traditional streams: the secular socialist stream and the Catholic stream, which are sometimes in conflict, but often push in the same direction.
The electricity privatisation proposed by a Labor government is a display of arrogant contempt for the traditional socialist stream, which has usually fought to defend and extend the public sector, and for the traditional Catholic stream, which has always emphasised that natural monopolies and basic services should be in the public sphere.
The better aspects of both traditions, which are still powerful, were well represented at this rally, and when these currents are united, and the working class is united, it’s possible to develop a very powerful force.
It’s important not to underestimate the power of capital that we’re up against, as Dick Nichols points out in a useful article in Green Left Weekly, which DSP members were selling at the protest.
Undue pessimism about the outcome of this unfolding and already quite momentous struggle is not indicated, however.
If the government doesn’t back off, it will precipitate a political crisis in the labour movement and the whole state of NSW.
The struggle continues.
A postcript on a handful of leftists from the twilight zone
Some rather unpleasant socialists from the twilight zone, who now deserve to be dubbed Costa’s Loyal Trotskyists, were giving out a very nasty leaflet to the protesters. I saw some ETU members who, after reading some of the leaflet, made a point of seeking out the leafleter, explaining what they though of the leaflet, and tearing it up.
This socialist group says the Labor Party and the unions are so corrupt that there’s no difference between Labor and Liberal, and that workers should leave the unions they’ve fought for all their lives because the only political task is the construction of a little socialist sect in cyberspace.
The obvious first point about the destructive political line of this group is that the unions are clearly not dead and they’re clearly a powerful force in society and the labour movement, and when given reasonable leadership they will conduct a powerful struggle.
So much for the twilight zone socialist bullshit about workers leaving the unions. The most stupid aspect of the leaflet, and the thing that seemed to get the ETU workers angry, was the assertion that the Labor government would win the fight to privatise electricity.
This assertion of the inevitability of the victory of the privatisers underlines the role the twilight zoners play these days for the ruling class. The operative part of what they put out in leaflets and on their eccentric website is that all popular struggles are inevitably sold out, and the leaders of these struggles, not being affiliated to the World Socialist Web Site, are inevitably all in league together to betray struggles. This is arrogant contempt for the working class and people in popular struggles.
The role the WSWS plays for the ruling class, insofar as anyone takes any notice of it, is that its argument parallels the viewpoint of all the bourgeois ideologues that unions are out of date and a waste of time, and that privatisation is inevitable. This situation must exist, you see, because there are no popular struggles led by the WSWS anywhere, and all other struggles are fake.
The WSWS should stay in cyberspace, where it belongs, rather than serving as tiny auxilliaries to the ideology of the bourgeoisie.
When Michael Berrell parrots these twilight zoners on the Green Left discussion website, he just demonstrates that, politically speaking, that he’s a waste of space. His question to me about whether or not we should advance the demand for the expulsion of Costa at this stage of a serious battle is just mischievous nonsense, because it also carries the implication that inevitably the struggle will be defeated, which is by no means indicated.
A very powerful struggle is under way and the role of socialists is to participate in that struggle without dopey ultimatums. In struggles of this sort, Lenin’s well-known paraphrase of Napoleon’s aphorism is apposite: start fighting, then see.