Protest at Howard’s 10-year anniversary dinner

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Spirited and successful demonstration organised by Unions NSW

The Australian Liberal-National government is in a deep crisis over an enormous scandal about millions of dollars worth of bribes paid to the Saddam Hussein regime to secure sales of Australian wheat to Iraq.

The right-wing media have been trying to bury this government crisis behind a sickening celebration of Howard’s 10 years in government.

This evening was the much ballyhooed ceremonial dinner for Howard, organised by the big end of Sydney at the Westin Hotel in Pitt Street, almost adjacent to Martin Place, the centre of Sydney.

An official Unions NSW trade union demonstration was called to replace the usual Thursday evening Unions NSW meeting.

The 1000 or so demonstrators gathered in Martin Place to hear a number of speakers. They then marched around to the main entrance to the Westin in Pitt St, where the they outnumbered the guests inside. They chanted slogans about the Howard Government’s reactionary industrial relations laws for about an hour.

They gave a hot reception to the reactionary guests as they drove into the dinner.

Howard was whisked in the back door, giving rise to a chant of “back-door Johnny”.

This event official trade union protest organised by Unions NSW had a very militant spirit.

Of the 1000 or so protesters, perhaps 100 or so were full-time union officials, another group nudging 100 were members of various socialist groups, and there were perhaps 50 Greens with their own placards, which means that the other 700-800 were fairly ordinary but militant trade union activists. The overwhelming majority of this group supports Labor.

There were several significant historical overtones to this demonstration. The major part of the Westin Hotel occupies the site of the old Sydney Mail Exchange, which in from the 1940s to the early 1960s was the highly industrialised and centralised hub of the postal service, with about 4000 staff.

It was the site of a number of industrial disputes. Eventually, a right-wing federal government closed it down and divided it into local mail centres, the ostensible aim of which was greater efficiency, but the real aim of which was to disperse the industrial militancy associated with the site.

As serendipity would have it, I worked there from 1957-63 as a young man, and I was active in the postal union and acquired quite a lot of industrial experience there.

A few years later, in 1965, the Vietnam Action Committee, of which I was the secretary, kicked off its effective public agitation by marching up Pitt Street from Martin Place towards Central Station, with about 1000 people (about the same number as demonstrated this evening). Just after the intersection of King Street, about 150 metres from tonight’s protest, in a very calculated way we staged a sitdown, which threw the coppers into great confusion, because Pitt St was one-way and it took them quite a while to get in front of us.

Fifty of us were arrested, and the sitdown got massive nationwide newspaper and television publicity, which effectively kicked off the mass Vietnam antiwar campaign in Australia. This demonstration was described in an article by Helen Palmer.

Let’s hope that tonight’s protest outside Howard’s dinner is the beginning of the beginning of the necessary popular agitation against Howard’s industrial laws, including the legal case in the High Court, and the widest possible industrial and community agitation against the Howard’s reactionary new laws.

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