The Guardian 10 August, 2005

"We are going to fight in a collective way"

Anna Pha

In Sydney's Olympic Park children lined up to have their faces painted, there was a long queue for fairy floss, free ice creams and lollypops were all the go, and big bears handed out toy footballs, as families checked out the long line of stalls. Every stall had something for the kids and something for the adults. The hotdog stalls did a roaring trade. On the lawns families relaxed; kids danced to the Hooley Dooleys. The state Labor government provided free transport to and from the venue. The sun shone, a perfect day for spending time together. This was no ordinary trade union protest.

An estimated 30,000-50,000 people came to make their protest against the Howard government's industrial relations legislation. Another 20,000 or so took part in picnics at 15 regional locations.

The "Last Weekend" succeeded in bringing not just workers into action but their families too. It was an educational day focusing on a campaign to defend workers' rights, with plentiful material that could be used to inform others as well as yourself. The opportunity for recruitment was not lost with union information and membership forms alongside the many offerings for children.

Colourful T-shirts carrying the "rights at work, worth fighting for" slogan and union logo were moderately priced and popular.

The huge turnout reflected the successful ACTU media campaign and the work done by individual trade unions to educate their members and the public about the planned IR changes and just the first mass protest against what amounts to a vicious attack by the Howard government on our way of life.

Unions NSW secretary John Roberts said, "We celebrate today time with our family because that is what is under threat."

"It is the Last Weekend before the Prime Minister returns to take control of the Senate...

"It is the Last Weekend before the Prime Minister begins a process that will take away basic your basic rights at work.

"It is the Last Weekend that we can say that your weekend penalty rates, annual leave and control over your shifts are properly protected."

Rebecca Reilly, an organiser with the hospitality union (LHMU), told The Guardian: "We're here to show Howard that working people aren't going to give up things that we fought for, for years and years and we are going to fight in a collective way."

Suzie, accompanied by her daughter and her daughter's friend, said: "We are here because people like my auntie Phyllis and granddad have fought for years for people to have decent working rights and I don't want to see those lost just because we have a government in we don't like."

Suzie's sister works in the hospitality industry and her hours are always changing. "She's got to shuffle hours along with her child's commitments. A few times she lost her job because of those things — that's why we are here."

"I'm here because I feel it's the right thing to do to support the workers that Howard's trying to screw over", Ken, a building worker told The Guardian.

"It's just a ridiculous situation. The building industry has never been quieter, we don't cause any industrial disputation and he's trying his utmost to destroy us", he said.

"I'm here today because I don't want my conditions eroded. We already work six days a week in the construction industry and we are under unprecedented attack", Brett told The Guardian. "I've got a young family. I want to keep my wages and conditions. I think I work hard and I'm willing to fight to keep it that way."

"I don't want Howard to take us back to the 1890s. There were individual contracts then … That's why unions were formed", said Kate, a part-time research assistant. "It will affect everybody."

"I don't like Howard", declared Kate's 11-year-old daughter. "Me too", added her friend. ""He's going to change our lives and my parents will get grumpy as they have to do more work", Maddie, also aged 11, added.

Family life

The emphasis on the family makes the link between the impact of the loss of important conditions such as job security, set hours of work, penalty rates, paid sick and parental leave, paid annual leave, which are crucial to any parent organising family life. It is also part of the process of reaching out to the community, to broaden the campaign.

Mr Robertson asked everyone to think how they would cope if:

  • They were forced to give up two weeks annual leave

  • If they were forced to shift from permanent to casual work

  • If they lost control of their shifts and were forced to make themselves available whenever the employer wanted them

    The impact of casualisation and loss of award conditions has serious implications for local communities, sporting and other clubs. They are already struggling to find people with the time to commit to coaching and managing junior sports sides, assist with dance groups, patrol beaches as lifesavers.

    The toy footballs, handed out by the Electrical Trades Union, and eagerly snatched up by the kids, symbolised the message on football shaped handouts: "Time for WORK, time for PLAY".

    Gillian Calvert, State Commissioner for Children and Young People, explained how the legislation would be bad for children. "What children say to me time and time again is that the most important people in their lives are their mums and dads.

    "They love their games and toys and their teachers and their playmates but it is their parents who they turn to first for love. It is their parents who tuck them in at night. It is the time with their parents that children cherish most. And it is this family time that is at risk with the proposed federal government changes", Ms Calvert said.

    "They want parents who can have a full weekend or a reliable allotment of time without fear of having their jobs taken out from under them…"

    Ms Calvert also pointed to the many children in the formal workforce — around one quarter of a million aged 12-18 in NSW. "The proposed federal changes will pit 12-18-year-olds against seasoned adult employers to negotiate their working conditions."

    While not ruling out any form of action, Mr Robertson said there would be more of these types of events where people can come along with their families and feel very comfortable, send a message and have fun at the same time.

    For many, particularly the young and very young, this was their first "trade union" experience, one to remember because it demonstrated the wide implications of the government's plans: that the trade union movement's gains benefit society as a whole.

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