attending a picket

Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at
Fri Nov 19 15:33:20 MST 1999

On Wednesday the hard line Minister of Industrial Relations came to town to
address a meeting of lawyers and business men about his Second Wave of
Industrial legislation.  This is designed to further weaken an already
besieged Union Movement. A picket was called by the Defend Our Unions
Committee.  This is a group of independent Leftists based on the campus of
the University of Queensland. I am friendly with the group but don't get to
many of their meetings.  I have although spoken at a public meeting they

The picket was not far from where I work in the center of Brisbane.  Peter,
who is one of the leading lights in the group, came to my office and we
walked to the picket.  On the way we talked about the joys of reading
Heidegger. According to Peter he makes more sense in the original German.
It was a late spring day in Brisbane and the sultry heat of summer seems to
be delayed yet again.  That is fine with me because as I get older I like
the heat less and less.

When we got to the picket there were groups of workers there and a bunch of
the usual suspects. Reith had not arrived so we settled down to wait for
him and to boo the guests as they went in.  The atmosphere was friendly if
tending towards the bored.  Then things changed.  Down the road chanting
and marching with flags flying came about two hundred Transport Workers
Union members.  They were holding up the traffic and the police seemed very
reluctant to do anything. Their chants filled the air and those of us
waiting for them clapped to welcome them.

We now had a rally of some 400 workers and supporters.  The secretary of
the local Trades and Labor Council, John Thompson spoke.  He was extremely
nervous at the presence of so many militant workers.  Quickly he introduced
a Labor member of Parliament and she uttered some exquisitely boring
irrelevancies. That has been Thompson's tactics on the times I have seen
him in action.  He is happiest introducing Labor Party speakers and
attempting to rebuild the links between the workers and the Party that
betrayed them when it was in office from 1983-1996.  Two union officials
spoke and there was more chanting.  The workers were getting angrier and
Thompson was clearly at a loss what to do. Eventually he asked us to chant
for a full minute non-stop and then to go home.  We chanted and Thompson
left but the TWU stayed, because the Secretary of the TWU quietly told his
members to 'hold on'. The workers then moved on to the steps of the
building and sat down.  Many of them were young and appeared to be quite
angry.  I and Peter went and sat down with them and we chanted some more.

My old friend and comrade Carole Ferrier was there and as usual Carole
wanted us to do something more.  She tried to get a charge into the
building.  I disagreed with Carole.  Not because I thought it was a bad
idea.  I think we should hang people like Reith.  But it is about self
emancipation and the middle class radical has to wait for the workers to
construct their own freedom.  Sitting down on the steps was a small gesture
but in my opinion it was significant.

I have to admit though that at one stage I got up and started banging on
the window.  I was joined by a few Socialist Labor League members. Where
did they come from? they have never had links with the rest of the Brisbane
Left and so when one sees them at a demo or picket it is always something
of a shock. still we banged on the windows to good effect.  By this time
Reith was inside have sneaked in by  a side entrance. A TWU official came
up to us and warned us that the police would arrest us if we continued to
bang on the window.  I told him not to worry; that I had been arrested more
times than he could pole a stick at and that I knew exactly what I was
doing.  He went away at that.  The SLL comrade muttered something about the
'labor lieutenants of capital' and we continued to bang on the windows for
a few more minutes.

The picket broke up shortly after that and I have had time to reflect on it
all.  There is obviously some division within the union bureaucracy about
what they should do about Reith and his legislation.  The Australian
Council of Trade unions is committed to lobbying the center Party the
Australian Democrats to block the legislation in the senate.  There has
also been talk of court action. Other sections of the trade union
leadership simply have no other answer than to get Labor elected.  Part of
that strategy is to appear moderate so as not to frighten the
voters.  However there seems to be a section of the union leadership that
thinks that something more is needed. That tendency is represented in
Brisbane by Hughie Williams.  He is a member of the Socialist Left of the
Labor Party. But has spoken of his disenchantment with Labor. It was after
all the Labor Party that began the current wave of attacks on the unions
with its introduction of enterprise bargaining.

But more important than the tensions within the bureaucracy is the question
of what is happening at the rank and file level.  Is a new generation of
militants emerging? I would like to think so but the evidence is far from
clear at this stage.  Still the workers seemed genuinely angry and that is
at least a necessary condition. I will keep you posted.



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