OPINION: Unions rally for crucial bedrock rights


TODAY, May 1, is recognised as the International Day of the Worker, more commonly known as May Day.

The origins of May Day are found in the brutal assault by Chicago police in 1886 against workers who were demonstrating for the eight-hour day.

On that day, an estimated 54 people died while protesting for better work conditions that we take for granted.

Of course, here in the Hunter, we also have a long history of labour activism, fighting for improved conditions, decent jobs and a safe workplace.

And right now, the Hunter region faces a jobs crisis on a scale which we haven’t seen since the closure of BHP almost a decade ago.

Currently, there are 4000 jobs under threat in the shipbuilding and rail manufacturing sectors in our region.

And unlike the BHP closure, this is a crisis entirely of the NSW and federal governments’ making.

In shipbuilding, 1000 workers face an uncertain future because Tony Abbott stubbornly refuses to bring naval contracts forward to avoid the dreaded ‘‘valley of death’’. In NSW, the government has announced a $6billion commitment to build new trains, buses and ferries, but will not commit to building them at our world-class facilities in the Hunter. This jeopardises 3000 jobs.

Earlier this week, new Minister for the Hunter, Gladys Berejiklian, visited our region. Despite the crisis that the region faces, the minister had no announcements to make about train contracts in the Hunter. I assume that this is what we can continue to expect from a Minister for the Hunter from Sydney.

The real problem for the NSW government is that, electorally, the Hunter matters. And even if the prospect of 4000 job losses is not enough to get them moving, the prospect of losing the four marginal seats in the region at the election in March 2015 might just do the trick.

It’s why AMWU members and supporters have launched a campaign to change the government’s mind in the lead-up to the NSW election.

Because we know that every lost job and every factory closure is a family and community tragedy.

We try to measure the effect of every closure in terms of direct jobs lost, tax revenue foregone, and skills lost.

It’s the things we can’t measure that seem, to me, more powerful. We can’t measure the lost opportunities for young school leavers to get apprenticeships, engineering cadetships or a steady job and the confidence that would give their worried families.

We don’t have figures on the families who are dislocated as they leave their communities hunting for jobs, or the families that break down under the pressure of uncertain income and the indignity of unemployment.

It’s for this reason, 128 years after the Chicago tragedy, AMWU members will walk off the job at midday today and rally in the centre of Newcastle. They won’t face the kind of assault that Chicago workers did on that fateful day in 1886, nor will they be fighting for the same conditions. But the values that underpinned the struggle of 1886, the values of fairness, equality, and prosperity for all, will also form the bedrock of our campaign for an economy everyone can be a part of.

Tim Ayres is NSW secretary ofthe Australian ManufacturingWorkers Union

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