I happily admit that I will take any opportunity to parade down the street waving a red flag, and the May Day march in Hamilton on Sunday will be one of those opportunities.
Since the 1850s, when the first workers’ associations were formed in the Hunter, trade unionists and their families have put their demands forward on occasions such as May Day.
Old photos of May Day show moustachioed men wearing three-piece suits and bowler hats and women in ankle-length dresses and bonnets marching proudly behind banners declaring ‘We build mansions for the rich and jails for the poor’ and ‘We fought in the trenches for Australia and now we fight for workers rights’.
May Day 2018 is brought to you by the same people — unions — who fought for, and won you, holidays, penalty rates, the weekend, Medicare, pensions, sick leave, workers’ compensation and many other rights and conditions.
This year, community groups and unions organised by Hunter Workers, the delegates council which represents local trades unions, will be demanding; jobs for all, a nuclear free zone, industry development, universal child care, equality in education and to “Change the rules”.
In recent years, industrial laws, in particular, Fair Work Australia (FWA), have become even more anti-union and make it harder for workers to organise.
Restrictions on the right of union officials to enter workplaces and call meetings, for example, are backed up by fines and the real threat of jail. Corporate executives, however, don’t go to jail for negligence that costs lives or for stealing wages and superannuation. Will any banking executives be jailed for rorting the system at the expense of ordinary people and small business?
The unfair industrial rules have kept wages down to the extent that even the Reserve Bank acknowledges that this is bad for the economy. A campaign to “Change the rules”, as well as to demand everybody’s right to jobs, peace, education, child care, etc. is well overdue.
Most Australian households are worse off now with stagnant wages and rising rents, energy and health premiums. Not all are doing badly. Australia’s 33 billionaires, for example, have over $111 billion between them. Many corporations pay no tax, property speculators rort negative gearing, developers benefit from dubious planning decisions which provide them privileged access to public land, subsidies such as fossil fuel rebates, and privatisation have pushed wealth upwards to the billionaires.
This wealth, if taxed progressively, could be invested towards revitalising our region’s economy by leveraging our strong education sector, schools, university and TAFE to support job creation in manufacturing, health and education. Affordable child care and social programs which support women’s equal participation in the economy could also be funded through progressive taxation.
Our trade union forebears marched for what employers at the time no doubt dubbed the ‘unattainable dream’ of shorter hours, pensions, annual holidays etc., which we now all enjoy. In the same way I’ll be marching with my red flag for what may seem unattainable, but is needed more urgently than ever; jobs, peace, education for all, system change and a change to the rules.
[Steve O’Brien is a proud member of the Socialist Alliance, the NSW Public Service Association and the National Tertiary Education Union. This article was first published in the Newcastle Herald.]