Somewhere between 150,000 and
300,000 people – chose your source – rallied yesterday against the
government’s workplace relations legislation. Was it the last hurrah
for the old industrial relations club, as Paddy McGuinness suggests today, or was Kim Beazley right when he said that “this is a battle for ordinary Australian life”?

John Howard has dismissed the protests, insisting that a “silent” majority support his industrial relations changes. Business lobbyist Peter Hendy says
“The ACTU has failed to scratch together 10% of its own membership to
its so-called day of protest — it means that something like 98% plus of
Australian workers ignored the call to protest against WorkChoices”.

The
protesters clearly weren’t all swinging voters from marginal seats –
but that doesn’t mean their political potency should be underestimated.

Here’s what one attendee told Crikey about the protest they attended:

Sure, there was the trade union choir and tens of thousands
of tradies and that might look and feel old hat, but there were more
women and children than I’d ever seen at a rally (and I’ve been to most
of them). There was also a sharper use of language and message than I’d
seen before. Every speaker said “we’re here to support working
families” and the big ALP banner strategically placed said “Sticking up
for working families”. Every politician mentioned petrol prices and
mortgages and the fact that overtime and penalty rates help people pay
for those rises. Every pollie and unionist talked about values and a
fair go. It was very slick and I know it was all focus group tested.
What wasn’t slick was the crowd not always knowing when to clap or
cheer. I think it’s because there were actually a large number of
ordinary people there not experienced in the political theatre of
rallies. The union blokes may be old hat but they know when to clap and
cheer. The women and kids just looked miserable but determined.

Crikey
understands that the trade union movement is running a very
sophisticated campaign against the workplace relations laws. An
informed source says “they are spending bulk money on this including
more market research than most political parties use for an election…
it is the sharpest political campaign going around.”

As they would. It’s their one shot in the locker.

The
government’s main message – suggesting that such rallies are out of
date, that unions are old hat – has no doubt been carefully
market-tested, too.

But
as Crikey has said all along, union and ALP case studies – people with
tales of woe – are much easier to relate to than lines and stats and
facts designed to reinforce the government’s economic management record.

This
report of a conversation between a television reporter covering a rally
and his cameraman passed onto Crikey says plenty: “There’s an Andrews
presser at 2pm but I don’t think I’m going to go. We’ve got our story”.
Are the media already switching off?

The
government must hope there are only a few Joanne Lees – the childcare
worker who addressed the Sydney rally. “I voted for Mr Howard at the last
election but I did not vote for him to take away my rights,” she said,
claiming she was fired two days into a new role with Cubby House
Australia, where she had worked for 15 years, because she had spoken up
about workers’ rights.

This is a battle of winners and losers.
“43% of all workers in the West Australian resource sector are employed
under AWAs and if AWAs are swept away it will affect the
competitiveness of the greatest export industry this country has at the
present time,” the Prime Minister told journalists
travelling with him in China yesterday. “In the last ten years, in the
whole of the mining industry there has been a dramatic disappearance of
industrial disputes.”

Well, yes. Workers have nothing to sell
but their labour – and would-be mining workers are in a seller’s
market. If you’ve got the skills or strength or stamina to head to
Karratha, you’ll do OK. But markets have winners and
losers. If you’re a worker in the inner city with no skills and English
as a second language, watch out for that AWA.

That’s what this
battle is about. The union movement and the ALP are going to show us
the losers as they want to persuade us that we’ll all be losers under
the new industrial relations system. The government will point to the
strength of the economy, to the falling incidence of strikes and tell
us to get with the strength.

It’s up to us who we chose to believe.

Peter Fray

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