QUEENSLAND: by Victor SirlNews Weekly
ALP browns off its rank-and-file
, November 16, 2002
Victor Sirl writes about the troubled industrial scene for the Beattie Labor Government and asks if the conflict between the ALP and labour will escalate Australia wide. The Workers United Will Never Be Defeated! The old chant was given as hundreds of unionists march through the gates of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in late July to protest outside State Parliament.
Several unions representing health care workers were involved in a demonstration against the enterprise bargaining efforts of the Beattie Government. Professions involved ranged from nuclear medicine technologists to plumbers, clerical staff and doctors. In fact, everybody who worked in public hospitals, except nurses.
The State Government had decided to bargain separately with nurses, but negotiations have dragged on for months with public sympathy on the side of the nurses.
The speakers all gained enthusiastic response from the masses but for this observer one stood out as a highlight of the event.
Bill Ludwig, AWU heavyweight and ALP powerbroker, believes the Government offer effectively asks workers to take a cut in pay and conditions.Motive
The motive for this was their inability to manage the budget. Alex Scott from the Queensland Public Sector Union elaborated further, "The problem with this Government is that they can't manage the economy and they can't manage the budget".
According to Scott, the Government should be held accountable for mismanaging the budget and health care workers should not be expected to pay for their financial bungling.
It was claimed that the Government had promised not to raise taxes but was committed to more spending. One project that ran over budget was "The Goodwill Bridge" and another big infrastructure project is a rebuilding of Suncorp Stadium or, as locals still prefer to remember it, Lang Park. It will once more be home for the Broncos, the highly successful rugby league team, but did taxpayers have to foot the bill for a ground that even at its present size usually only gets filled to capacity once or twice a year during State of Origin matches?
Premier Peter Beattie was busy with the Sixty Minutes
film crew outback at Cubby Station, clearly seeking to court green votes. His snub did not occur without derision nor his warning that the unions might cost Labor the next election.
Actually, his Government was accused of treating them worse than the Conservatives. In fact Opposition Leader Mike Horan was once Health Minister and at the start of negotiations of the sector's Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, had guaranteed job security and promised backdating once an agreement was signed.
Unlike Bob Quinn, the Liberal Party Leader, Mike Horan is not really detested or feared by the unions. Quinn when Education Minister under the Borbidge Government decided to sack school cleaners and contract work out. The Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union forced Quinn into a humiliating backdown.
Not surprisingly, he has really squibbed out on this issue but Horan on the other hand blamed the nurses dispute on the Government's poor arbitration and bargaining skills.
The workers were angry about more than just pay. A doctor addressed the crowd wearing a stethoscope and described the deterioration in hospital conditions he had seen in the last five years, the Beattie years.
He listed such things as growing waiting lists, beds closed and people waiting on trolleys for hours, and stated that doctors in the public service could earn bigger money working privately. They were there because they cared about patients, but were "sick and tired of being treated like dirt" by their employers.
He declared that doctors were in solidarity with the unions.
The nurses are still putting their case to arbitration. A fresh dispute has arisen with ambulance workers, and a public stoush with the police, that included television ads criticising the Premier, has ended.
Next year it will be the teachers' turn to negotiate with the Labor Government their union supported. But there will not be much money left in the treasury coffers to placate them.
Strange times indeed in Queensland; a National Party parliamentary leader on the side of the unions against a Labor Government, doctors and workers backing each other on a pay claim and a former ACTU boss - and later Prime Minister - appearing to side with the Government against the unions.
The ALP's electoral fortunes appear to be waning. Some workers may feel the ALP has deserted them, so they will desert the party.
If industrial battles such as we are seeing in Queensland escalate in other Labor states we may well see more electoral losses for the ALP. The victory to the Greens in the Cunningham by-election might encourage a protest vote that is anti-Labor, combined with union militancy. It is Labor's turn to fear "The Workers United".