Thousands of workers poured onto the streets across the country on 9 March in the first major mobilisations since the Fair Work Commission decision to cut penalty rates.

In Melbourne, where the protest was the largest, CBD building sites were emptied as well over 10,000, mostly construction workers, swelled outside the Trades Hall building in Carlton. In Brisbane, around 5,000 gathered in Emma Miller Place. Thousands also turned out in Sydney and hundreds in Darwin. 

Initially organised to fight the re-introduction of the anti-union building watchdog, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, and the federal building code, the protests also took on the issue of penalty rate cuts for workers in the retail, fast food and pharmaceutical industries. Many of the people Red Flag spoke to on the day labelled the attack on weekend wage rates as part of a war being waged against all workers.

“It’s taking money off the working class and that will affect people across the working class”, said Simon, 35, a plumber.  Chris, 24, an electrician, said “It’s a good place to start for a downhill slide, it’s not going to be good for us in the end.”

Kelvin, 42, works in the kitchen industry. He thinks it’s important that members of strong unions stand up for others. “It’s not even fully about us – it’s about our wives, our mates, our mates’ wives, our kids – they should be able to work Saturdays and Sundays and after hours and be rewarded for it”. While many at the rallies were angry about the penalty rates decision, the unions whose members are most immediately affected did not mobilise large numbers to attend. 

At the Melbourne protest, secretary of the Victorian branch of the CFMEU, John Setka, delivered a fiery speech against the government’s campaign to crush the construction unions. He was met with cheers after declaring, “Everyone here is lawless, we’re all breaking the law at the moment as far as they’re concerned”. Most construction workers at the national protests were there in defiance of warnings from construction bosses and the ABCC that attendance at the protest constituted illegal industrial action.

“We don’t deliberately set out to break the law, but you know what? When laws are designed to not let you win and to degrade your conditions, what are you supposed to do?”, Setka said. “Bad laws throughout history, you know how they’ve been changed? By people like yourselves defying them.”

Christine, 56, an AMWU member, told Red Flag that if the government wins against the CFMEU and other construction unions then all workers will suffer. “It’s going to be a flow-on effect. This is one of the biggest unions in Victoria, so eventually we know it’s going to come to us – the things they’ve done to the CFMEU”, she said.   

At the rallies across the country, speakers vowed that the union movement will fight until it wins against this government. Many references were made to the successful union-run Your Rights at Work Campaign that knocked John Howard out a decade ago. However, this fightback has a distance to go before it reaches the scale of Your Rights at Work. Critically, the leaders of our unions must aim for more this time than the installation of a Labor government at the next election.