After around 40 years of shifting May Day to the nearest weekend, the return to 1 May was a no-bullshit walkout from the most staunch and militant unions in New South Wales.
In the main crowd, Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) members were blasting Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love, Babe” near the Public Service Association (PSA) contingent.
The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) marched, chanting and shaking cowbells, into the larger group also consisting of Electrical Trades Union (ETU), Plumbing Trades Employees Union (PTEU) and the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance members. The New South Wales Teachers Federation (NSWTF) and National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) followed.
Most of the workers attending had walked off the job to attend a political rally, breaking some of the world’s most restrictive industrial laws in doing so.
Aside from promoting themselves, Marxist and student socialist groups were highlighting climate change, perhaps hoping to invoke the spirit of the Green Bans of the legendary New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation.
The unions gathered at Belmore Park didn’t bother with opening speeches. Cutting to the chase, the march shut down parts of Pitt, Goulburn and Elizabeth Street en route to Hyde Park.
Students chanted, “Liberals out, green jobs in / We will fight, we will win,” and, “One struggle, one fight / Workers of the world unite”. At one point an ETU member seized the megaphone, proclaiming, “This is a union town”, before entering a call and response chant of “Union!/Power! Union!/Power!”
Given the strong turnout from blue-collar workers it was of little surprise that workplace safety was a key issue. The MC, Rita Mallia of the CFMEU Construction and General Division, introduced Patrizia Cassiniti, the mother of Christopher Cassiniti as the first speaker.
Cassiniti was an apprentice killed on a construction site just after his 18th birthday when a crane fell on workers last month. His comrades cut through the debris to reach the workers crying for help, with police eventually using pepper spray in an effort to disperse his distraught workmates.
Patrizia spoke on the importance of workplace safety and the right to withdraw labour. Becoming emotional, she vowed, “Christopher and others who have died on job sites will not have died in vain”. Workers around the podium chanted “Christopher” as she finished speaking.
School climate striker India Pardoel followed the emotional speech with more inspiration, saying, “Students are here to return your act of solidarity. But we’re also here because we have a stake in kicking out the Liberals”. Every union in attendance has endorsed the climate strikes bar the PTEU, a comparatively small union.
Pardoel echoed famed climate striker Greta Thunberg’s call for a general climate strike in September and praised the workers, saying, “I bet the bosses had a hard time getting anything done with the hundreds and thousands of you here today.”
The emotion and significance of these two speeches was a highlight of the rally. Other speeches came largely from union secretaries.
ETU NSW Secretary Justin Page noted an ETU member at AusGrid was killed at work a week after Cassiniti. ETU National Secretary Allen Hicks followed this by putting a motion to the rally calling on the NSW government to improve workplace safety. The motion committed that if a worker died on a building site on Sydney, all sites would stop work and a minutesilence would be held.
Construction workers were threatened with legal action if they attended the rally said Dave Noonan, National President of the CFMEU Construction and General Division.
MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin closed the rally by acknowledging, “If you can’t respect the First Nations, the traditional owners of the land, then there is no respect in this country”.
Many union leaders speeches emphasised the need to hold Labor to account. This seemed to suggest a prioritisation of the election, having given up pushing for reform under a Coalition government. But relievingly, there was a cognisance of the need to avoid the mistakes of Your Rights At Work, and hold Labor to the often limited commitments it has made.
Rallying on a weekday, involving climate strikers, and an enthusiasm to hold Labor to account were all key developments that signalled a progressive shift in the labour movement. You’d be a scab if you didn’t leave May Day 2019 with more hope for the future of the working class and struggles of solidarity than you arrived with.
James Newbold is a Young Labor Left Convenor and a member of National Labor Students on campus.