The Devil You Know? South Australian workers and recent campaigns

Nicholas McCallum

The Festival State recently celebrated a festival of democracy, also known as an election. 

On the election trail – Part II. By Phill Ball.

It was a pleasure and an honour to be part of a Queensland delegation assisting unionists in SA recently. Working with officials out of the Adelaide office, Michael ‘Rabbit’ Hare and I made daily trips to SA Power Networks sites to try to convince employees to vote down a management EBA proposal that allowed the company to move RDOs to any day of the week, and to change work rosters at will. Also on our list of jobs was assisting with the campaign to keep the Liberal Party out of government – always going to be a formidable task given Labor’s 16 years in office.

On the election trail – Part II. By Phill Ball.

SAPN EBA                           

When governments sell public assets to transnational corporations like Hong Kong-based Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings (owner of SA Power Networks), the predictable result is an attack on workers’ pay and conditions because, apparently, they need to be ‘brought into line’ (dragged down into the primordial mire) with the rest of the ‘industrialised world’ (exploited international workforce).

Read Part I HERE. 

After all, why should Cheung Kong’s Australian employees enjoy a state of relative security and reward whilst workers almost everywhere else are making the utmost sacrifices?

One SAPN: The taste of victory. CEPU SA

Unfortunately, the EBA has since been voted up by less than half of the workforce – mainly they who think they’re not directly affected by the items in contention – with over 20 per cent of eligible employees not even casting a vote.

Warning: angry unionist ahead!

It’s about time we all woke up to these international operators and their Australian political and managerial boot-lickers. There’s fairly simple logic behind all this effort to push wages down and slash conditions: what they can take off us they can give to themselves.

It’s no accident that whilst incomes and conditions at the bottom have been in decline for decades, those at the top have burgeoned. Make no mistake: all this ‘trickle-down’ rubbish our Prime Minister goes on with is a complete fraud. You can be sure that the only thing that will ever trickle down from the rich will be of little value because once they’ve got their hands on the dough, they’ll be buggered if they ever let go.

Many can’t believe that further cuts to pay and conditions aren’t on the agenda. WRONG!

CEPU SA ready to fight for workers rights!

These stealthy operators know that it’s best to erode our position incrementally – chipping away one or two bits at a time – and that the best way forward is to undermine collectivism in the workplace. They would have us believe the union is a bunch of corrupt outsiders hell-bent on causing chaos between boss and worker for no good reason. But the union is you, the rank and file, and the officials, and the delegates who voluntarily represent you, and it’s these last two groups who best understand the need to fight fire with fire – but carefully, given that unions and their officials are now disproportionately vulnerable to fines and litigation in this new anti-union regime we live in.

Our officials and delegates are where they are because they’re people who rarely step back from a stoush, because they know every battle is an important one, if only to maintain forward momentum. (Just remember that, next time your union goes in hard for a seemingly insignificant issue. Today it might be the lack of a pie warmer or fridge in your lunch room or crib hut; tomorrow it could be a threat to your remove your penalty rates, or to casualise your job.)

Workers – through their unions – had to fight for everything we now enjoy (and let’s face it, that’s happened over generations, not overnight). But these corporate sponges, aided and abetted by conservative governments, have sat on their rich, fat backsides and chipped away at us through management pawns trained to divide the workforce with lies and distortion. You’ve heard it all, I’m sure: “We must continually increase flexibility, productivity and efficiency, otherwise the company/country/world is doomed”; “We, the wealthy, are only rich because it’s we who create the wealth”; “The unions are destroying everything”; “We’re living beyond our means; we need to tighten our belts”; etc., etc., ad nauseam.

We’ve been tolerating this tidal wave of neo-liberal rubbish since the 1980s, and the results for those who made all the sacrifices are clear: increased cost of living, increased hours of work, fewer public benefits in return for increased taxation (yes, we actually pay more tax, thanks to sneakier revenue-raising) and – in spite of empty political promises – have fewer decent employment prospects. Oh yes, I will concede there’s now greater flexibility, productivity and efficiency than ever, but who are the beneficiaries? Not the workers at whose expense they came, that’s for sure.

Australia's Industrial Unions: Marching and fighting for workers and their families. CEPU SA

More broadly, our kids are now loaded with massive debts for questionable educational outcomes; public services in general have been repeatedly ‘acid-dipped’; and the public health system is teetering on the precipice, with over-worked and under-paid medical staff, and ridiculous patient waiting lists. Besides all that, there’s now an array of unrewarding, dead-end jobs to choose from. (Not enough income from your primary job? Here, have two or three.)

Here come the Tories again

Against this rather unpleasant backdrop, enough South Oz voters decided they wanted a change of government to bring the Liberal Party back to the helm. Why? A number of factors came into play, but the standouts seem to be that Labor had already enjoyed ‘enough’ time in power, and were somehow solely to blame for such problems as recent state electricity grid crises, public transport problems and major manufacturing job losses. Let’s briefly look at these in turn.

“It’s Time”

The argument that a government, despite an overall good performance, should be thrown out simply because they’ve been in administration long enough, is a very shaky one – especially if the alternative is the Liberal Party.

Citizens need to be asked some important questions before they cast their votes, and the first should probably be: “What’s this party’s record on industrial relations and welfare?”

Former South Australian premier Jay Weatherill. CEPU SA

That, for most of us – business operators and workers alike – is where it’s at. How so? Firstly, the sphere of industrial relations includes not only wages and conditions, but the harmony that exists between a society and its workforce, and any state that advocates the sort of subservient role for workers that the Liberal party does is one that’s going backwards for workers.

Secondly, whilst welfare might be a notion such Dummköpfe as Andrew Bolt would define as the income of ‘dole bludgers’ and ‘single mothers’, it’s something that a civil society would never be without, for there’s a fine line between employment and the lack of it, and why should anybody be left on the rubbish heap just because the society to which they belong can’t guarantee them gainful employment? Of course, unemployment’s never a problem if your name’s “Andrew Bolt” and you’ve been busy doing what you do best: defending the interests of the rich and powerful.

And so, as an example of picking the alternative, consider Victoria under Premier Jeff Kennett. This Torie now runs around as the patron of mental health when his nasty policies aimed at the working and underprivileged classes arguably caused more depression than any of the previous Victorian governments. When they came to power, the Kennett Liberals unleashed their privileged fury against the people who least deserved it, cutting a swathe through public funding and throwing Victoria’s poorest to the wolves. I recall quite an exodus of folk northward at the time, but nobody was moving to Victoria.

Power Outages

SA suffered a major interruption to grid supply during a spate of extreme weather that resulted in 15 transmission towers being blown down in unprecedented cyclone conditions. This wasn’t – as PM Turnbull, Nick Xenophon and others asserted – due to “unreliable renewables” or the “poor condition of the state grid”. Rather, the interconnector that connects SA to the coal generators in Victoria tripped out as it is designed to do. This happens to protect the system in the case of major grid instability.

CEPU SA Secretary John Adley. CEPU SA

Some SA wind generation also shut down because of similar inbuilt protection settings that would not normally operate. This left the State without power until restoration crews were able respond and begin to normalise the system. In a separate power outage gas fired power stations with the capacity to come on line sat idle because the incomprehensible logic of the national energy market system meant it was more profitable for them not to burn gas to run and supply electricity when it was needed by the public.

To its credit, the government set about improving things by granting the energy minister powers under legislation to compel energy market participants to supply power, the installation of a massive grid scale battery that is able to dispatch power at a second’s notice and commissioning a publicly owned stand by gas-fired power station. Beside improving energy security these energy projects create local jobs.

Public Transport

During Labor’s tenure, there’s been some understandable angst regarding public transport and roads. In their favour, the tram system has slowly expanded (that needs to continue); the state railways have improved (and must keep doing so); and a major overhead freeway has been under construction. That’s more than can be said of Queensland where, aside from some token advances, the Bligh Labor Government sold off the profitable rail freight operation; and their successors, the neo-liberal Liberal Newman Government, bored a series of tunnels under the city that became subterranean toll roads. SA hasn’t done so badly.

Job Losses

Doubtless, the worst thing that happened in the state during the ALP’s 16-year reign was the final collapse of the foreign-owned auto manufacturing sector, with the resultant shrivelling of many local support industries. To be fair, there wasn’t much anybody could do about this following former Federal Treasurer Joe Hockey’s sudden and reckless withdrawal of support for the industry – ostensibly as a belated way of reining in corporate welfare.

But the move could be seen more than anything as another intended blow against a union strong-hold. (Did nobody tell the former Treasurer that many other advanced countries subsidise such manufacturing?)

Nevertheless, the Weatherill government kept pressure on a federal government that, after sneering at local ship-builders for years, eventually relented and announced the Navy’s new submarines would be built in Adelaide rather than Japan or elsewhere. The state government also flagged initiatives to attract related high-technology industries to SA on the back of the submarine project, state-subsidised heavy manufacturing lives on in the Festival State.

Lessons for us all

Recent events in South Australian reinforce our need to challenge voters’ reasoning when they favour anti-worker, anti-union parties like the Liberals, the Australian Conservatives, and One Nation.

But we too must continue to put them to the test and hold them to their promises. Anyone who claims to represent our interests, whether a favoured political party or otherwise, must be questioned – even if we don’t know the answer.

We need to communicate broadly, and to shine a beacon of wisdom in a society often deluded by the malevolent and the manipulative sway of the self-interested. For we in the midst of a war with selfish, narrow-minded forces arrayed against the interests of working people everywhere.

The only hope of winning that war is to be informed, for as the 16th Century Francis Bacon opined: knowledge itself is power”. Share it around.

This is personal reflection on the 2018 South Australia state election by Phill Ball is a member of the Electrical Trades Union Queensland branch. The views expressed in the piece do not represent the views of the ETU.

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