Recognising May Day and Sydney's Union History

The 1st of May is International Workers' Day, also known as May Day. It's a day to recognise the efforts of unionists, workers and activists to advance and protect workers' rights.

Member for Newtown Jenny Leong MP took the opportunity to commemorate the long history of union activity in the Newtown electorate and across Sydney's inner city.

Ms JENNY LEONG ( Newtown ) ( 12:41 ): May Day, or International Workers' Day, celebrated on 1 May is a time to reflect with gratitude on the unionists who have struggled for the rights that we enjoy today, including the minimum wage, paid holidays, the eight-hour day and the right to strike. It is also a day to stand in solidarity with workers around the globe, because the battles are far from over and unions and collective organising are now more important than ever. With increasing rates of casualisation, our workplace rights are being eroded steadily. The winding back of weekend penalty rates in the retail, hospitality and pharmacy industries is an insidious first step in the erosion of our protected rights to rest and to leisure, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. According to an article in today's edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, low-income workers will lose approximately $14 billion annually if weekend penalty rates are cut across the board. That $14 billion loss is in addition to what Australian Council of Trade Unions President Ged Kearney recently described as a developing class of working poor in this country.

Sydney, its inner city and inner west have a proud history of unionism. As early as 1791 there was a strike in Sydney demanding daily not weekly rations, and today we are lucky to have many active trade unions based in and around the electorate of Newtown, including the National Tertiary Education Union, the NSW Teachers Federation, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, the New South Wales Fire Brigade Employees' Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union, United Voice and the Australian Services Union, where I was a delegate while working for Amnesty International. We are also lucky to have a rich history of union activity in the electorate of Newtown. The battle of Union Street in the 1930s saw members of the Australian Unemployed Workers' Union fighting against evictions as rising house prices and the inability to pay rent caused poor families and unemployed people to be kicked out of their houses across the city. The police broke down doors and tried to stop this collective action. Dozens of people were injured and 19 were arrested.

Just near Union Street is Green Bans Park. Much of the green space and heritage we enjoy in our city today was won through collective union activism. Green Bans Park in Erskineville is one such example, named in commemoration of union activists and environmentalists who worked together to defend the park from being developed in the 1970s. The Builders Labourers Federation—now the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union—under the leadership of living legend Jack Mundey was instrumental in the strike actions that saved much of our city from destruction. While Liberal governments try to dismiss union activists as thugs, I recognise the immense contribution that those activists have made to protecting green space and heritage in our community, preventing the destruction of The Rocks and Woolloomooloo, halting an expressway entering into Glebe, stopping Centennial Park becoming a sporting complex and blocking the removal of the Opera House fig trees for a car park.

But these collective struggles for community interests are not just things of the past. I was recently inspired by the sight of a busload of Maritime Union of Australia activists joining the Save Sydney Park camp in solidarity with the activists fighting against WestConnex. I was also disgusted to see, just like in the past, the police once again being used to do the work of the big corporations and violently attacking protesters and union members at that site. One hundred years ago, workers at the Eveleigh rail yards, now the Australian Technology Park, walked off the job, striking to maintain their working rights and conditions. Their action triggered Australia's largest industrial dispute, which became known as the General Strike of 1917 during which almost 100,000 unionists made a stand for better conditions and workers' rights.

That struggle is still being fought today. Recently, childcare workers walked off the job, supported by their union, United Voice, and I have been proud to stand with the National Tertiary Education Union, the Community and Public Sector Union, the Nurses and Midwives' Association, and the Health Services Union at the University of Sydney and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in their struggles for workers' rights on their worksites. The Greens' policy upholds the rights of unions to undertake industrial action to promote and protect the economic, social and environmental rights of their members as well as communities and third parties. As we celebrate May Day and all that united workers have achieved together, it is a good time to call on everybody to get active, to join their union and to be part of protecting the rights that have been fought for and won by those who came before us, because it is pretty clear that the big corporations and the neoliberals will do everything they can to undermine them. Happy May Day to you all.

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