Lessons of the Queensland Children's Hospital strike

Construction workers recently won an eight-week strike at the Queensland Children’s Hospital in Brisbane.

There’s a greater spirit of militancy in the industry now than for some years. The current Enterprise Bargaining Agreement (EBA) campaign has been met with strong employer resistance [EBAs are the main form of collective agreement in Australian industry].

The renewal of some of the four-year agreements have been met with a much stronger resistance from employers than there ever has been in the history of the EBA system.

At Laing O’Rourke, workers had a 21-day protected action [legal strike] to get a result. Thiess was an 18-day protected action dispute. Lend Lease was two weeks. So in response to the strong resistance from employers there’s been a lot of worker determination to secure agreements, particularly ones which include a subcontractor clause and job security benefits.

At QCH, after the union officials had been injuncted and prevented from accessing the site, and I got involved in the dispute, we had to go through the process of trying to develop organisation that hadn’t existed previously.

The more we increased the democracy of the organisation, the more determined the workers became. It was an interesting study in the importance of democracy in a dispute.

We had full site meetings at least once a week in the Serbian Hall in South Brisbane. We ran those meetings as democratically as possible and made sure everyone was given a say. It created the feeling that people were actually part of something, instead of being hectored, which is what can happen at certain union meetings.

One of the weaker points was around keeping other workers and the wider labour movement informed. The work that Workers’ Liberty did in raising awareness of the dispute, and producing leaflets to inform people about what going on, was very important.

No leaflets were coming out of the dispute until Workers’ Liberty produced some, so that was hugely important.

We made sure the dispute didn’t become static by keeping everyone informed about what was going on. We’d have at least one meeting every day on the protest line at Graham Street where we’d give a run-down of what was going on, and we’d have guest speakers in, like Brian Boyd from the Trades and Labour Council in Victoria. We had guys in from the Transport Workers Union and the Maritime Union, and other working-class organisations. It helped the guys feel like they weren’t completely alone.

We also found the international messages very helpful. A lot of the men and women were gobsmacked and really impressed that workers in Turkey, Iran, and elsewhere had heard about and were supporting their struggle.

We worked to make links with workers on other construction sites. We protested against attacks on Grocon workers, and marched to the big Grocon site at Elizabeth Street in Brisbane, and helped organise a community protest there which shut down the site twice. There was also action by CFMEU members on Baulderstone sites.

Like Abigroup, Baulderstone is owned by Lend Lease, and the workers’ action got the attention of Lend Lease management. We had delegates from other sites and other workplaces coming to us and offering their solidarity.

We found it more difficult to get delegations from our site out to other workplaces. That was another weakness, partly due to obstructions, and partly because around week seven of the dispute, poverty had become a real issue and people were finding it difficult to keep petrol in cars.

Since the return to work, the workers are feeling strong and they’re determined that things will work better than they did before.

There are some divisions, for example, between workers who stuck out the dispute 100% and some who went and found work elsewhere, but all in all things are going OK there.

There is an ongoing political campaign we have to organise. I’m facing a major contempt of court charge because I was injuncted during the dispute but continued to visit the site anyway. I defied that injunction quite deliberately; bad laws have to be disobeyed.

We have to build a political campaign around the court case, because it represents a big corporation attacking an individual in order to deter other people from helping workers to organise and fight back. The court case is a threat to all socialists and union activists.

There’s been a definite politicisation of many workers in this dispute. Before, they certainly knew which side the bosses were on and which side the workers were on, but now there’s a bigger political understanding.

The word “socialism” was raised by myself and other comrades on numerous occasions, and it was never howled down, and often applauded.

Construction workers can be pretty tough, cynical people, but once they saw the work that people from the socialist movement were doing they became more open to the idea that society should be organised in a different way.

* Bob Carnegie is a former Builders Labourers Federation organiser, invited in to help organise the dispute by the Queensland Children’s Hospital strikers after courts handed down injunctions banning all union officials from the site. More here.

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