Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Construction Workers Rally to Fight WorkCover Cuts

Two thousand construction workers marched off Adelaide building sites today (April 1) to demand that the state Labor Government not proceed with proposed changes to the state’s workers compensation scheme.

The changes further expose the social-democratic Labor Party as a party of capitalism and a bed-fellow of the openly pro-business Liberal Party.

The role of the Labor Party is to use the electoral credibility of people with ties to the trade union movement to win office, and once having won office, to carry out attacks on working people that the Liberals could never get away with.

Talk to any member of the ALP who has been to a sub-branch meeting recently and they will tell you how their member of parliament (in many cases a former union secretary, president or activist) has assured them that “we don’t like doing this, but there’s no alternative”.

The “this” is slashing injured workers’ entitlements to ongoing financial support and to real attempts to get them back to work. The ostensible reason is to cut the scheme’s unfunded liability, but given the scheme’s main income stream is from employer levies which would reduce the unfunded liability, one has to ask why the government is proposing to reduce that levy. It doesn’t make sense. Or, it only makes sense if the state government is just an executive committee of the business community and it’s using the unfunded liability as an excuse for a direct reduction in costs for employers at the expense of reduced entitlements for injured workers.

Last year, the state budget delivered cuts of $337 million in payroll tax cuts to South Australian businesses. This year, their gift to the business community is the transfer of costs associated with WorkCover from employers to injured workers.

The Labor Party, as it now badges itself, is “pro-growth, pro-business and pro-mining”. It is not “pro-worker” or “pro-job safety”.

Construction workers were left in no doubt about this as CFMEU secretary Martin O’Malley (right) addressed his members.

“You know what the sad thing is? These politicians aren’t covered by WorkCover. You might say that’s a sad thing, and it is, because they’ve got their own scheme, and they’re covered 24/7, and it goes on forever, and the sad thing is, do you know who pays for it? You fucking do! And these politicians are just bloody mongrels….This is a class war comrades!”

Before marching from Victoria Square to Parliament House, O’Malley introduced speakers John Camillo from the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and Jamie Newlyn from the Maritime Union of Australia, both of whom gave spirited speeches denouncing the Labor Government and the WorkCover Board.

Then O’Malley opened the meeting to any injured workers that wanted to share their stories.

“Anyone who wants to come up and say a few words, you’re more than welcome!”

And two did.

Jake, who had suffered an injury that had put him in hospital for 2 months and had kept him off the job for 14 months, was the first. A crane driver, he described the struggle to overcome the reluctance to return to work that he knew was dangerous, and the dispute he’d had over what the WorkCover Board had judged his average wage to have been. He said that while this matter was in dispute he was still getting paid – something that the proposed changes would put a stop to. He summed up the class basis for this attack on workers by saying that the proposed changes had been “discussed in hotels you and I can’t afford to go to over bottles of wine from countries that we’ll never go to.”

Another injured workers, Darryl, came forward and recounted how “all WorkCover seemed to do was harass the living daylights out of me”. He angrily detailed surveillance by WorkCover agents, and the ineptitude of the agency in losing forms and records relating to his case. He spelt out his attitude towards Labor, saying to enthusiastic applause, “Labor should relinquish their name Labor. I’m totally embarrassed at what they’re trying to do now. …they’re no better than the Liberals.”

He finished off by showing just how angry he was at the scheme and its privatised claims management system. “When I have injuries, I don’t report them anymore ‘cos I couldn’t take the pain of WorkCover. They’re a monkey on my back that I don’t want ever again. I returned a cheque for $48,000 to WorkCover just to get them off my back. I don’t want to see them or have anything to do with them ever again.”

Greens MP Mark Parnell and Independent Kris Hanna spoke after the march to Parliament House, but it was Andrea Madeley, mother of young worker who died in an industrial accident in 2004, and spokeswoman for Voice of Industrial Deaths (VOID), who stirred the emotions of the crowd before collapsing in tears soon after her speech.

Labor MPs Frances Bedford, Bob Sneath and John Gazzola attended the rally as a show of support, but former union officials such as Ministers Gail Gago (Nurses), Paul Caica (Firemens) and Jay Weatherill (Australian Workers Union) remained hidden and out of sight behind the walls of Cowards’ Castle.

Industrial Affairs Minister Michael Wright announced the same day a few minor amendments to the WorkCover proposals, including capping employer levies (for repeat employer “offenders”) at 7.5% instead of the proposed 15%.

He also said that instead of cutting injured workers payments to 80% after 13 weeks off the job, they would no be cut to 90% after 13 weeks and to 80% after 26 weeks. This means a teacher at the top of the teacher pay scale would now be $8,552.75 worse off after 12 months compared to the current system. The original changes would have meant they were worse off by $10,263.30.

This small concession to injured workers was not the “backflip” that the capitalist press made it out to be, but a continuation of the “backstab”, albeit that the knife is not pushed in so far so early.

The other announcement came from the Opposition Liberals who, having tried to ingratiate themselves with voters in working class electorates by saying that it was not necessary to slash injured workers entitlements in order to deal with the scheme’s unfunded liability, nevertheless came in behind the Labor government by saying that they would support the proposed changes in Parliament.

SA Unions Secretary Janet Giles (left) said the construction workers rally was just the first step, and that unions would never accept the changes being put forward by Labor.

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