Unions confront Andrews at Labor state conference

Unions representing school cleaners, timber workers and disability services have confronted Premier Daniel Andrews at Labor’s state conference, in fresh signs of internal unrest ahead of next year’s Victorian election.

Unions representing school cleaners, timber workers and disability services have confronted Premier Daniel Andrews at Labor’s state conference, in fresh signs of internal unrest ahead of next year’s Victorian election.

In an embarrassing look for the government, school cleaners used the event to unfurl a large banner featuring a mock-up of a new number plate slogan “Victoria: The Wage Theft State”, and accused the Premier of not doing enough to tackle shonky backyard operators who are underpaying staff.

The powerful CFMEU also passed a resolution calling on the government to give certainty to the Gippsland town of Heyfield by guaranteeing timber workers’ jobs and immediately finalising its promised purchase of the local mill.

And outside the conference, disability workers and families rallied against the government’s plans to privatise disability services, as the Health and Community Services Union vowed to step its campaign in some of the government’s most volatile seats.

With 19 months before the next election, the broad range of concerns highlighted in the presence of the Premier and senior ministers on Saturday give an indication of some of the flashpoint issues the government must address within its own ranks.

For instance, while the exploitation of school cleaners has been a problem for years, many within the Labor Party are angered it remains an ongoing issue under a government that prides itself on fairness for workers – and on Victoria being “the education state.”

“Cleaners are an important part of the school community. They deserve respect and they deserve award wages, and they deserve that in particular on the watch of a state Labor government,” United Voice state secretary Jess Walsh told branch members before passing a resolution urging the Premier to act.

Frustrations were also evident on the floor of the conference, where supporters of underpaid school cleaners held up signs emblazoned with the words “Rip Off” as Mr Andrews gave his keynote address – a speech that happened to focus on the government’s latest push to protect Victorian workers.

Setting the scene for the next wave of industry and policy reform, Mr Andrews announced that he would personally chair a new Victorian Jobs Partnership taskforce to support the manufacturing sector, address skills gaps, and encourage more women into construction and engineering roles.

The taskforce will bring together key union figures, as well as academics, government officials and industry groups. A major summit will be held in coming months to thrash out fresh policies, with new initiatives to be in place by the end of the year.

“Creating more jobs doesn’t make sense if we don’t have the right people with the right skills to fill them,” he said. “We’ll ensure that even more projects and even more materials are being made in Victoria, by Victorians.”

In other developments at Saturday’s conference:

  • Health Minister Jill Hennessy and voluntary euthanasia advocate Andrew Denton updated branch members about the government’s plans to introduce assisted dying laws into parliament.
  • Delegates debated the ALP rules, with the majority voting against a motion to give unions a 50 per cent say, and individual members a 50 per cent say, on Senate preselections.
  • Deputy Premier James Merlino talked up the government’s plan to split paid and volunteer firefighters into separate agencies, saying it would modernise the profession.

Asked about underpaid cleaners being ripped off, Minister Martin Foley said the government would work with anyone who had evidence of dodgy cleaning contacts, to crack down on “shonky operators.”

“Workers quite rightly want to see minimum award rates apply, we want to make sure that happens too,” Mr Foley said.

The story Unions confront Andrews at Labor state conference first appeared on The Age.