By Nick D.
On the 1st of May 2020, Sydney played host to the largest International Workers Day demonstration in Australia. Given the limitations imposed by the Covid-19 crisis, it was decided that the demonstration would take the form of a car convoy. More than 100 cars, at least 20 bicycles and a sprinkling of motorbikes made up the large convoy which started at the Domain in the centre of Sydney city. From there, it proceeded slowly onto College Street past St. Mary’s Cathedral before turning onto William Street where both the Fair Work Commission and the Liberal Party Headquarters are located. The convoy then wrapped around the block meaning that both of these offices were surrounded.
The action was initiated by the May One Movement and was spearheaded by militant unions, particularly the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA), the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and the United Workers Union (UWU). Since its launch in February, the May One Movement has brought together a range of trade unionists, students, political groups and other activists who are united under the banner of ‘workers’ rights, social justice and climate action’.
From its inception, the May One Movement has rejected the recent tradition of holding sanitised ‘May Day’ actions on the weekend. Against the wishes of the trade union bureaucracy, plans had been made to organise a mass rally, including walk-offs from both worksites and campuses, on the 1st of May. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, this type of action was not possible.
The central demand of the action was that no worker be left behind in this crisis. Accompanying demands were amnesty on rents, mortgages and evictions, extending Medicare and other social services to all people in Australia, guaranteed income for every worker, the nationalisation of essential services and visa amnesty for all migrant workers.
While the MUA had the largest presence, other trade unions were represented including the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), the Rail Trams and Bus Union (RTBU), The Fire Brigade Employees Union (FBEU) and the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union (RAFFWU). A number of environmental groups also took part in the convoy including Stop Adani, Extinction Rebellion, Workers for Climate Action and the Knitting Nanas. Strikingly, the convoy was typified by a large number of young participants.
A fairly large number of political groups were represented including The Greens, Socialist Alliance, The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and Solidarity. Due to the nature of a car convoy and the fact that most participants were under the banner of the May One Movement, there was no large contingent of a single group as is the case with normal May Day demonstrations.
The convoy received almost no coverage in the mainstream press. During the convoy itself, the local radio station 2SCR dedicated an hour to the demonstration, broadcasting interviews with participants and playing songs such as ‘There’s Power in a Union’ and ‘Solidarity Forever’. Aside from The Canberra Times and Channel 7 publishing short articles about the convoy, most coverage has come from left-wing publications such as Honi Soit, Green Left Weekly and Solidarity Magazine.
It took a good deal of courage to hold such an action given the circumstances. In early April, Victorian Police gave out a total of nearly $43,000 in fines to participants of a car convoy in Melbourne which was demanding the release of refugees held in the Mantra hotel. While both Federal and NSW police were present at the Sydney May Day convoy, they were unable to punish participants as nobody was breaking social distancing laws or traffic rules.
Prior to May 1, event organisers received letters from Sydney City Police warning them that because they had not submitted a ‘notice of intention to hold a public assembly’ they were not complying with ‘Section 23 of the Summary Offences Act 1998’. However, the confidence and momentum that was built off the back of two successful car convoys organised by the May One Movement meant that there was little the Police could do to stop the demonstration.
The courage to defy state-sanctioned definitions of ‘acceptable’ modes of struggle saw Sydney play host to the only large-scale May Day demonstration in Australia. On top of this, it meant that activists in Sydney were able to pay tribute to the legacy and radical history of International Workers Day. Since the massacre of Chicago workers in 1886, countless workers around the world have lost their lives taking to the streets during the month of May. By exercising the right to celebrate International Workers Day in Sydney, this history was honoured. With this said, future demonstrations could be improved by having greater emphasis placed on international solidarity, with more overt messages of support for workers and progressive movements in other parts of the world.
May Day in Sydney was an overwhelming success. The large and vibrant car convoy showed that it is possible to continue the struggle during the Covid-19 crisis, albeit through more novel and creative avenues of resistance. It also demonstrated significant unity in bringing together a diverse grouping of workers, students, young people, activist groups and political organisations. This unity of left-wing forces will be key in building a strong movement both during and after the Coronavirus pandemic.