May Day 2021 in Sydney

By Nick D, May 2021

For the first time in several years, the 1st of May landed on a weekend in Australia. In past years, May Day rallies in Sydney have not been held on the first of May. Instead, they have been held on the weekend to ensure the maximum number of people can attend. Another key difference this year was that the annual rally and march was moved from the Sydney City CBD to Parramatta.

The decision was made to combine international workers’ day with the campaign to defend the historic Willow Grove; a two-story villa built in the 1870s. The site, which is on Phillip Street and backs onto the Parramatta River in Western Sydney, is under threat by the NSW Government which plans to ‘relocate’ the building to make way for the new Powerhouse Museum which is being moved from Ultimo. The Government’s plans have been met with significant opposition and in April 2020, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) placed a Green Ban on the historic site.

After meeting in Prince Alfred Square, several thousand marched through Parramatta CBD to the Willow Grove site. While the atmosphere was loud and vibrant, the NSW Government had already boarded up Willow Grove so that it was not visible to the public and to prevent people entering or occupying the site.

May Day rally participants march through Parramatta CBD to Willow Grove (Photo by the CFMEU NSW)

Almost all Australian trade unions were represented – the largest organised contingents being the CFMEU and Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) who had members walk off job sites and wharves across the city to join the rally. As Paul Keating from the MUA Sydney Branch later explained in his speech, “our members decided to shut the port down. That port has been shut down since 10 o’clock this morning in solidarity with the Parramatta community, in solidarity with our construction and general division, and we will continue to fight until this building (Willow Grove) is saved.” Also in large numbers were the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) and United Workers Union (UWU), each of which had large organised displays.

Following the march, speeches were made outside Willow Grove. Speakers included Christy Cain from the MUA, Darren Greenfield who is the current NSW State Secretary of the CFMEU, Paul Keating from the Sydney Branch of the MUA and Suzette Meade from the North Parramatta Residents Action Group.

One of the highlights was a speech made by Ian Brown from ‘Gamilaraay Next Generation’ who travelled from Northern NSW to Sydney to address the rally. He began his speech by acknowledging the role trade unions have played in first nations struggles but reminded us that “there cannot be any justice within a country without first nations justice.” Ian is currently fighting a Santos gas project on his traditional lands and called on the public to support the movement against this project which is part of the government’s ‘gas-led recovery’ plan for post-Covid Australia.

May Day Rally outside the Willow Grove Site’ (Photo by the CFMEU NSW)

Another highlight was the speech made by the ETU NSW & ACT Deputy Secretary Allen Hicks. He called out the hypocrisy of the Australian government which attacks unions and worker’s rights while presiding over a toxic workplace rife with sexual harassment and gendered abuse. He finished by reading a statement against all forms of gendered violence and highlighted the need to ensure that communities and workplaces are free of sexual and gendered violence, harassment, prejudice and bullying.

As well as trade unions, left-wing political groups were also represented, the largest being the Greens. The Australian Labour Party (ALP) was not well-represented, although there was quite a strong contingent of ‘Young Labour Left’ (YLL) members. In terms of far-left groups, there were members from the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), Solidarity, Socialist Alternative, Socialist Alliance and the Australian Communist Party (ACP). There were of course a smattering of smaller groups such as the Communist Party of Australia Marxist-Leninist (CPA-ML) and the Spartacists.

Interestingly, groups such as Socialist Alternative did not have strong contingents this year. This is interesting given these groups have previously attended Sydney May Day rallies in fairly large numbers. On the other hand, the ACP, which was formed in 2019, had a strong contingent. They had roughly 15 well-organised members identified by flags, banners and shirts. 

May Day in Sydney this year was certainly one of the largest political displays in the city since the start of the pandemic in 2020. Among other things, it showed that there is a willingness and capacity for worker’s struggles in Sydney to be combined with social issues such as anti-imperialism, climate justice and justice for first nations people.

Participants marching from Prince Alfred Park (Photo by Nick D)

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