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Issue 51, October 2000

Australian anti-capitalist action

THE S11-S13 protests in Melbourne marked a sea-change in Australian politics. Thousands of workers and even more young people came out onto the streets for 72 hours of continual actions against capitalism. They blockaded a meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) at the Crown Towers hotel, where 1,000 of the world's richest chief executive officers met to discuss furthering their neo-liberal agenda.

S11-Alliance co-ordinated the protest, alongside the smaller S11-Awol anarchist-leaning group. S11-Alliance was made up of environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, socialist organisations including the Socialist Party (CWI Australian section), and progressive individuals. It met for several months in advance to plan the non-violent blockade (similar to a picket) and had up to 150 people attending its weekly meetings, plus numerous working sub-groups.

The Socialist Party operated independently within the Alliance, calling a school student strike for the first day. We visited almost 60 schools to build support for the strike. Students faced visits by police to their schools warning of the 'leftwing terrorists' in S11! The media waged a vicious campaign against S11, including attacks on the Socialist Party. Australia's highest selling paper said about the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI): "This international linking of extremist groups is a true threat from globalisation".


On Sunday 10 September, activists from S11 and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU - construction division) set up a tent city, based around a massive scaffold stage, and first aid marquee. Weeks earlier Trades Hall (the co-ordinating body for unions in Victoria state) announced that they would organise a union rally for the second day of the protest (S12). They intended to march north of the Yarra river that splits Melbourne in half, stop, and leave the S11 youth alone to blockade the Crown Towers south of the river.

Within S11 only the Socialist Party have members in the CFMEU and we lobbied for the union to strike and march south. As a stepping stone, we successfully pushed for the union to provide a marquee and equipment, and to encourage trained members to provide first aid for the three days. This was to prove crucial later on.

The CFMEU and the other key militant union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU), decided to break ranks and march south. Trades Hall knew that 80% of the numbers on its rallies came from these two unions, so it was forced to tear up its glossy posters and march south.

It was only the principled action of the AMWU and CFMEU and militant union activists that stopped a breach between the radical youth and the trade union movement. The Trades Hall leadership, however, played a treacherous rear-guard action, publicly opposing the blockades outside the Crown Towers. This provided the political space to Victoria state's right-wing Labor government and the police to move decisively against the protestors later on.


On day one - S11 - 10,000 mainly young people braved torrential rain to blockade the Crown Towers. The ten or so separate entrances were all blockaded with marshals on walkie-talkies co-ordinating the protest. Up to half the delegates couldn't attend and conference organisers threatened to call the meeting off if things didn't improve by the Tuesday. The school student strike was brilliant with 500 students jogging down in formation at 9am to join the blockade that had begun two hours earlier. A second school student strike organised by the Democratic Socialist Party for 1pm was also a positive contribution to the event.

The leader of the Liberal Party opposition claimed day one went to S11: a mass crowd, a successful blockade and few injuries.

Tuesday was very different. Between 7am and the time the union rallies arrived at 11am the police, under massive political pressure, waded into the peaceful blockades with batons and horses. That night after the union activists had left, another baton charge took place. Four hundred people were injured. At one stage, seven ambulances queued outside the first aid tent. One protestor stopped breathing and was only saved by cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. Yet the Labor state premier, Steve Bracks, congratulated the police, gave them a day off work, and promised medals! The letters pages of the newspapers in the next few days were full of Australian Labor Party (ALP) members announcing their resignation from the party.


During the Tuesday 10,000 unionists downed tools and marched in four separate rallies to the blockade. A smaller number stayed on to participate in the blockade, ignoring Trades Hall advice to the contrary. It was the biggest openly anti-capitalist rally by workers in Australian history.

The last day, S13, saw the police back-off somewhat on the violence. There had been a wave of disgust at their actions the day before. At noon thousands of S11 supporters marched through the city on a victory march. We had partially blockaded the WEF, drawing the attention of the world to its big-business agenda, exposed the role of the ALP, police and media, and closed down Australia's largest casino for three days. The S11 event caused an extremely significant split between the Trades Hall leadership and the two most militant (and powerful) unions in Victoria. Most importantly, the event politicised a mass layer of young people and workers in an openly anti-capitalist demonstration the likes of which Australia has never seen before.

The Socialist Party sold a special broadsheet and a new pamphlet on globalisation and recruited new members, while also playing a key role in organising the marshalling, first aid and publicity. We showed that building the organised forces of socialism and building the broader movement are not counterpoised but intrinsically linked.

Stephen Jolly
S11 activist & Socialist Party secretary

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