Community workers walk out for Palestine

by Louisa Bassini https://redflag.org.au/

Tuesday, 27 February 2024

On 22 February, more than 200 social and community service workers in Melbourne stopped work to protest in solidarity with the Palestinians. Demanding community sector organisations make a statement against the genocide in Gaza, the workers marched from the Victorian Council of Social Services to the offices of the Federation of Community Legal Centres.   

An open letter signed by more than 500 had previously demanded community and not-for-profit organisations make clear their opposition to the genocide in line with the human rights and social justice focus of their work, but without success.

Louisa Bassini, a community lawyer at Inner Melbourne Community Legal and long-time socialist, was one of the leaders of the action. This is an edited transcript of her speech at the 25 February rally for Gaza in Melbourne the following Sunday.  

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Last Thursday, several hundred community legal and social service workers—including a core of workers taking unprotected industrial action—rallied to make it crystal clear to the leaders of our sector the depth of our opposition to the genocide in Palestine.                           

This came after a refusal by our CEOs and our organisations’ boards to make public statements on the issue, despite a groundswell of opinion expressed through meetings, countless emails and open letters.

We’ve been told this isn’t a workplace issue. “Why not just access counselling if you’re upset”, they say, or “protest in your own time”. But the social justice sector claims to have at its heart the values of justice, fairness, human rights and human dignity. To hear our respective organisations state that it’s not their place to make public statements, and to witness this attitude of “those people over there, they’re different from you, let’s all get on with it, stop dividing people with your hostility and agitation”, is not acceptable to us.

We are seeing every day with our eyes exactly what ordinary people are being forced to endure, and the care that we are meant to show in our work—the care that we have for our communities, our clients and each other—doesn’t stop at the border; it doesn’t cease simply because the people enduring this suffering live in Palestine. In fact, it’s the opposite. Those of us who have food to eat, who aren’t going thirsty, who can sleep at night without fear of bombs and death and who are able to watch our children smile and thrive should be doing everything we possibly can to help those who don’t, and to bring these terrible atrocities to an end.

The other argument we heard in response to the strike action we took was: “look here there are proper processes that you ought to abide by to further your aims”, striking and protest is needlessly confrontational. But we have used these proper processes, to no avail. And what legitimacy do the proper processes have, when those who supposedly live by them—governments, corporate heads and the media—are able to support and in some cases give material aid to a state that is in such egregious violation of international law. When the proper processes facilitate and sanitise genocide, and silence opponents of it, then the whole system needs questioning.

Over the last few weeks, lots of us who work in the community sector have been asking the organisations we work for to make public statements. But at the same time, most of my workmates, wonderful people who are Muslim and Jewish and atheist alike, felt we should also be doing something more, given the horror we are watching unfold in Gaza. We wanted to take action that the government can’t just ignore.

We were fortunate in that we were already connected as union members and, through our union activism, with workers in other community legal centres. When we put out a call to organise a strike over this issue, it became clear that people across the sector were as enraged by what Israel and Western governments are doing in Palestine as we were. More than any other workplace issue in my time as a union activist, people were motivated to act. They wanted to put up a fight around this, and were prepared to face the consequences, whatever they might be.  

There are strict laws in this country about how and when you can strike as a worker, with significant penalties for contraventions. That in itself should make us stop and think about how free we really are in Australia: it’s illegal to stop work to oppose a genocide, but not for politicians to support one.

But it’s also useful to think about why industrial action is so heavily policed. If our action was extended to other workers and other industries—to manufacturing, shipping and other areas where there’s real economic power—we could contribute to the kind of movement that can’t be ignored. One where the laws and penalties that hold us back become meaningless, because no employer or government would dare to impose them. One where our voices and actions have the impact that they should, and actually reach our brothers and sisters in Palestine. That is the sort of movement we have to fight to build today, to help free the desperate people of Gaza, and to strike a real concrete blow for human rights and social justice everywhere.

PHOTO CREDIT: Matt Hrkac