ABOUT 2000 people took part in Newcastle protests yesterday over proposed cuts to the workers’ compensation system.
Although some employers tried to block a four-hour union stoppage to protest against the changes – Downer EDI obtained orders in the industrial commission ordering Cardiff train builders to stay on the job – the strong turnout in Newcastle and statewide buoyed union officials.
Video by Darren Pateman and Jonathan Carroll
The changes had been foreshadowed by Finance Minister Greg Pearce, who appointed a joint parliamentary committee to look at ways of reining in an estimated $4billion deficit in WorkCover’s insurance funding.
The committee’s report, tabled in Parliament yesterday, recommended cuts to benefits and abolishing ‘‘journey’’ claims, meaning most workers would no longer be covered travelling to and from work.
The report recommended police officers be exempted from this change, but about 45 Hunter and Central Coast firefighters meeting at Newcastle fire station in Union Street yesterday morning were adamant that this protection was necessary for them, especially on call-out.
‘‘We drive within the law but when firefighters are called in to a job, there’s often a sense of urgency,’’ Fire Brigade Employees Union Newcastle sub-branch secretary Luke Russell said.
Labor MPs on the committee issued dissenting statements, asking whether the government had exaggerated the size of WorkCover’s financial problems and arguing that cutting benefits put the reform burden ‘‘almost entirely’’ on workers.
Yesterday’s protests began with about 1200 people attending a mass meeting the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union called at the No.1 Sports Ground in Newcastle.
Manufacturing union state secretary Tim Ayres told the gathering that the nature of their work meant manufacturing workers were over-represented in WorkCover statistics.
Chanting ‘‘Shame Barry Shame’’ as they marched through the city streets, the flag-waving procession finished in Civic Park, where it joined the main WorkCover rally organised by Newcastle Trades Hall Council and Unions NSW.
Speakers including trades hall secretary Gary Kennedy and Labor MLC Linda Voltz told the crowd the fight against the changes would continue.
Ms Voltz said the Coalition’s attitude to workers was encapsulated by comments Mr Pearce made to Parliament in March when he said: ‘‘In the work injury damages space, everybody gets a prize except the scheme.’’
She said being injured at work was not a prize anyone would want.