Make James Hardie Pay! – 28 October

Shareholders arriving at Jeff’s Shed this morning (October 28) for the Telstra AGM were offered symbolic daffodils by unionists, victims of asbestos-related diseases and supporters of their fight to win proper compensation from James Hardie: Donald McGauchie, whose role in the waterfront dispute was recalled by more than one speaker, is both chairman of Telstra and a board member of James Hardie.

Protesters handing daffodils to shareholders on arrival

Shareholders were also invited to read a letter from VTHC secretary Leigh Hubbard outlining the history of compensation claims against James Hardie, including the damning conclusions of the NSW Special Commission of Enquiry, and the recent announcement that the compensation fund is close to running out of money and may have to be wound up, while former CEO Peter McDonald and CFO Peter Shafron walk off with millions of dollars in redundancy packages. Hundreds of Telstra workers are among the victims of James Hardie products: the letter asks the question “When he[McGauchie] votes on the James Hardie board, whose interests does he have in mind – the Telstra workers whom he represents or the profits of James Hardie?”, and calls on shareholders to demand his resignation if he cannot satisfy them as to how he can reconcile his twin roles. (He has apparently declined to resign, on the grounds he thinks he can make a contribution to helping asbestos victims …)

Len Cooper, of the Communications Union, challenged John Howard to make good his claim to be supporting the ‘battlers’, while pointing out that it is the unions Howard has declared war on, not corporate criminals like James Hardie. He also announced the launch of a campaign by Telstra workers to demand a national plebiscite to determine whether the Australian people, who are the owners of Telstra, do or do not want it sold, a point taken up later by Sharan Burrow, president of the ACTU, who said it would be an exercise in plain and simple democracy – which she didn’t however expect that John Howard would have the decency to enact – because “he [JH] has no decency”. (She then went on to call on Howard to change his view of Australian workers, and change corporate law to make impossible the sort of thing that James Hardie has been able to do by transferring its assets offshore … optimistic, perhaps?)

One of the speakers was Anthony Pizzino (seen here in discussion with Martin Kingham), the National Health and Safety Director for Canada’s largest union, the 535,000 member strong Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), who declared his members’ solidarity with their Australian counterparts, making the point that asbestos knows no boundaries, killing Australian and Canadian workers alike. Sharan Burrow also reported messages of support from unions in the US and elsewhere. (Mr Pizzino was guest speaker yesterday – October 27 – at what was billed as the largest gathering of OH&S reps in the world, organised by Trades Hall as part of Worksafe Week):

Anthony Pizzino - in blue jacket

The central speaker, however, was Wendy Keogh, seen here with Michelle O’Neill of the TCFUA, who was compere. Mrs Keogh is the widow of a Telstra worker, Ron, who died earlier this year of mesothelioma, caused by exposure to asbestos during his 37 years with the company. (In fact, when he began work at 17, he had spent the first three months doing nothing but saw up asbestos pipes …) The way he died was something she would not wish on anyone, she said:

Wendy Keogh speaking

Wendy Keogh with Leigh Hubbard

Wendy Keogh with Leigh Hubbard (Throughout the protest she carried a framed portrait of her late husband)

At the end she accompanied Leigh Hubbard and Sharan Burrow though a guard of honour leading to the entrance of the exhibition centre, where they intended to present their demands to the AGM:

Unionists form guard of honour