|Issue No 109
|31 August 2001
Interview with Peter Lewis
Electrical Trades Union state secretary Bernie Riordan surveys the union movement's troubled relationship with Labor.
This week we have seen action regarding the contracting out in the Health Department. It seems quite a bizarre story of how the State Government is looking at cutting costs through bundling power and labour. Has this approach surprised you?
The approach has surprised me. We are in a situation where they want to contract out all the maintenance work and at the same time have that contractor be the electricity provider to the hospital. It would make far more sense to the Department of Health, a State Government organisation, to go to one of the State Government distributors and say we want you to supply electricity for all of our hospitals and area Health Boards rather than to do it this way. They would have bargaining power to negotiate a better price than the way they are proposing now.
Is there a philosophical problem you have with the whole approach or is it just that it's affecting your members?
It's not just that. People who go into the hospital, as contractors would be our members as well. What we're concerned about is the level of service that will prevail after the contracting out. Sydney Water is a great example of what can go wrong. Half of the maintenance of Sydney Water was contracted out back in 1995 by former Fahey Government just prior to the election. Craig Knowles was actually the Minister for Sydney Water when the Government became elected. When I saw Craig Knowles about the situation, he told me then that he was totally opposed to contracting out but there was nothing he could do. The contracts had been signed.
Later that year raw sewerage flowed into rivers and streams because the contractors coming in didn't have the personnel or the experience to undertake the work. In this situation we are dealing with people's lives, rather than whether or not a stream gets polluted. I think it's a big risk for the Government to take of which the public is unaware.
This approach is now coming from a Labor Government - do you think the Minister is driving the agenda??
No, the Minister seems distracted so it is possibly not his idea. But he is the Minister so he has to take responsibility. Craig Knowles views himself as a future Premier. We're asking him to provide some leadership in this situation, not simply to take the economic rationalist rhetoric that comes out of the Treasury Department. We believe that the in house maintenance can be done far cheaper that the external maintenance contractor. We believe the Health Department can get a far better deal for electricity than any one off area Health Board. We think the Government also needs to take into account the social responsibilities of having the maintenance undertaken in a manner, which guarantees that the work will be performed, and that there won't be any breakdowns caused by lack of maintenance. I'll give you a great example. Lithgow Hospital has an emergency generator that, for the last few years, has been maintained by a private contractor. When the generator was tested recently, it failed. Why did it fail? Maintenance hadn't been complied with water and oil levels were low, etc. Say that occurred at Prince of Wales Hospital in the middle of an emergency operation - the power goes off and you need to rely on they emergency generator. The Lithgow Hospital situation is repeated - there is no power. What happens then? Can you imagine the public outcry and ensuing litigation?
What we're saying is that in-house employees have a greater level of care than contactors. It's been proven time and time again. You can go through them all - Sydney Water, the electricity companies, even some of the blackouts that have hit Sydney in the last few weeks. Once again caused by poor tree clearing practices undertaken by contractors. So we think the situation is fairly clear for the Government in relation to contracting out. We've had all sorts of pious resolutions passed at ALP Conferences in relation to contracting out. It would appear that a number of Government Ministers think that they can ignore ALP Policy, and the voters that put them there and get away with it.
I think Craig Knowles and the rest of the Government need to realize that they are on the nose and they better start adopting Labor Party principles.
You've had a couple of rallies on these issues. Where do you go from here?
There are a number of options available. Obviously we don't want to start introducing bans which have an effect on the public. That's too sensitive a work environment to do that. What we will be doing though is targeting Craig Knowles as an individual and also perhaps the by-election out at Auburn.
What will you be doing there?
We'll be doing some letterboxing and handing out leaflets at railway stations. Just advising the public of some of our concerns.
Another front opening after you led the charge to oppose the privatisation of the Power Industry and sections of Pacific Power now look like being up for sale. What's the ETU's position on that?
We're opposed to privatisation. The Government's announced that they want to privatise PowerCoal, which we do not support, and they're also flagging the concept of privatising Pacific Power International. Once again we oppose that, we think it's a short sighted view. At some point in time the NSW Government has to realise that whilst they are the Government of the day, they also have to be accountable for their decisions in the future. Whilst selling PowerCoal makes good political sense in the current environment, five or ten years down the track there will be no guarantee that the electricity generators, owned by the NSW Government, will be able to buy sufficient coal at the appropriate price, to generate electricity at its current cheap price.
So the real likelihood is that electricity prices will have to go up exponentially just to meet the purchase price of coal. So what the Government's proposing is to take out the first link in the supply chain of electricity generation and distribution.
I believe it's a long term, foolish decision. Now I understand that the Government is saying that the industry needs an injection of capital, but that's got to be seen as an investment for the future of NSW and the consumers of NSW, not whether or not it affects Michael Egan's budget surplus.
The same applies for Pacific Power International.
Speaking of ALP policy, the workers comp reform package was something that was in breach of part policy. But at the end of the day it seems like it's gone through anyway. What is at the Union Movement's disposal to hold a Government to ALP Policy?
The only thing we can do at the moment is try to influence policies from the outside, in the way we are doing now by lobbying. Alternatively we have to sponsor and support people to run for Parliament who support our line of thinking. It is becoming evident to not just me but a number of Secretaries of Unions that we need to do something to ensure that the people who go into Parliament are people who believe that fundamental ALP principles are worth fighting for and it is worth opposing any rhetoric or philosophy which is contradictory to those principles.
But how do you do that?
The only way at the moment is to have our members become more active in the branches of the Labor Party. We need to ensure that the people being preselected to stand for seats of Parliament fundamentally believe in the principles of the Labor Party and not their own self interests.
Of course the line that would come out of Macquarie Street is that your Unions are having fewer and fewer members every year. How can you claim to dictate party policy while those numbers are declining?
I think it's fairly obvious from the recent surveys that have been released that, whilst Union membership may be declining, it's probably got more to do with the system of work which is developing in Australia rather whether people prefer to be in a Union or not. I think it's fairly evident that the workforce, still fundamentally believes in what the Trade Union Movement stands for. It is whether or not they are able or comfortable with being in a Trade Union.
That's an issue you're grappling with in the ETU as well. Tell me about some of the ways you are organising your workforce.
We're doing a number of things. We've targeted a number of our industries that in the past have reflected fairly low levels of financial membership. We employed Adam Kerslake, actually we seconded Adam from the ACTU for 12 months to coordinate our organising campaign. We have now commissioned a number of organizing strategies in relation to delegate training, and refocusing the full time Union Officials to ensure that we have moved away from the old traditional servicing model.
I am not going to say we have adopted the organizing model warts and all, but I believe we have modified it to such an extent that it would be successful in our industries.
What specific work areas are you going in and looking at?
We've targeted, in particular, construction, the power industry in general and also the metal manufacturing industry - all of which have different idiosyncrasies, all of which require different styles and different approaches and Adam has been successful - I believe - in implementing strategies which are different and reflect our need in each of those areas.
What's an example of some of the innovating things that are going on?
For example we've developed a PowerPoint presentation for the construction industry which highlight the levels of income of five or six of the major CEOs of the building industry. It highlights the way that they treat their employees and the huge profits these people continue to earn despite the downturn in the industry and how we can make them share it with our members.
We have also run a successful organising campaign in the poker machine area. Employees of Aristocrat went from being non-union in February to on strike on Golden Slipper day and put the operation of the NSW TAB at risk. It was a great result.
Ten years down the track, can you see the Union Movement being closer or further away from the ALP than they are today?
I believe we will be closer. I think that the swing is back on to have party which represents the interests of working men and women across Australia in a manner which will be different to what is currently being proposed by the Labor Party. I can see that the 80s approach of Hawke and Keating where it was deemed to be appropriate to be comfortable and perhaps sympathetic with Australian business is disappearing on the basis that Australian business is also disappearing.
What is clearly occurring is that globalisation - with all of its warts - has resulted in the multi - national companies buying off the Australia farm and their principles are being pushed into the Australian marketplace. A perfect example of this was the dispute at Joy Manufacturing last year where workers were locked out for six months and at the end of the day we were forced to negotiate with a manager who, every fine minutes, had to report to the US to get answers to our questions.
What about the faction system. Do you see an industrial faction emerging as maybe a counter point to traditional left/right?
I think it already has and the recent Workers Comp dispute proves it. When you have Ministers in both the Federal and State Parliamentary Parties adopting Policies which I regard as being similar to Michael Egan's rather than similar to someone like Tom Uren, then the so-called principles of the left have disappeared.
Is that a good thing?
Absolutely. My view is that factions in the past have been a source to breed mediocrity and do nothing to further the best interests of the people we have been elected to represent.
Interview: Union Power
Electrical Trades Union state secretary Bernie Riordan surveys the union movement's troubled relationship with Labor.
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