|Issue No 118||02 November 2001|
Interview with Peter Lewis
ACTU Secretary Greg Combet on saving Ansett jobs, defeating Howard and wooing a new generation of unionists.
The Ansett dispute is probably the biggest nationwide dispute the unions have seen since the waterfront dispute. How do you compare those two?
The first thing is that it is not strictly a dispute, in the sense that we have got an industrial dispute with an employer. It is an insolvency process where we are battling to protect jobs, and on that front it does have some similarities with the waterfront. On the waterfront we were in an industrial dispute with Chris Corrigan's company and the government, but it was also a complex insolvency issue that we had to deal with, and Ansett is an insolvency problem on a major, major scale. One of the largest collapses we have ever had. 16-odd thousand workers affected, and a massive number of those are union members. It is affecting every State and every region, every major town and city in the country - and it is a very, very complex insolvency. We have got well over 2 million creditors in the company - including ticket holders and frequent fliers.
In terms of the scope of it, it is larger in that it affects more workers; it affects more areas of the country than the waterfront. But equally contested. The other similarity I guess is that it has been a difficult struggle with the Howard government. The waterfront obviously was, but so is the Ansett issue.
We have been involved in what you could only describe as a lot of trench warfare with the Howard government to try and stave off the liquidation of Ansett and protect the jobs. So I am having a fair bit of déjà vu and I am still learning about corporations law. I learned a lot in 1998 in the waterfront thing about corporations law, but I am learning even more now. There is a PR similarity.
I guess the change is that you are actually working with the administrator and there aren't those obvious legal and industrial tactics that would normally be used in a dispute. Is this a new territory for unions? To actually play such a role at this stage in a company's evolution?
Yes it is. I guess with the desire to play a role in the administration process and to try and save the company, also comes more responsibility, and often times in the past we have been caught in the position where for a whole lot of reasons, not through any failure of the unions but because of how the corporations laws operated, we have essentially been there just battling to get the best out of a liquidation of a company. In this one we have got in very early and changed the administrators so that we would have a chance of trying to rescue the company and save jobs. And that essentially means that you have got a key involvement in the administration process in terms of representing creditors and in terms of trying to get jobs up. So you have got to play a very active role in the administration - and that is what we have been doing.
What is your end game though?
The end game is to get a buyer for the airline and get as many Ansett workers as we can into a job, and for those that don't keep a job, to get 100% of their entitlements paid.
Along the way you have got to manage the administration so that you can maximize the value of the assets, get government support for the entitlements, and bring buyers on-stream so that the company can be sold. That is the process, and the objectives have always been to save as many jobs as possible and protect 100% of the entitlements.
Obviously you have had to make some trade offs, particularly in terms of the wages and conditions of the staff on Ansett Mark II. Are you concerned as to ripples that is causing in Qantas?
Oh yes, but the main game if you like for the employers and the government in the aviation industry during the last six months, well before Ansett was put on the ground, has been to drive the wages and employment conditions down. We have been very conscious of that in dealing with any bidders for Ansett. Obviously the unions and the ACTU are as determined as possible to protect the existing pay and conditions and to try and win the argument that it is not people's wages that are the problem. There has been terrible management, a failure of government policies. And you can get this thing viable by improving the cost structure and improving productivity and efficiency; getting the staffing levels right; and make it viable without cutting people's pay. We are engaged in very vigorous debates every day at the moment about those issues - and that is a very important argument in terms of protecting people's wages and conditions within Qantas also.
Corporate collapses in the current global climate are hardly groundbreaking news, but can we really blame the Federal government for what is going on?
I have been following and have been involved in this Ansett issue for some time - the ACTU has for years - and we knew earlier in the year that Ansett was in trouble. What has transpired now is that we didn't know to the level of detail that the government knew, about just how much money Ansett was losing and just how serious the financial troubles were. The Federal government were briefed on it as far back as June, and then consistently kept up to date by Air New Zealand, and yet the Federal government did nothing, and you can only interpret their actions in supporting Qantas throughout the whole process and essentially keeping hands off Ansett, that they were quite happy to see Ansett go down. It really is a failure of policy in dealing with a crisis with a major airline, but also it is a terrible indictment of competition policy in the aviation industry, all of this.
You've seen Compass One go down. Compass Two go down. Impulse disappear. Now Ansett in this terrible state. It is just not an industry where you can open it up and expect that there is not going to be calamities.
Moving on to the Federal Election, Labor has announced its IR agenda. How close is that to the model you would like to see implemented?
It has got a lot of the key elements that unions adopted at the ACTU Congress last year in IR policy that we carried, and a lot of common elements with the issues that we have been arguing. There is an emphasis on the importance of the award system and its being able to provide relevant and fair and comprehensive protection for people. That is a cornerstone of Labor policy and a cornerstone of Union policy. In addition, there is an emphasis in Labor policy on the role of the Commission, and ACTU policy also sees that the Commission needs to have greater powers and capacity than it does under the Liberal's legislation.
There is also an emphasis on collective bargaining rights in Labor's policy, and of course that is a critical issue for unions and workers in workplaces. And there are a number of other elements too, but those are three essential pillars that are in the Labor policy.
In addition, you have got the 100% of worker entitlements being protected through a national scheme. That is something we have been fighting for. You have got recognition of the rights of delegates in Labor's policy - that is also something we are arguing for. So we are quite pleased about the Labor policy. No doubt there are lots of issues about detail. If Labor wins and drafts a Bill there will be a lot of issues to deal with, but the fundamental pillars of it are in accord with the union movement's policies.
Are there any stark omissions in there? Anything that you would have liked to have seen that they haven't addressed?
They go to things like Junior Rates of Pay. That is a continuing sore between Labor and the unions. There may be at the end of the day when we get to formulating legislation if Labor wins, when it formulates legislation there may be issues about what the award system might actually provide. There is a question as to whether it should continue to be a safety net. That is the casting of Labor policy, whereas unions would see that the awards have just got to be brought up to a market level so that they can be effective and relevant and provide a level playing field.
There are a lot of issues like that that are important ones, where in working out the detail I am sure there is going to be a bit of hustle and bustle.
What is your greatest concern about another term of the Howard government?
Well, I think it would just be disastrous for the workforce. There is a continuing depletion of funds out of public education and health. And in the industrial relations environment I am sure that there will be yet another round of industrial legislation changes proposed by Howard, and you can back that in that it is going to try to destroy people's collective bargaining rights, impose individual contracts on them, further destroy the award system and the role of the Commission, and give wider power to the employer. That is going to be disastrous for working people. Their ability to advance their interests at work, to lift their living standards, to protect their health and safety at work - all those things are the things that the Liberals intend undermining.
It is a very important election from that point of view, and I am sure that people understand that.
Given that it looks like an increasingly tough election for Labor to win, just looking forward if Howard is returned, will it be business as usual for the ACTU, or do you think there will need to be a rethink of how the unions are going about their business?
Regardless of the election result, I think that unions have got the fundamentals right about the things that we have got to be doing to rebuild and reorganize and attract more people - organize more people into unions and to advance living standards of workers.
They are the fundamentals and so you have got to look at the mechanisms by which we can achieve those fundamental objectives. We have got in place now across the movement over the last couple of years, a strategy to focus on the workplace, focus on delegates, involve people in the workplace in collective bargaining, build our campaign capacity, try and use better campaigning techniques - including using information technology in a more clever way. Those are the fundamentals.
We have also got an increasing focus on the areas of jobs growth in the economy. The services sector. There is a massive way to go, but we see that it will be a five to ten year programme to really make an impact in some of these areas.
I am determined to continue the focus on those things, regardless of who wins the election. The election result however, can have a big influence on the environment in which we are pursuing those objectives, and obviously changes to the IR laws are very important. They do have an important impact.
But the ACTU's focus in terms of IR laws is very much on ensuring that working people have got the right to organize and collectively bargain; that delegates will have rights; that we have got a fair award system to underpin it all; and the Commission to go to when there is a dispute that needs to be sorted out.
So, it is not going to deflect us from our central methods of achieving our objectives, but it can certainly have a big influence on the environment in which we have got to operate, and that is really what is at stake.
Finally, the Labor Council launched the IT Workers Alliance recently, and we have received more than 100 people signing up in that time. What message would you send to these new members of the union movement?
Well, I think as you can see, as the economy has been turning down, and especially since the Tech Wreck in the US, there has been a bubble burst in the IT sector, and what that has exposed I think to a lot of employees in the sector is that things aren't quite as secure and rosy and hip and groovy as they might have appeared at one time. There are still very fundamental questions about job security. There are fundamental issues about protection of your entitlements - your living standards - and people are realizing that collective organization in the workplace is important. And unions are the vehicles for that.
I think people are understanding that, and I encourage them to be involved in the IT Alliance. To find out what unions are on about. To start to join together, and to organize. To make sure that employees have got a good future in the IT and communications industry in this country, people will have to be organized, and if the IT Alliance can help bring that organization about, then it is a great initiative and we are very supportive of it.
Interview: Flying High
ACTU Secretary Greg Combet on saving Ansett jobs, defeating Howard and wooing a new generation of unionists.
Corporate: Howard's List of Shame
ACTU President Shaharn Burrow runs through the litany of corporate collapses and down-sizes that have cut a swathe through the Australian community.
Campaign Diary: Week Four: The Battle Lines Drawn
It was a week that saw the leaders launch their campaigns, kiss lots of babies and battle for space with a Holy Jihad.
Industrial: Desperately Seeking Solutions
They might not call it 'industrial relations' in the spin of modern politics, but all the major parties have released plans that will affect the way we work over the next three years.
Economics: Manufacturing Prosperity
Neale Towart looks at the hidden debate of the election campaign - the degree of intervention government should take through Industry Policy.
History: War And Politics
The Conservatives are trying to wage war and win the election. The pundits say it’s a tried and true recipe for electoral success. The 1940 federal poll suggests otherwise.
International: Globalising Labour
On the eve of the International Metalworkers Federation Congress general secretary Marcello Malentacchi argues all nations need to retain a manufacturing base.
Review: Security - Who Needs it?
What does it mean to be secure? Should we even need to ask? In his new book, Anthony Burke asks the tough questions.
Satire: Locksmith Promises "Greater Security" If Elected
A Melbourne locksmith has agreed to run for federal parliament, campaigning on the key issue of security.
View entire latest issue
© 1999-2000 Labor Council of NSW
LaborNET is a resource for the labour movement provided by the Labor Council of NSWURL: http://workers.labor.net.au/118/a_interview_combet.html
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005