||Issue No. 123||21 December 2001|
The Unmaking of History
International: Global Year in Review
Unions: A Year at the Barricades
Technology: Unions Online 2001
Republic: Terror Australis
Economics: 2001: Annus Horribilis
Campaign Diary: Melanie and Me
Politics: Tony Moore's Final Word
Review: You Are the Weakest Program
Legal: The New McCarthyism
The Locker Room
The First Bastion
Tom Collins' Christmas Wish
A Year at the Barricades
By Peter Lewis
2001 was a year when workers were forced to fight for what they once took for granted.
The Battle for Workers Compo
It was an emblematic battle between the political and industrial wings of the labour movement. A state government spooked by a workers compensation deficit but unprepared to raise employer premiums attempts to cut injured workers entitlements. The reaction is swift: a major public campaign, rolling industrial action targeting government revenue and the legendary banner drop of the Harbour Bridge. After forcing the government to modify its package, the peace was shattered with the reneging of a guarantees on maintaining benefit levels. The anger explodes into a picket of state Parliament, with Labor MPs needing a police escort to break the line and vote to reduce workers rights. Reverberations from the unseemly showdown continue today, the real-world backdrop to the theoretical debate about the unions' influence within the ALP. As the WorkCover war shows: the issue should not be too much union power, but too little.
Corporates Crash - Entitlements Hot Issue
2002 was a wasteland of corporate failures as a contracting world economy and the dot-com crash took their toll. HIH, One.Tel and Ansett were just the biggest of the corporate disasters. And if there was one common theme it was how they exposed big business' failure to safeguard their employees' entitlements. IT also exposed the valuable roles unions play when things go bad - the mass sign-up of One.Tel workers to the CPSU not only ensured those workers received their entitlement but marketed unions to a new generation of workers. The issue raged right through to the federal election, where Ansett workers became the wild card, haranguing a Howard Government who just wanted to wipe its hands of the issue. Both major parties were forced to improve their policies on entitlements before the election. Meanwhile, the unions took the issue into their own hands by demanding entitlement be protected in agreements through funds like the fledgling Manusafe.
Howard Digs Deep to Win Third Term
John Howard conjured up a third term by plumbing the depths of the Australian psyche, tapping into our ingrained sense of insecurity in the region, turning a group of desperate refugees into terrorists and trashing Australia's international reputation. Then he had the temerity to claim he had been reelected on a positive agenda that included industrial relations reform. Of course, the only time IR was on the election radar was when the Ansett workers push for their entitlements shamed Howard into extending Peter Reith's paltry entitlement protection scheme. For Labor, Kim Beazley sailed into the sunset a victim of time and his inner circle's own policy timidity, of which their embarrassment of their union ties was only one example. The greens benefited from Labor's abrogation of the moral ground on Tampa, while the Democrats shrank under their new leader and One Nation dropped off the landscape altogether - their key policies pilfered by the Liberals. Howard may not have deserved to win the election, but few could argue that Labor did either.
Mad Monk Keeps on Swinging
Howard's number one head-kicker Tony Abbott turned his attention to the union movement, taking on the Workplace Relations portfolio. It was a continuation of the Tories' New Right credo - an activist minister committed to bashing unions rather than the traditional portfolio role of dispute settler. Time and time again, Abbott got his hands dirty, seeing any dispute as an opportunity to throw around some anti-union propaganda. When Grenadier workers lost their jobs and their entitlements, Abbott visited the boss - an old drinking buddy. When Tri-Star workers took action to protect what was there's he accused them of treason. And all the while, he talked up his beloved Building Industry Royal Commission, knowing it would drain millions from the coffers of one the nation's most effective unions. After the election he bowled up an improbable series of 'reforms' including stripping unfair dismissal protection from a large section of the workforce and attempting to introduce costly secret ballots before workers would be allowed to exercise their right to strike. Sit tight for more bile in 2002.
Stats Give Unions Hope
As the climate got bleaker, unions kept fighting - scores of unions moving forward with cultural change to put the power back at the shop floor level. The organising strategy championed by ACTU secretary Greg Combet gained momentum with a successful international conference in Sydney in May. It coincided with the release of Australia Bureau of Statistics figures showing that the fall in union membership numbers may have bottomed out for the first time in more than a decade: in 2000, union membership grew by 23,600 compared to a decrease of 208,000 in 1999. While it is too early to be popping the champagne, the stats sit with a heartening result in Labor Council's biannual survey of attitudes towards unions that found that 51 per cent of workers said they'd join a union if they were free to do so. And nearly two third of respondents disagreed with the proposition Australia would be a better place without unions. These findings backed our post-election claim that unions were more popular than the ALP!
ILO Turns Up Heat on Burma
The big international story of the year was the global campaign to make good International Labour Organisation sanctions against the military regime in Burma. After finding the junta guilty of the systematic use of slave labour on major state infrastructure projects, the ILO invoked its penal provisions for the first time in its 82 year history. Member nations were called up to put pressure on companies doing trade in Burma which contributed to a breach of the core global labour standards. Given the dynamics of the Burmese regime, this meant just about anyone. Australian unions did their bit targeting Triumph International, who were manufacturing bras in Burma. A flamboyant bra-burning protest in Sydney brought pressure to bear on Triumph and they stopped sourcing the undies to Australia. Next on the target list are tour companies like Lonely Planet who make money marketing holidays to a country where the tourism industry only benefits the warlords.
Temple Workers Hit Boss for Six
They were discovered building a Hindu temple at Helensburg, locked on site in third world conditions, being paid just $45 per month, with another $100 being sent home. By the time they returned victoriously to India they had won the hearts of the union movement and shone the national spotlight on the plight of guest-workers and the mismanagement of the issue by the department of Immigration. The Indian temple workers were our favourite industrial protagonists on 2001 because they showed how universal collective action could be. Adopted by the building union, they walked off the job demanding decent pay and spent several months in Sydney lending their support to other workers - such as the Grenadier Textile workers who they challenged to a game of picket cricket to coincide with the Australia-India test match series. They returned to their home province of Tamil Nadu proudly union and vowing to open a sub-continental chapter of the CFMEU.
Stellar Advances in Call Centres
Several years of hard slog in the call center industry finally paid dividends when the CPSU secured the first industrial award specifically covering workers in Telstra off-shoot Stellar. The award the culmination of constant agitation by workplace activists in the face of anti-union management tricks such bas disciplining a worker who had the temerity to advertise a union picnic - outside working hours. The Stellar deal include provisions on career, classifications, redundancy provisions, penalty payments, safety net salaries, a 38-hour week, along with recognition for the union and its delegates - an important first step in civilising the industry that carries the mantle 'the sweatshop of the Information Economy'. Promising results also from the ACTU campaign form minimum standards with the Queensland, WA and Tasmanian governments agreeing to comply with the Call Centre Code and the NSW and Victorian governments well advanced in negotiating similar standards.
Costa Gets Cops, Robbo Takes Reins
He left the Labor Council in the midst of its battle for workers comp sparking the first contested ballot for leadership in living memory and walked into one of the most critical ministries with just 17 days in State Parliament under his belt. For anyone who knew Michael Costa it was hardly surprising - surprise is his stock in trade. His move into the political arena was not unexpected, but the colour and movement it sparked surpassed even Costa's standards for action. First there was the tight ballot for secretary between John Robertson and Tony Sheldon. The new leader was then catapulted onto the national stage when he coordinated the picket of State Parliament -sending the ALP into apoplexy, but ensuring that the new boss would be regarded as more than just another bald guy. By the end of the year, the former sparkie had placed his own stamp on Sussex Street with a Council focused on coordinating industry campaigning across the affiliates.
Watching the Bosses
We ended the year with what could turn out to be the most significant initiative of all - the launch of Bosswatch, our inter-relation corporate database. Bosswatch is the first attempt anywhere the chart the linkages between our major companies using publicly available information on shareholders, directors and profits. It also details the constantly rising levels of executive remuneration. The aim is now for individual unions to gather the skills to chart their own industries to help us make sense of the increasingly complex web that is global capital. It was just the highpoint of a frenetic year of web development, which also included the net radio vehicle Wobbly, a new Labor Council site and the IT Workers Alliance, a hub for unionizing the IT industry, ensuring we stay at the forefront of online unionism. As for 2002 - stand by for a new-look LaborNet and Workers Online!
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