||Issue No. 144||12 July 2002|
The Lotto Economy
Interview: Capital in Crisis
Industrial: No Sweat
Bad Boss: Super Spam
History: Living Treasures
International: Axis of Evil
Solidarity: Pride of Place
Technology: The Art of Cyber-Unionism
Poetry: The Masochism Tango
Satire: Foxtel-Optus Merger 'Anti-Repetitive'
Review: Bob Carr's Thoughtlines
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Capital in Crisis
Interview with Peter Lewis
There's been a wave of corporate collapses around the world, is capitalism in crisis?
In January I was at the World Economic Forum, there was an obvious kind of cautionary note in the language of business that I've not seen in previous forums. I think now with Worldcom, with the threat to social democracy, more broadly in Europe, making business and government nervous. It matches the feel of people who are nervous about the implications of globalisation like the mobility of labour and loss of identity. Right across the globe, there are degrees of uncertainty.
Has there, at this stage been a coordinated global union response to these collapses?
There is ongoing work from global unions in regard to how you manage social responsibility within the business community, capitalism and multinational corporations more broadly. For example, we have endorsed the Global Compact, which lays out nine principals supporting a base of decency for multinational corporations. The global reporting initiative is to report on the indicators that they believe businesses should report against and the UN has sponsored that work. Now I can't pretend to accept the unions will be happy with the degree of toughness of those indicators, but at least the cultural shift is there.
If I just go back to the World Economic Forum in January, what was most interesting was if you like, the difference in approach from the investment community and from business. In business there's still a bit of gung-ho, "we're going to tell them we're terrific" attitude. The investment community on the other hand, are saying well, wait a minute, we need to make sure that we look after our shareholders, that investment is secure, that they're confident that their money's being used for socially responsible and secure financial investments.
How much responsibility do the union representatives on industry super funds have to play? They are part of the game that's demanded these double digits profits every year. Have they been pushing an unsustainable agenda as well?
The superannuation industry argues that if you take a long term view, the decline in the equities market for the last 12 months is not something that they're pleased about, but that it is in the context of profits being made over a decade. I think that they are very cautious about looking at the analysis to see how you secure investment returns. I don't doubt that anybody could confidently argue that they would be as expectant of those huge returns as we had been in the mid 90's to the late 90s. I think more people are going to be more cautious and be looking for sustainability, even if it's at a lower return.
Pension funds do though, don't they, have an incredible amount of power in the global economy. Is their discussion internationally amongst unions on what can be done to maybe take a bit more control back in the way the system works?
The ICFTU has a committee called the Worker's Capital Committee. It's particularly popular in North America where unions have been far more aggressive about using the power of pension funds and the union's stake in pension funds on behalf of their members, to bring about cultural shifts in the way the investment managers make decisions. For example AFL-CIO has a key vote survey, where if you get less than a certain rating about the way you vote, then you're not seen to be a good investment manager on behalf of working people. We've also seen a lot more stakeholder activitism, such as against Unical, which is the major energy company in Burma. This was based on the democracy struggle as the use of forced labour in breach of ILO standards. It was a deliberate strategy undertaken globally but managed by the US unions, and they got 35% of the vote. That's historic, that's what you call not yet a majority but a critical mass. And it is shocking for corporations, because they suddenly realise we're serious about this.
Now this stands to what John Howard has been saying recently, that basically as a bit of warning to Alan Fells, we shouldn't confuse robust business activity, I thinks the phrase he used, with crime and fraud. Now I don't know what the message is there, but it seems to me that it's almost a reindorsement of Tony Abbot's bad boss, bad father stuff. The attitude seems to be: look, a bit of this will go on, but business has got to be let loose, it is from their perspective, letting business, and particularly multinational corporations operate in an unfettered way.
Now nobody should be above the law, and that's our message as international unionists. There are laws around Trade Practices Act and corporations but there are also ethical standards which are becoming community law and people who invest and the stakeholders in partnership want to see companies act responsibly.
But that is a pervasive view isn't it? That we've got to turn a blind eye because it's better to have dodgy investments than no investments?
I don't think a civilised world can operate on that basis. If we were to say the law of the jungle rules, whether it's in your private life, in your community life, or indeed in the world of business, then we might as give up. That's why you have democracies underpinned by the rule of law. The ugly end of globalisation, which is unfettered multinational power, must be tempered by the demands of the people: ethical investment, social responsibility, sustainability, triple bottom line, whatever you call it, the push is on. At the end of the day, what they mean is that people want companies to act decently in regard to respecting human life, to ensure labour rights are adhered to and to protect our environment.
What about the issue of executive pay, is the big push into share options, actually something that's adding to the instability of the system?
No question, executive salaries are out of control, and I think you'll even find Australian CEOs are starting to hold that view themselves. But the trend toward share options or stock options as part of your salary package is a concern. If you just take the finance sector, every time you cut staff your the shares went up. Well that's got to be a conflict of interests, its got to add to instability, and at some point adding shareholder value is not sustainable at the kind of double digit figures that we were talking about previously. Of course, the equities market has shown that in the last 12 months, almost nobody has made a sustainable profit, certainly not a profit over above two or three per cent.
We're seeing domestically the Labor Party really have a struggle trying to work out what they stand for. Is that something that is consistent with the experience of other left leaning parties around the world?
You'd have to be concerned, you'd have to think social democracy is in need of resuscitation, if not in its very death throws? I know that sounds extreme, but something is going on where politicians and political parties are not able to communicate ideas on the subject of opening our borders, on the subject of the best part of internationalisation, on the subject of mobility of labour. You can't be totally critical of what some of those European democracies have tried to do, and yet people are buying the same messages here of fear and insecurity that John Howard's pedalling. So it's close your borders, retain your own currency because that somehow defines your identity. We've got to work out how you exist in a multi cultural world, where diversity is respected, but where people are able to live in harmony and coexist. Whether that's in the world of business, across borders or whether it's just in our communities.
So what is the response from a social democratic perspective?
Transparency. Because governments have increasingly failed to debate, almost are frightened to debate the issue with people, then they alienate themselves from people. We've not had a debate here based on any set of pros and cons about the broader refugee issue. We've not had a debate about what our government is negotiating in terms of free trade agreements with Singapore or Thailand or New Zealand. You'd have to ask why that is, and largely it's because governments are either becoming increasingly arrogant or they're frightened of debating those issues with people, because people will say no.
Well that's what a democracy is, I mean if people don't say no, then those of us who might agree or disagree have a right to express a view and through leadership you can change people's perceptions. Now, we need to do a lot of debating about free trade because nobody can shut they're borders to trade, just as in my view, we can't shut our borders to people. But we do have a right as a nation to protect public services, to make sure that there are level playing fields in regards to human rights and labour standards, and that our environments protected and those values should underpin whatever we decide the Australian people will tolerate in terms of open market.
The debate at the moment about the relationship between, about the ALP and how much influence unions have, have you had any feedback from union membership on their attitudes towards to union's link to the ALP?
I think you'd find a mixed debate about the ALP and the union relationship right across the country. But if you go back to the history of why the Labor Party was formed, unions formed the Labor Party because they recognised that the industrial advocacy that unions could implement wasn't enough; that you needed to marry that industrial representation and advocacy with public policy and legislation that can only be generated through government. The needs of working people would only be delivered by a government in tune with working people and that was through a Labor government. The conditions that existed to underscore that partnership haven't changed today. Many of the issues are the same: a decent living wage, reasonable hours of work, how to balance work and family, how to provide opportunity for your children and yourselves through public education, whether the public health guarantees them.
While some of the issues may have shifted, the demands are the same. We want a decent society, we've got to have people who understand the needs of working folk and you're not going to get that from Tony Abbot and John Howard. They've attacked everybody from single mums to people on disability pensions, unions are now fairly in their sights and they don't even believe that you should have a fair industrial relations context, where people are able to bargain together, to bargain collectively, for a fair share of the wealth that they helped to generate. So, is the argument the same? Not entirely. But is it still necessary to have party of Labor, a party that represents the needs of working people? In my view, absolutely. In the view of union leaders, absolutely. So if that means again we have to debate those issues with the membership, well then we should be doing that.
Finally, we've got one former ACTU president in the hot seat, weighing up all these issues at the moment, how would you be playing it if you were there?
Well, I don't think that's a reality. I'm not, and I don't expect to ever be. I think the one thing that's really good about having Simon Creen in that position, is he has been in this chair, he has had the responsibility for leading the union movement and he understands that in order to represent the needs of working people you have to sit down and work out what the priorities are, and how you best implement them. He's worked both in this position, with ex prime ministers and of course he's been part of the Labor team in Opposition. So in terms of experience, in terms of background, you'd have to say we expect that he will remember his roots, that he will continue to be proud of this relationship with the unions and continue to see it as the fundamental part of the Labor Party.
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