||Issue No. 150||30 August 2002|
Shut It Down!
Interview: Australian Worker
Unions: Morning Ambush
Cole-Watch: Grumpy Old Men
International: Arrested (Sustainable) Development
History: Illegal Alien
Economics: The Trouble With PPPs
Poetry: Is This 'My Country'?
Review: Garage Days
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Interview with Peter Lewis
It's often been said that union and Labor politics really converge at the AWU, what's the difference between the two breeds of politics?
The Australian Workers Union represents its members industrially. One of the ways it can represent its members is through influencing policy in the Labor Party. But the AWU is not just confined to parliamentary politics. What the AWU is best at is getting out on the job, negotiating fairly, better wages and conditions for members, making sure that their workplaces are safe and protecting their job security. The face of AWU isn't politics; the face of the AWU is representing 140,000 members in every part of Australia and just about every industry in Australia.
By the same token, the AWU was one of the forces in establishing the Labor party, 100 years on. Is that still as important an avenue as it was?
The AWU helped found the Labor party through its struggles on behalf of miners in Victoria and NSW, and of course the very famous pastoral disputes between 1891 and 1894. The landowners of the day tried to actually force a wage cut upon the shearers of the day and in many ways dragged back old world standards into what up to that stage, promised to be a new world of a better deal for workers. The AWU as an outcome of that strike, saw some of its leaders jailed and saw a lot of its capacity to bargain taken away. So it, along with other progressive forces in the colonies, aimed to set up a political party. This new party, the Labor Party, would be a party of labour, to stand up for the issues of trade unions in politics.
I don't think the need for a political wing to stand for workers has diminished over time, there's new challenges, the loss of workers entitlements, corporate scandals, such as Enron, where hundreds of millions of dollars of workers' money was burned. I think there's still plenty of issues in workplace safety, and of course the job of bargaining goes on, and being able to collectively bargain and organise in the face of Conservative government attacks is harder than it's been in a very long time. So I think there's plenty of problems to solve, and if the job of the AWU is helping to keep the Labor Party focused on workers, well that job remains the same as it did 110 years ago.
By the same token, you have been one of those supporting a reduction in formal union influence within the party. Is that because you see less of a focus in political activity?
Whether or not the Labor party has 60/40 or 50/50 in terms of the size of union delegation for the ALP policy conferences, I don't think is the key issue. I think what's important is getting Simon Crean elected as the next Labor prime minister of Australia and getting rid of Howard. Crean has put out, very strongly that he believes that the party needs to reform. At the end of the day, I think we need to get behind the leader on these matters. I think that unions have been made to unfairly wear the blame for the loss of the last federal election, that was squarely the events around the Tampa. (and Howard pushed towards their failure) consider taking this out for readability Insecurity was what won the last election, not trade unions being a bogeyman for Labor.
I'm a bit frustrated about the ongoing debate about the relationship between unions and Labor; the Labor Party is very fortunate to have its trade union base. Trade unions are the largest community organisation in Australia, we have two million members plus their families. No other community organisation has anywhere near that power. We're the only organisation to actually take on corporations.
There's a line of debate that if you touch less than 60 per cent people say that's the end of trade union civilisation, as we know it. I don't believe that. I don't think it should decline below 50 per cent, but I think that sends a message about partnership, 50/50. People may not realise that up until 1971 trade unions in NSW and Victoria had 85 per cent of the conference delegation, there was only 15% from ALP branches. After there was federal intervention by Whitlam, the conferences became 60 per cent union and 40 per cent branches. The world didn't fall in on the Labor Party in 1971 and I don't think the world will fall in upon the union movement today, if it goes to 50/50. It's already 50/50 in South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia. The effectiveness of trade unions depends on not being captured by factional machinations including the ALP, and ensuring that the trade union delegations speak up on trade union issues at the ALP. That's what our members expect to arise as a result of affiliation.
By the same token, Bill, you've been seen as one of those who likes to play factional politics. How does that sit with your responsibilities as a union leader?
I don't accept the assumption of that question; the responsibilities of being union leader come first and foremost on every occasion.
What do you see as the future of the factions in a post Cold War environment , do you see the emergence of a more industrial block within the party?
I think its premature to say there will be an emergence of an industrial wing. Certainly in the experience of the AWU and other active unions, quite often we end up fighting the same issues alongside unions, which when we go on the weekend to the ALP conference, vote differently, because of factional alignments. I think probably what is necessary is that trade unions promote trade union issues at the party conference rather than letting the agenda be set by certain people in the parliamentary wing. I just think, that's our big challenge to identify how we gain the most value out of our affiliation to the Labor part.
Traditionally party conferences are quite reactive meeting, where its more about the leadership asking the rank and file to agree to a change in policy. Do you see more scope for unions to cease the process?
Well, I think that what's important is that we have Labor governments elected, and that the Labor governments that get elected then deliver for working people and their families, the constituents that the trade unions represent. That's what is most important. The party conference and increasingly its resolutions seem to get ignored by different parts of the Labor Party. I think the unions' challenge to ensure we've got relevant ideas and then make sure that Labor governments, state and federal, implement the relevant ideas.
What are some of those ideas that you'd like to see more attention given to from politicians of all political persuasions?
I think certainly, tougher health and safety laws, the pendulum about deregulation of health and safety has swung too far. Certainly fair workers' compensation laws are very important. I also think that federally, there should be greater emphasis on the powers of the commission to arbitrate disputes, rather than forcibly tying the independent umpire's hands and not allowing them to get involved in disputes. I also think that things such as bargaining fees and the right of the primacy of collective agreements needs to be encouraged, in other words, tools and instruments which allow unions to go out and represent their workers fairly and bargain fairly for them. I think that the downgrading of the federal award system has been retrograde, what it's done is it's led to a race to the bottom and companies, who aren't covered by federal awards, are getting an unfair advantage. Also companies who won't bargain, we deal with a lot of workers in the rural and agricultural sectors, where enterprise bargaining hasn't penetrated. The federal government needs to plant mechanisms around a stronger award system with more than just minimum wage adjustments to be introduced.
Even their best friends would concede the AWU has had an image problem in the past, how have you been working to turn that around?
I think that the AWU image issue is more of a perception problem than a reality problem in many parts of Australia. We've got strong and active branches in many parts of Australia and it seems to me that when you look, total up the size of the AWU, its involvement in so many different parts of the economy and its achievements for its members are significant. All I've tried to do as national secretary is to provide a focus in terms of articulating that the AWU is a very good strong union which will go hard for its member. In addition, we've been involved in a number of national agreements, where the AWU has taken, what people would say, would be a very strong stand. Against Qantas, we took industrial action quite a while after other unions had reached agreements. I'm also interested in seeing that the AWU uses its formidable strength across the country, to create an industrial outcome which is better than what we could do as an individual branches. We're involved in promoting the use of Australian shipping on Australian coastlines, when they carry Australian cargos, and the AWU, because it works in so many sectors of the economy which involves bulk cargo, commodity cargo, has the capacity to sit down and talk to employers in those industries and help explain to them the benefits of using Australian flowing vessels.
Lets take an example where you went out on a limb for the MUA, what was the thinking behind that?
Sometimes it's important not to mark issues as being a particular union's issues. Where does one draw the line? If we're allowing guest workers to work on ships in Australian coastal workers, being governed by terms and conditions of the Ukraine or the Bahamas, as opposed to the terms and conditions of Australia, where do you stop? Why not allow, Corrigan, or Virgin Airlines, or Richard Branson, to use aircrews flying over Australia being paid under Bahaman or Ukrainian conditions? If we allow Australian coastal shipping to disappear, that's a problem for our economic independence and also our national security, so that's an issue, which no Australian can afford, not stand up on.
Back to the AWU history. There is a perception within the movement that there has been a tendency to yellow unionism, cutting the soft deal with the boss to keep the other unions out, is that something you reject?
The AWU, because of its size and its history and its industrial significance in many parts of the economy will always attract jealousy. We reject assumptions of yellow unionism. Traditionally the AWU was the only union who'd organise at the end of the tram tracks. We'd organise and protect workers who no one else could organise in the rural industries. In many of our heavy industries, such as oil, civil construction, or steel, or aluminium, we've led the way with the development of pace setting conditions, such as the introduction of superannuation. Many of our members have wages, which would be the envy of many other members of any other unions. Fundamentally the problem in the union movement is that we see some unions saying they are more correct, more politically pure, more ideologically superior. I think that's not trade unionism, that's some sort of cannibalism and I think one thing the AWU has always done, is its always stood for listening to its members, rather than telling its members what's written in a little red book, printed somewhere overseas.
You are the principal rural union, how much potential is there out in the regions where the union movement is working to rebuild?
Well, there's a lot of potential in the regions, and a couple of branches are staring to make inroads, such as the NSW branch, led by Russ Collison and the Queensland branch, led by Bill Ludwig. In NSW, we have more organisers operating outside the city than any other blue collar private section union. One of the difficulties is of course, many laws have been effectively deregulated, and there's a lot of exploitation. There's no good reason why workers in the bush should have a much greater significant wage differential lower than their city counterparts. I think that one of the disappointments of Pauline Hanson on one hand and the National Party on the other is they have tried to identify themselves with the battlers in the bush. But the only people who can really seek to improve the economic conditions of a lot of people in the country is the AWU, and what we've got to do is spread that message.
Finally, the trend lines have been down over the last decade, for union numbers, although its starting to sort of bottom out at least. Are you optimistic for the future, and what is the one step the union movement needs to take to have a better future?
I am optimistic about the future. In our Victorian branch we've grown from 16,000 to about 21,000 in the last 4 years. Growth is possible in unions. I'm very positive about the AWU, it's taken us some years to bed down amalgamation between the AWU and the Ironworkers, but that's now been accomplished, and I think we're certainly fairly high up the league table, in terms of being a unified organisation internally. In terms of the future, the best thing that we can do is empower and involve our delegates, give them the skills, give them the resources, give them the confidence to feel that the union that they belong to is a union which will go one day longer for them, but also one which they are very involved in.
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