||Issue No. 151||06 September 2002|
Looking for the Light
Interview: Packing a Punch
Bad Boss: Basher Takes Back Passage
Unions: Five Star Shafting
Economics: TINA – Rest In Peace
International: Against Bush's "War on Terrorism"
Environment: Saving the World
History: A Radical Scribe
Poetry: With A Little Help From My Friend
Satire: Colonel Gaddafi Promotes Himself to General
Review: Workplace Dictatorship
The Locker Room
Week in Review
Charity Begins At Home
Packing a Punch
Interview with Peter Lewis
You're arguing that it's really the Labor Party interest to take a more active role in rebuilding the union movement, what do you mean by that?
To put it simply, when Frank Walker and Graham Richardson taught me how to count numbers in the Labor Party, it started with three columns; those for you, those agains, and those in the middle that you have to win. For generations the Labor Party has always had a sizeable column of people: 40 per cent of the electorate or more, who we could count on, even in our worst times. These people would generally, though not exclusively, be commonly characterised by union membership, or affiliation to other groups, community or interests groups that had some or common cause with the trade union movement.
It is my hypothesis that the continued weakening of the union movement in Australia has had a causal effect in the demolition of the base Labor vote. In other words, the decline in union coverage across the workforce has seen a lessening of the bonds that have traditionally tied employees across all industries politically to the Labor movement. They are no longer involve themselves with, associate with or identify with the union movement. Identification is probably the most important.
The other interesting trend is that our polling shows that fewer and fewer unionists are actually voting for Labor, so they're really losing both ends, aren't they?
I think that's a distinctly different issue. That is because the Labor Party has moved away from being most commonly and readily identifiable as the party of the employee. And I think its important that we use the term employee, rather than worker, because the middle class do not see themselves as workers. They see themselves as employees. When they are in a work relationship like a contractor, or a permanent part-timer, or even a casual employee, it's seem their identification with the union movement these days is that much the lesser.
The important point however, that is related to what I was saying in the Sydney Morning Herald, is that the Labor Party has become extraordinarily gun shy about defending the very cause of unionism. They have taken the axiomatic belief that sticking up for a mindless industrial campaign by one union or another is a sure vote loser, and extrapolated that out to believe that defending the notion of trade unionism per se is a vote loser.
The more that the Labor Party runs away from the issue the bigger the problem has become. In other words, like the right of the Liberal Party - who's dogmatic anti-union agenda is just so bold and breathtaking that it has managed to capture quite a deal of the middle ground - I believe that the Labor Party has to reverse this process. It has to advocate the cause of trade unionism not just through effective policy, but also in rebutting some of the charges from the right about trade unions. We have to rebuild the legitimacy of the whole concept of unionism.
What are some of the practical steps you'd like to see?
First of all, it's the notion of identification, I think identification is very important. I would like to see Labor leaders like Bob Carr, like Simon Crean, publicly going out of their way to defend the notion of trade unionism, when it is the subject of flagrant attacks, such as it is from time to time by Tony Abbot. The next step is further producing policies that are openly and transparently designed for the consumption of the electorates designed to build trade union membership. Now there are a number of things that can be done in that regard. First of all, the Anti-Discrimination Act in NSW probably needs an overhaul. But I think it would be quite a legitimate cause for amendment that the discrimination against a person because of their trade union membership or belief, is in itself an offence under that Act. In other words, that would go to supplement what anti-victimisation protections there are under state, federal industrial acts or instruments.
Secondly I believe that Labor really needs to have a good hard look at our obligations in respect of Freedom of Association to make sure that in the modern economy, there is in fact freedom for people to openly join a trade union and to advocate that others join a trade union. That's not to be disruptive in the workplace, merely to rebut what is common; many people are so frightened of their employer finding out they are a member of a trade union, that they hide the fact.
The third specific thing I'd like to see, is that there has to be an all of union - and this is where peak Councils need to be involved - assault on the new areas of the labour market. There needs to be a push into the technology sector and service sectors generally. Their needs to be a focus on contract workers and labour hire. But that needs an all of union approach, because half the time unions are competing against each other in those areas. I think there are some very positive models around amongst some white collar unions about how they go about doing their business, and getting members and keeping them.
On other side of the coin we've been witnessing quite a remarkable, public attack on the CFMEU through the Building Industry Royal Commission, and we haven't really heard a word from a single Labor politician in defence of the unions, or unionism in general. Do you think that would have occurred in the past?
No. And that's most notable. The Labor Party has to design for itself an approach whereby it can distinguish between any wrongdoing that may or may not be proven in the long term by individuals, or even by particular union executives and the notion and principles of the right to organise - and the ability of the union to organise in a particular industry. I think if the Labor Party had that sort of base credentials, re-established out there in the electorate, it would make it much easier, in a situation like the Cole Royal Commission for the Labor Party to pick and choose where it wants to defend a particular union, in a particular circumstance, without necessarily doing itself great electoral damage. There is of course, the important point that in the midst of the Royal Commission, its right that the Labor Party is a little reluctant to go in guns blazing. But unless we get to the stage where we've seasoned up the debate about the principles of unionism, we will never be in a position as a political party to support the industrial wing in legitimate circumstances .
Of course, we haven't seen the same caution from Tony Abbot. In fact we really see the activism coming from the conservative side of politics. What's happened to the ALP in the last decade, which has led to such ingrained caution in the way they play their politics?
I think there are many and varied reasons for that. One thing we have to accept is that we in the Keating government, who presided over the wholesale amalgamations of the unions, did not provide the union movement with the necessary mechanisms in that new framework, to make sure that they remained as relevant to the workforces as perhaps smaller unions once were. I know that some people think that that is simply a contemporaneous confluence of events, rather than a cause and effect. But I think we have to analyse what went wrong when we set about encouraging the wholesale amalgamation of the unions, together with the influence of the Accord.
Now did the Accord make unions to lose their organisational ability on the ground? We need to assess that, but we need to do that very quickly in the context of those new industries and new economies. I think when the Labor Party sees the union movement striving for greater relevance, in the new economy, the Labor Party will find in that enough excuse to stop its own mantra that unionism is dying - and that's a commonly held believe amongst a lot of Labor politicians, I've got to say. Many of them will reinvigorate their support for trade unionism, when they can see the unions doing something about it themselves.
We're about to go through the process on the national level, of the debate over the Hawke Rand Review. What would a Gary Punch review into the federal election losses come up with?
I think there are a lot of reasons why we lost the last election. It has to be said, there are too many candidates who are now look-alikes. There are too many people who do not have broader experience in the workforce, or who have been out there in locally elected office. They are machine people, of the Left or the Right, rather than community activists. We now seem to be in some quarters of the party advocating the opposite to that and finding community activists, who have absolutely no history or involvement in the Labor party. Going from one extreme to another when we really need to find people who have a rich tradition and involvement in the party and the union movement and in their community.
We don't seem to have that three-dimension mindset about the candidates we pick. I think overall the reason that we lost the last election, however, was that we tried very hard to make ourselves a small target for the Conservatives, by restricting the differences between us as an O0pposition and the Government. I think whilst Australians have turned hard right on matters of law and order and race, there is no doubt in my mind, that with a properly put together set of policies on the economic and industrial front, the ordinary Australian is looking for a marginal march backwards to what in old terms, we might have described as the Left. I think people want to be more assured about community and community values, I think they want to be more assured that in the age of ultra free enterprise, there is still going to be a safety net, and a community ethos through the taxation system.
Which almost brings us back to your initial thesis, which is that what the union movement stands for should really be popular in the electorate ...
But the unions have got to do a lot of that work for themselves . There is at broad in the union movement, what I regard as the fatal contagion of Peter Walshism. When Peter Walsh was looking to restructure the pension system, for instance, he had a very perverted view about who was wealthy, particularly in relation to the assets test. I mean we need to understand that people earning an income over $100,000 in Sydney, are not the rich, they are not necessarily rich in Sydney with the prices that ordinary families have to battle these days.
We should seize the notion of not disregarding people, merely because they are high-income earners. If they are employees, or if they are contractors, if they are engaged in labor hire from time to time, that all of those classes of people, should be people that the unions are targeting. I'd even go further to say that the franchisee class - that are in many senses indentured workers -should be targets for representation by unions at that end of the small business community. Because those people are in fact usually capital borrowers seeking to carve out a wage for themselves and family members. They often have more in common, in terms of, education, class and even ethnic background, with the ordinary trade unionist than what many in the Labor party and trade union leadership might have hitherto thought.
|Search All Issues | Latest Issue | Previous Issues | Print Latest Issue|
© 1999-2002 Workers Online