||Issue No. 186||11 July 2003|
Beyond the Possible
Interview: As They Say In The Bible ...
Industrial: Just Doing It
Unions: Breaking Into the Boys Club
Activists: Making the Hard Yards
Bad Boss: In the Pooh
Unions: National Focus
Economics: Pop Will Eat Itself
Technology: Dean for President
International: Rangoon Rumble
Education: Blackboard Jungle
Review: From Weakness to Strength
The Locker Room
Beyond the Possible
Australian unions are bruised and battle weary after spending the best part of a decade slugging it out in the face of a hostile federal government promoting a deregulated labour market where union-busting becomes sound business practice.
But if we reckon life is tough here, try organising in the Silicon Valley, the engine room of the information economy where gold rush capitalism has thrived with massive bounty for the winners and no protection for the rest.
At least it did until South Bay Labor Council president Amy Dean, along with a group of other labor council leaders, embarked on a program to rejuvenate the role of peak union bodies in their communities. They called it Union Cities.
The Union Cities agenda is based on a simple home truth: it is no longer enough to operate industrially. If you organise a workplace, an employer can simply contract out the jobs; if you win a pay rise they'll close the factory; and even you do, what can you offer apart from a meagre leg-up in the constant grind that is modern working life.
Yes, you can organise a single workplace, but until you change the broader context of work in a community you are never really going to improve your members' lives.
So Union Cities began with the simple idea of casting their minds forward a decade and imagining the sort of world they wanted for their members. Having imagined this they then went about mobilising their base to realise their vision.
Unionised workers take action against anti-union employers, recognising they are the greatest threat to their own jobs. They enter the broader political debate, forming alliances with community groups over issues such as transport, housing and planning.
And they hold individual politicians accountable for their decisions, placing real benchmarks on the candidates they support that go beyond the traditional industrial agenda.
Pulling all these threads together, unions create a momentum that transcends any individual workplace.
And the results? In Silicon Valley it's still no workers' utopia, but you have a local council, responsible for most of the service delivery that state governments control here, run by union-endorsed candidates.
Some of the policies they have delivered include: laws that demand the provision of union jobs on council-funded projects; transport policies that focus around the needs of workers; and the highest minimum wage laws in the country.
But they've gone further; because they have a broader social agenda, they have been able to argue for public space and childcare centres to be requirements of all new projects in the Bay area.
And it doesn't stop with government. Building workers are now refusing to work on projects where the development has not guaranteed that service workers on the completed project will have the right to organise. That's solidarity at its most constructive.
As Dean says, these are still the first steps. But if the workers of Silicon Valley can make a biased legal system, disinterested political establishment and hostile employers work for them, there has to be hope for workers in Australian that we too can develop a broader agenda.
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