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  Issue No 2 Official Organ of LaborNet 26 February 1999  

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Unions

Working It Out

By Michael Crosby - Trade Union Training Authority

NSW trade unions have embraced a movement-wide campaign to deal with the vexed issue of ensuring workers have a life.

 
 

Michael Crosby Adressing the Work, Time, Life Conference in Sydney

The NSW Labor Council last week held a Work/Time/Life conference to develop strategies for reconciling the increasing disparities between the work-rich and the work-poor and the problems each group face.

These are well-documented. Those who have work are being forced to put in increasingly long hours, often with large amounts of unpaid overtime. In the finance sector, for instance, an estimated one million hours of overtime are being worked every week.

At the same time, the number of people seeking longer hours, whether part-time, casuals or the unemployed, is growing. The official unemployment statistics hide the fact that many people officially in work want more of it.

The Conference was addressed by John Buchanan, deputy director of the Australian Centre for Industrial relations Research and Training and ACTU assistant secretary Greg Combet.

They outlined the breadth of the issue, sending the message that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

For example, Buchanan presented statistics showing that only one third of the workforce works the traditional working week, therefore there is no point in coming up with the old Monday to Friday notion of work

Instead individual unions need to find out what workers in their sector needs -- it could be permanency, it could be portability of entitlements or it could be higher base rates of pay so that they are not forced to work excessive overtime.

The plan is to develop a universal campaign over the next 12 months which has a range of different local solutions. This campaign would be fought on three fronts:

- Political - lobbying government to legislate on issues like portable entitlements for casual workers.

- Industrial - running test cases on job security. The NSW Labor Council has proposed such a case to redefine the notion of casual work to ensure that casual employment is not abused at the expense of permanent jobs; ensure a proper balance between full-time and part-time/casual workers; control the explosion of unpaid overtime and regulate labour hire firms

- Community - building broader alliances with community and religious groups to highlight the social impact of working hours.

As Michael Costa said on the day: test cases will have no impact unless we campaign around the issues.

The conference then broke into smaller groups to discuss what is going on at the shop floor in a bid to develop these specific campaigns.

In group after group, workers and officials described human beings caught in a situation of constant pressure, insufficient resources, fear of losing employment and an overwhelming sense of loss of control over working life.

The public sector group described just what it meant for workers and the community when the resources no longer exist to provide a good public service. In child protection services, when the phone rings and every officer is already too busy to answer it immediately, the potential exists that a child will suffer the consequences. In schools, overworked teachers watch as students requiring additional help fall through the cracks. In health, nurses take unpaid overtime and understaffing as an inevitable given.

Blue collar workers and officials had a similar story. In workplace after workplace, casual employment and the inevitable precariousness of employment that went with it was used as a means of subduing the workforce. Time and again, the meeting was told of cuts and more cuts to the number of workers employed without any let up in the output requested. Agency workers are used as a ready made and compliant workforce. The result is that antagonism builds up between workers rather than sheeting home the blame where it truly belongs.

It is a similar story in the services and white collar sectors. In large hotels, cleaning staff have their numbers cut and the number of rooms to be cleaned per person rises from, say, 13 to 15. No additional paid time is provided - the cleaner just has to stay until her quota is complete. Complain and she is given a warning of dismissal.

The next stage of the campaign is to deepen our understanding as a Movement of these problems. Workers need to share their experience of the pressures being placed on them They are entitled to be angry about the way that, once again, in exactly the same way as happened in the 19th Century, they are becoming cogs in an impersonal market driven machine.

Union organisers will be taking a survey to workplaces around the country in an effort to measure the level of concern amongst members and potential members. Our aim is to get a significant section of the workforce involved in mapping what is happening to them.

Once we have done that, the aim will be to work out what action can be taken by workers to protect themselves from the uninhibited pressure of an increasingly unregulated market.

The delegates made it clear that there was little possibility of coming up with one solution to what is in fact a set of different but related problems.

What we should be able to do is to get workers active in their own defence taking different kinds of action under the overall umbrella of a campaign around the theme of better standards for workers.


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*   Issue 2 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: Checking the Spellar
We talk to a former union official who is now a minister in the Blair Government about the difficult relationship between New Labour and the labour movement.
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*  Unions: Working It Out
NSW trade unions have embraced a movement-wide campaign to deal with the vexed issue of ensuring workers have a life.
*
*  History: Remembering The Eveleigh Railway Workshops
The Eveleigh railway yards have a rich history which your average commuter would never imagine.
*
*  Review: Opening Tanner's Australia
Lindsay Tanner's new book offers a frank and forthright view of the future for Australia.
*
*  Campaign Diary: Carr And The Unions
No-one would accuse the Premier and the labour movement of being bossum buddies, but their fortunes are inextricably linked.
*

News
»  Revealed: Reith Defies Own Pollster To Bash Unions
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»  What's Going Down at Gordonstone?
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»  VSU To Stop The Music
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»  Employment Advocate Dines Out, But Not A Sausage For Workers
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»  Union Interpreter Translates The Word “Exploit”
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»  How Much Can A Koala Bear?
*
»  Botsman Shifts North To Tame The Rednecks
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Columns
»  Guest Report
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»  Sport
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»  Trades Hall
*
»  Piers Watch
*

Letters to the editor
»  No Fan of Piers
*
»  Don't Be Glib
*
»  EMILY's List International Women's Day bash
*

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