|Issue No 27||20 August 1999|
Stepping Up To The Plate
Interview with Peter Lewis
ACTU secretary-in-waiting Greg Combet talks about his report on international trade union trends and the need to adapt for the future.
When you left on this overseas trip, one of the things you said to me was that you didn't want this to be another Australia Reconstructed. If it's not, what is it?
It's a practical report that focuses on what unions need to do to modernise, what they need to do to grow, and what they need to do to be stronger and more effective in the workplace. So it's not looking at a grand, macro position in the way that Australia Reconstructed did - about institutional components of the Australian economy and body politic and unions and employer relationships. This is really about what unions need to do in the current environment and to make sure that we can turn around the decline in membership and can start to grow again.
In a simple tag line, what are you advocating?
Emphasis on the workplace, activity in the workplace and organising for growth: I suppose would be the simple way to do it. Attached to that, making sure that we adapt information technology, so that we do provide professional services, and that we use it in a way that supports a growth strategy and a stronger organisational position in the workplace.
The big question is how?
All unions are quite different as you know, but we think that there are lessons in some key areas. One is to put a greater emphasis on organisational strengths in the workplace. Essentially, when you have a decentralised bargaining system we have to encourage delegates and activists in the workplace to play a greater role in the collective bargaining arrangements at the workplace level. A greater role than they have currently, still with the involvement of full time officials, but we need delegates to play a bigger role. We also need them to be more active over recruitment issues in unionised workplaces. And we need delegates in all union workplaces - and activists.
I mean the official statistics and surveys show us that we just are not adequately represented by activists in all workplaces. We don't have delegate structures in all workplaces, there is not a bargaining process going on in all workplaces where unions are. There's not even union meetings taking place or information getting out there and we've got to focus on that very fundamental element of union organisation as one of the key arguments.
It's not an easy fix is it? Basically you've had a fragmenting of the workplace and an insecurity of labour, so (a) they're smaller workplaces, but also (b) people don't feel like they've got those support networks. I see in your report you are talking about a code of delegates' rights but is that all there is to it?
Oh no, no, no, it needs a strong organisational emphasis from unions, to look at their industries and the workplaces that they deal with. I mean, there is still a lot of workplaces out there, even though they are smaller in many instances, there's a lot of workplaces out there, and unions need to be in them. And so, to encourage people to be involved we have to accept that they have a greater role; encourage them to play a greater role.
One of the strong emphases in this part of the report is on union education, that is equipping people in the most flexible ways of delivering union education to our members - giving them skills to bargain, educating them in organising strategies and recruitment methods in the workplace, educating them about union services, so that they can field a lot more of the enquires on the job. We must try to resolve issues on the job collectively, rather than the union being seen as a third-party fixer - as they primarily are at the moment.
But it's not only the educational aspects, there's also an issue about the rights that people need - the security that they need to have to play that role as workplace activist. I think that there's got to be a stronger industrial emphasis on making sure that we've got the industrial rights that activists, members and delegates need in the certified agreements that we are negotiating to protect them.
How geared are the unions as amalgamated structures to actually deal with the challenges of effectively going from Superman down to somebody who's nurturing people on the shop floor?
There's no doubt, as Bill Kelty has conceded in recent times, that some of the amalgamations probably didn't work as well as he might have hoped, and they haven't yielded the efficiencies and resources and economies of scale as a result. But we have to continue to push that process through. The key thing now within the union structure, if you like, is that they accommodate the focus on the workplace.
The report is not advocating some great structural change in unions, more a cultural change, to make sure that we do focus at the workplace level, and that we link delegates up. For example, there is a fair degree of emphasis on the importance of enabling people to be involved actively in the unions and workplace committees and using information technology to make sure that people can communicate about their industrial issues - and as you know, that's going on in bits and pieces here and there, and it's going on internationally in bits and pieces.
Some of our activists here are in touch with people overseas who are employed by the same company, but we've got to strengthen that process. That means recognising that people have a greater role in the union.
Within the unions, if you take the view that at best you will have a slowly increasing pie of money, to refocus resources into organising you are going to take resources go from somewhere else. So where does the money come from?
Well, one of the central themes of the report is that we do need to shift the resources. Because if we can encourage people at the workplace level to play a greater role in recruiting in their workplace, doing collective bargaining to the extent that it's possible, and taking some of the servicing requirements at the workplace level, it will help free up organisers' time and officials' time for focussing on a growth strategy.
We are also arguing, though, that in the delivery of union services, we not only need to be modern and professional but we need to look at it from a cost effective point of view too. One of the things that we noted when we were overseas was that, for large membership service organisations, we don't really utilise technology in the form of call centres. Yet you've got unions in the United Kingdom, like the Unison and the Public Sector Union and the Transport & General Workers Union, starting to develop a very large call centre operation in order to handle individual member issues, membership enquires from non-members, in order to be able to reach into workplaces where they don't have a delegate structure yet. They can promote the phone number, and it's helping the union reach out to new people. They can then identify activists to build up a complementary strategy, but they are very hard headed about why they are doing it, and they are doing it in order to yield some efficiency in their resource allocation as a union and to free up staff to go off on a growth strategy and organise on the ground and Unison were saying to us - "Look, although it is still early and it's teething problems and we are building it up slowly, it's taking a load off the organisers - you know, the traditional organiser. And it will take some time, but they expect it to yield some results." Well, we've got to assess what options and what opportunities that offers for us - and that's another one of our recommendations.
What about the huge amounts of money spent in the courts and commissions paying lawyers? Is that an area that unions need to look at?
Well, the report traverses a few areas, but one of the things it does say is that we've got to use modern management techniques and we have to make sure that we are expending our funds to meet our key objectives, and there is a suggestion about how organisations like the ACTU can help facilitate unions applying those types of methods to their operations.
To answer your question more specifically, you have to look how we are spending money in the courts. If it is over a demarcation dispute then you would really have to question the utility of it. We have to get away focussing on inter-union squabbles over existing organised workplaces and think about the 72% of employees out there who don't have union membership, lack the benefit of union organisation, and that we aspire to represent. That's where we have got to spend our money.
Taking that a step further - the more fundamental question is: if we do redirect these services down to the workplace, what is the message? What are we actually marketing? And in an era where the traditional notions of class may have collapsed to an extent, how do you see the unions pitching themselves at average middle-income earners?
I don't think that's all that difficult actually, and nor does it necessarily need to be too scientific. What we have always organised around is the issues that are of concern to employees in the workplace. And it might be wages, it might not be. It might be their employment security. It might be the fact that as casuals they are exploited and they have been working there for 20 years and have never had annual leave entitlements.
It might be in the IT industry. As you know, the ASU organised the workplace with Toshiba. Software engineers are not typically the people that you would expect unions would be organising, and yet it is possible because they had been exploited around their working hours, or there are other aspects of the production process that are of concern to them. And the key thing, I guess, is that we have to re-assert that it is the collective action in the workplace that can make real changes around the issues of concern to employees.
That's the opportunity for us, and I see it as an optimistic future, because those issues are everywhere. These are very tough times in the workplace and unions demonstrably deliver benefits to people. They deliver more secure jobs, they deliver better wage outcomes. They deliver wage increases more often. And they deliver safer workplaces and the issues are there in the workplace.
What we are arguing in the report is that it is very important in this environment for unions not to have a pre-conceived view necessarily, but to do some basic things, that perhaps unions haven't done so much in the past. Such as finding contacts in a non-union workplace and doing a survey of what the employee concerns are. Using that as the organisational opportunity in the workplace.
Someone remarked to me the other day that we have gone in with a National Council resolution about what the bargaining claims are this year, but it hasn't been tested anywhere and of course, when they have gone down to the workplace level, there has been very little relationship to what the national officials might have thought. That means we have got to change from that top down approach to a bottom up one.
The resolutions aren't what's going to drive policies?
No, obviously as unions, collectively and individually we are going to have views about important issues and what are the key workplace issues. But we have to make sure they are informed by input from people on the job as well.
On technology, I want to ask you about the Vizard proposal. How does that fit in with the notion of using IT as an organising tool for unions?
I think any proposal that involves getting hardware with appropriate software and internet access out to workers and to activists and delegates in particular, has got a lot of merit. I understand that there are plenty of other issues attached to any propositions that are put together, but the simple fact of making sure that we have the technology is an extremely important thing for us. I think unions collectively admit that the rapidity or the speed of communications that it makes available, the increased campaign effectiveness; the capacity to do online surveys; the capacity to do online education; the capacity for delegates to use it to get access to a data base of information about their collective bargaining negotiations; the capacity for an organiser to provide that info through the internet rather than driving out in the car to a workplace - they offer wonderful efficiencies for unions if they can use it skilfully.
Do you think those aspects should be rolled into any proposal that the unions and the ACTU adopt?.
I think our capacity to adapt to technology in that way is essential in any proposal that we've got - there's no doubt about that.
Finally, you are moving into a position that a lot of people think won't be around much longer. A union position. Are you optimistic about the future?
You mean, unions won't be around much longer? Or the ACTU, or the ACTU secretary?
All of the above...
I am optimistic, because I think that unions have a great record of achievement for working people. There's been difficult times. The economic change and the change in the industrial and legislative environment have been very difficult for unions to adapt to, but I think demonstrably we are starting to change.
Many unions, under the pressures that their membership are feeling in the workplace, recognise the importance of doing it. I think as a first step for the future, once we've launched this report we have to have a good, healthy debate. I intend going around each of the States, and I will go to some of the regional areas to present the issues in the report, but we are not putting it up as a document that "this is the master plan", we are inviting people to have input about the issues and discuss them on the job. Get the delegates involved. You can't make these changes unless the organisers and delegates and the members understand the issues and are prepared to make a contribution. They will identify for us, as officials, where some of the shortcomings are and where we need to place additional emphasis. And we have to have that input.
I think if we can do that and we engender some enthusiasm about the change that we need to make, and we activate people, we've got a really bright future because unions deliver outcomes for people. Collective organisation will work for people. Individual bargaining on the job - I don't believe it is the future. For a small proportion of the workforce that have got the bargaining capacity and the skills and the education to negotiate with their employer, then that's fine, but for the majority of the workforce, they don't individually have that sort of bargaining power, and a collective organisation has always been the way that they have been able to achieve improvements in living standards and safety in the workplace and the like.
That's what unions do and we've got to focus on those fundamentals I think. And with that view of the future and understanding the changes that have taken place in the workplace and the economy and the change in technology, if we are modern and efficient about how we go about it, I think we've got a good future. I think that we will be able to turn it around.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005