|Issue No 4||12 March 1999|
Jennie George - Eyeing 2000
Interview with Peter Lewis
The ACTU President looks to the future and erects a few new signposts for her last 12 months in office and beyond.
When you became ACTU President you made recruitment your key priority and set a target of 200,000 new members. What happened?
It was not a personal target, it was set by a decision of the ACTU Executive. It was set at a time before the impact of the IR policies of the Federal Government and at a State level were properly appreciated. Those policies were set against a climate of continued decline which has been facilitated by the huge cuts in public sector employment, both State and Federal, by a continuing restructuring in economic sectors that have been traditionally the stronghold of unionism and by changes which have seen a huge proliferation in casual and contract work and outsourcing. The latter are areas where historically we haven't done as well as a union movement.
So, in hindsight I accept that setting a target was probably not the wisest thing to do. But it was an indication of the union movement's appreciation that we had to recruit that many new members to try and arrest the decline that had been prevalent a couple of decades prior to that.
Around that time there was also a range of recruitment policies that were raised, predominantly around a service model. I remember things like shop-front unionism and ACTU Air and things like that. Has the ACTU come to a view that maybe that's not the best way of bringing people into the movement?
I think to be fair, our recruitment strategy has a number of aspects to it. For example, regional recruitment. I've been on half a dozen regional recruitment weeks that have been organised by the Labor Councils in the States of Victoria and Queensland. We've gone out as a movement and hit a regional town or centre and actually had quite good results. Organising Works is another manifestation of the priority that the ACTU has put on recruitment.The young graduates are central in meeting the challenges ahead.
We are still looking at opening up shopfront centres. There was some talk at one stage of doing that in the Blue Mountains and in regional Victoria, and more recently, even here in the city. So I think all those aspects of recruitment strategy have been part of an overall desire by the ACTU to shock the union movement into understanding that just continuing to do things the way they were always done was not going to stop the decline that we were seeing at the time.
As far as services are concerned, I think the ACTU takes the view that people don't join for the services that are provided, but the services can be an important add-on benefit, particularly in retaining union members. Too much time and energy was being spent by individual unions duplicating one another's efforts and it still continues to be our view that professionally and centrally handled, the provision of services, like discounts to the movies, insurance discounts, housing loans and the like are important elements that can make the task of retention somewhat easier than it is today.
The emerging issue around which the ACTU is planning to campaign is Work/Time/Life . I guess on one level you can see it as the result of the aggressive anti-union policies that have been pursued by various employers and the Federal government. How are you planning to get this discontent about working life and turn that into recruitment?
I think the issue of work intensification, longer hours, the disruption to work and family life, are issues that really do capture the imagination of people out there in the community who may or may not be union members. I think that it is important that the unions incorporate those issues into their bargaining claims. Currently in the finance sector, they have identified huge numbers of overtime hours that have been worked on an unpaid basis. In another sector, tertiary education, for example, the issue is huge numbers of people on contract employment they are trying to roll over into more secure forms of employment.
So I don't think it's up to the ACTU to impose one kind of view about the right way forward, but what the ACTU can do is to coordinate the individual elements that unions pursue into a broader community and union campaign that focuses on issues that are now becoming more important than even the issue of wage increases
I think that the risk will be to continue to talk in generalities and what we need now is to focus on how you translate those issues identified by the rank and file into concrete industrial demands. Now, some of those might be achieved through the bargaining process, some through the arbitral process, and some through broader community support. But the campaign has the potential to broaden the union movement's agenda into an issue that taps into concerns that are fairly widespread.
There is a view that this sort of campaign must be run at very much a workplace specific level. Do you think that the superunion and industry based structures of unions following the amalgamation process is a help or a hindrance in terms of implementing that sort of campaign?
I think the outcomes of amalgamation have not been even. The Finance Sector Union is a classic case of an amalgamation that's worked well. Some amalgamations regrettably were amalgamations based on political interests rather than industrial affinity, and in some cases amalgamations have done little more than to bring together often disparate cultures under the one union, and a lot of time and energy has been spent in trying to accommodate those different cultures into a union that's more effective and better positioned.
I think the theory behind amalgamation, that economies of scale would free up resources so that you could better target the workplace was sound. The theory was right, it's worked well in some sectors, not well in others. But I've never been one to think that bigger was necessarily better. I mean you can be bigger, and just as removed and bureaucratic and divorced from the rank and file as a small union that might have been close to its rank and file but wouldn't have had the resources to survive effectively into the next millennium.
So I think the outcomes have been different in different sectors and where they have worked well it has freed up the resources to do more creative things. But I don't think it's amalgamation so much, I think it's the culture that hasn't changed fast enough.
People got very used to a particular modus operandi during the Accord years and even now I look at some unions where organisers today are doing much as they did five years ago in a totally different political environment.
We have to move beyond giving lip service to the issue of recruitment. I think in many unions the average organiser would still spend most of their time servicing existing members and I know from experiences of the young graduates from Organising Works, their frustration that recruitment was often left to them alone. Onviously, where we've got union members, they need to be looked after well, we've got to skill up our delegates to be able to take the burden of dealing with existing members' grievances and really throw a lot more at recruitment. I mean, retention is important, but there's another three-quarters of the cake out there to be eaten.
Amongst young workers unions have an image of being a bit old fashioned and daggy. How do we go about changing that image and becoming a more attractive package?
We need to recognise that people join unions now for very functional reasons. They don't join out of some kind of ideological commitment to the working class, and I think that's probably much more typified as a generality amongst young people. The "Me Too" generation, Generation X: I'm not going to be seen as a victim, I'm capable of looking after my own interest. There is this much more individual ethos and it's not just an Australian phenomenon, it's universal.
But what do you do about that? Well, you don't appeal to those people in the language and the culture of 50 years ago and you don't necessarily appeal to them by having people who don't think like them, trying to recruit them.We need to value the collectivist ethose, whi;le embracing the new culture which comes with the Information Society. We've got to move beyond but still value the collectivist ethos while embracing the new culture that comes with the information society, where these so-called "gold collar" people work. That's the challenge that only the young people that come through Organising Works programs can really understand and identify with. It's the same kind of dilemma that faced the union movement 20 years ago, where it could no longer be men in grey cardigans going out and encouraging young women to join unions. It was a dysfunctional model.
In this context, does this make something like the MUA dispute a Pyrrhic victory, in that while it was fantastic in the blue collar model of industrial disputes, it did reinforce a lot of stereotypes about who the union movement is there for?
I know what you are getting at, but I don't agree. The union movement is such a diverse movement and the challenge has been to try and publicly represent a movement that has industries that are totally male dominated as well as industries that are characterised by young, female and part-timers. Our traditions can't be ignored but all institutions have to move with the times. I think the maritime dispute showed the best of our culture and history. It sent a signal that the movement is still alive and well. It still has economic and industrial leverage.
I don't want to draw too many generalisations out of the dispute. What it did was show that, despite the obvious collusion of the government with the employer, the Maritime Union survived and is still representing maritime workers. Even those who were on contracts in the non-union workforce, ended up ruing the fact they weren't in a union. So for the broader community the message, subliminally, was that if you band together, you can win despite the odds. That message has relevance whether you're a woman in a call centre or a teacher or a worker in the hospitality sector. I think it will go down in history as one of the most significant industrial battles of this century, but the world of work is a different one to the world of the docks and that new world of work is where our greatest challenges lie and where we are still not making a sufficient inroads.
On a more personal level, having been the first female President of the ACTU, you've stuck yourself out there as a woman in the public eye. How have you found that experience?
I wouldn't still be in the job if I didn't enjoy doing what I do; you have your down days and your up days but I think its been valuable. What's been quite surprising is the degree to which you don't even recognise that you have an impact on the lives of young women in particular. I'm constantly surprised at the number of young people who want to stop and have a chat and talk to me about what I do. Symbolically, we were talking about the culture of the movement earlier, I think having a woman as the president at that period of transition of incorporating the new cultural dimensions of society, was probably an important statement. Certainly, during the maritime dispute I think my participation as a woman with a high public profile throughout the dispute, helped offset the kind of male blue-collar stereotypes that you referred to.
Joan Kirner once said that in the media you oscillate from being Madonna and the whore. Have you found that very black and white existence; you're either being attacked or placed on a pedestal?
I haven't been put on the pedestal - I've come in at the time of hard challenges for the union movement, my tenure has coincided with a very hostile federal government. You do get stereotyped. I'm portrayed as the angry woman who is always having a go such as the public only sees one side of the total person.
You've mentioned that at some point in the future you'll pursue a career in NSW politics. Do you think the ACTU presidency should be filled by another woman?
What I've said is that I intend to stand down from the position in June 2000. I do that for a number of reasons. I've been since 1973 full-time in the union movement, so it's been a long stint and jobs in the union movement don't always give you a perfect balance in your work and personal life. I think after 25 years there comes a time when everybody knows when they've given it their best. I think 2000 is also very symbolic for me and the union movement. We're saying onward to the new millennium and that signifies to me the capacity to let go and let other people leave their imprint. The union movement needs to add new dimensions to the rich tapestry of its history to be effective into the future. I'm a believer in symbols and you've got to go some at stage, so that is probably an appropriate time to pass the torch on.
As to a political career, I've said I'm no longer inierested in pursuing a career federally and if the Labor Party in NSW believes that my experience is worthwhile and that I can contribute to the party here, I'll look at that option. But that's a way down the track and I'm not quite sure what I'll do.
Should I be replaced by a woman? Well, I fought all my life for women to have a better say in the decision-making processes. I fought very hard for the affirmative action principle. So my view would be, yes, I should be replaced by a woman. However, that's not something that I will be deciding on my own. The union movement will have to sit down and have a look at the whole team and make some judgments about what experiences and backgrounds people bring to that team. I think we've moved beyond the point of the union movement being seen publicly as a male-dominated movement and you have to have a balance of genders and a balance of sectors from which you come and I've got say that public sector unionism has brought a very important dimension to the life of the union movement and there are a number of outstanding women leaders in public sector unions that are more than capable of taking the reins when I go.
I just think in terms of public presentation, however good two men might me, two men in the leading positions seems to me to not strike the right chord of empathy that we need, particularly amongst those we are trying to recruit. My estimation would be that the key players in the union movement are pragmatic enough to understand those real world dimensions of the challenges ahead. I think the presidency symbolically must present an image that people relate to; there's the person who's identified by the public with the ACTU and I think we've just got to be mindful that images and symbols are important.
Interview: Jennie George - Eyeing 2000
The ACTU President looks to the future and erects a few new signposts for her last 12 months in office and beyond.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005