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  Issue No 42 Official Organ of LaborNet 17 December 1999  





Costa Bravo

Interview with Peter Lewis

Labor Council's chief trouble maker chronicles the battles of the past year and ponders those still to come.

We are approaching the Christmas break with high levels of industrial disruption in the public sector. What prospects are there for a peaceful 2000?

It's been unfortunate that there has been a lot of disputes in recent times. But I am confident that the SLAC process set up at the ALP State Conference will start to resolve that. We have had a number of sub-committee set up under SLAC, one to look at public sector wages and other to look at competitive tendering. They'll be coming back to the main committee, which are the two key areas of concern with the government's approach to industrial relations.

How do you work through a pay process where there has been no money allocated in the budget for public sector pay rises?

The government has just got be realistic that it will have to meet a realistic market test for wage outcomes. I don't believe there's no money in the budget for public sector wage outcomes. I think there is an amount there. More importantly, I think the unions want to have a centrally coordinated approach so there is no leap-frogging and they maintain their relativities. I think the principle, the government sees the logic in that and certainly we will continue to push down that path.

The pay issue raises a broader question about how unions and Labor governments interact. Do you think unions have been getting a fair hearing from the State Government?

I think unions always get a better hearing from state Labor governments. There's no doubt that we have great levels of access to Ministers - excluding John Aquilina of course. The issues that have really underpinned the tensions has been the budget strategy. I think the government made a strategic mistake by not putting a wages figure forward very early in the piece and, in fact, entering into discussions before the budget. What I'd like to see occur is negotiations before the budget so everyone will know what outcomes will be, rather than announcements at the budget, and then unions either misinterpreting those announcements or being deliberately misled about what it available, then the tension builds up. The government has got to come clean, it's got to lay it on the table and have sensible discussions and that will go a long way to avoid the tensions on wages.

In terms of competitive tendering I just think that the government has got to recognise that the tide has turned. The Kennett election clearly indicates the community is very concerned about the extent of public sector reform. They want to see some guarantees in terms of service quality and where those policies impact on rural NSW there's clearly concern and the government needs to take that on board and ensure that it is not following a policy of competitive tendering for the sake of competitive tendering. It should be an outcomes driven policy. The unions' view is that they are happy to live with benchmarking, happy to see efficient use of government dollars, that doesn't necessarily mean contracting out.

Does that leave unions locked into an anti-reform agenda?

Absolutely not. Unions have been supporting reform for a long, long time. There concern is about the mechanism for reform. What they're saying is that compulsory competitive tendering is an inappropriate mechanism for reform. I agree with them.

So what are the alternatives?

There are a number of alternatives. On is incremental public sector change, which has been a fact of life for a long time. Another is to benchmark those services that can be benchmarked against the market place and expect unions within a reasonable time frame to meet those benchmarks. Those benchmarks have got to be realistic, they have to take into account public sector conditions and once they have taken those into account I am sure that unions can produce the same levels of productivity. The major concern is competitive tendering as a code for avoiding public sector award conditions. We will not accept that. On the one hand you have the government mandating conditions in terms of occupational health and safety, anti-discrimination, workers compensation, and on the other hand its trying to avoid those very conditions through competitive tendering as a mechanism for getting out of public sector awards. That's a tension, they've got to manage, not us.

Back to public sector wages, why do you think the government took the approach it did by bringing down a budget with no numbers in it for public sector pay rises?

I don't think the Treasurer did bring down a budget with no numbers in it. I'm sure there is a number in there for public sector wage rises. You would have to be silly and foolish not to. What the Treasurer has done is deliberately not told us what the number is to control, in his terms, public sector wage expectations,. I think it's had the opposite effect, and you've seen huge claims across the public sector for wages - and the reason is that they've benchmarked those claims against what the going rate is in the private sector which is between three and four per cent.

At the State Conference the Premier announced SLAC in an effort to quell union dissent. How effective has it been?

You've got to give SLAC a bit of time. We've had one meeting to set broad perameters,. Out of that meeting a number of sub-committees were set up. The sub-committees have had one meeting each - they been productive but there is some distance to go on this,. My view is that SLAC will evolve into a very important structure for the government and the trade union movement. Given that you've got the number of political heavies on it - the Premier across to some key Ministers and key figures in the ALP, this can evolve into a positive structure. What will kill SLAC is if it's used as a forum for esoteric debates about general broad directional misdemeanours on either side. What I'd like to see it as is a concrete forum where the government presents what it believes it strategies in certain areas and the union movement has some input to point out the consequences of the proposals, from their members' perspective.

How does this differ from an Accord type structure?

People have said - tongue in cheek - that this is Costa's Accord - given my criticisms of the Accord it's quite ironic. The difference here is that we are not setting wage targets in these areas, we're not looking at making trade-offs with the social wage. I don't see it as that sort of forum. It should be about dialogue, understanding government concerns and the government understanding our concerns. I think the Accord was much more rigid than that 0- it became quite mechanical - 'for four per cent you have to do this'. A lot of the social wage stuff happened outside the Accord structure anyway.

The industrial relations reform package appears to be held up in the Cabinet Office, how important are those reforms for long-term relationship between the unions and the government?

I think they are critical reforms for the survival of the government., The pressure that is emerging around the issue of casualisaiton is one that no government can ignore. You've seen the surveys - the big issues out there are security, uncertainty, a sense of things being adrift. I think part of that is explained by the insecure employment relationships. While I don't expect the government to be able to turn that around - there are other factors in the economy that are dealing with those - to have some of the more onerous and more ill-disciplined components of the labour hire industry regulated is important in showing the government is concerned about the changes that are occurring.

For the union movement the agency fee proposal is a very critical one. Whilst there's still debate in the unions, I think the notion that we are moving away from a system of industrial relations that essentially had state support, both financial and moral, to one that's based on enterprise bargaining, means that we really have to deal with the free rider problem. The trade-offs that allowed people to cope with free riders in the past are no longer there, the system as its currently operating is very costly, its a system that requires enormous resources in negotiating outcomes and there is a moral and also a broader requirement that people meet their obligations if they are going to get the benefits of those operations. So to be the agency fee is a move to enterprise bargaining.

Are you confident that there will be movement on theses issues in the New Year?

We'll continue to press these issues. the government is going to have to confront a union movement that is determined to do something about contracting and sub-contracting.

During the year you raised the issue of the ongoing utility of the factions and argued that the traditional Left-Right divide had passed its use-by date. There was expectation of a State Conference debate that never came and the issue seems to have dropped off the agenda. How do you intend re-activating it in 2000?

I don't think the issue has dropped off the agenda. What has occurred is that practical manifestations of that have become more important than the theoretical debates. We're changing the rules of the Labor Council to accommodate a second person from a Left background elected to Council. that's a significant move and that was done outside the context of any Left-Right negotiations. It was reflective of my view that people should be put into positions based on their ability to work as a team and undertake their responsibilities, rather than on the basis of their factional allegiances. I think that's happening already .

In terms of a debate, there is still a need for that. it was unfortunate that the State Conference didn't have any time for the scheduled debate,. There has been some talk about doing something in the new year and I'd be happy to support that. But the practical thing is to ensure that we continue to operate, as we have been, on a non-factional basis. The bona fides of my position will only be tested if its delivered in practice. you can put all sorts of intricate and sophisticated arguments about why factionalism is dead and I think most people would intellectually agree with it. but unless you have practical results of organisations operating in a non-factional way and people accepting that in practice in can happen, the intellectual arguments will not carry the day. It's about practical outcomes.

And what are those practical outcomes?

The fact that the Labor Council has operated over the last period in a non-factional way. Anyone who looks at the operations of the Council would have to take that view. We've taken up issues that have been traditional Left issues on the one hand. On the other side some of the culture that the Left claims is being seen in Right-wing unions in terms of the move back to the workplace and organising. So I think there's a real blending of and merging of the cultures.

Within the Labor Council, you have pushed for a shift to an organising approach - how do you translate into a shift for individual affiliates?

It's very difficult. At the Labor Council all you can do is articulate the arguments, provide some resources to support those arguments, encourage the individual affiliates top accept the approach - bearing in mind that I don't uncritically accept it - I do think affiliates have got to tackle the elements that work for them and integrate them into their functions. but I'm very encouraged - I think we've made great inroads in this state. We have gone further, I would argue, than any other state, or the national body, in pushing along the organising model. The Organising Centre was important as a symbol as well as having a practical importance in terms of the Olympics. the use of Michael Crosby, Sarah Kaine at Labor Council, Workers Online - all those things have helped changed the culture. People have seen results - and that's what will carry the organising model through to the affiliates.

At what point do those positive results have to translate into increasing membership levels?

I don't think you'll get increasing membership levels through the organising model short of half a decade. We're talking about a significant cultural and structural change, Anyone who has a look at the next set of figures - which I'm sure some of the members of the media will do to declare the organising model a failure - will be really deluding themselves and not understanding the sort of change we are talking about. if we don't get them in the next five years, I would than be prepared to make judgements about the success or failure of the model.

Looking ahead to 2000, the AGM is going to consider some rule changes - one of them brought on by difficulties with the Currawong property. Why are you pushing through changes to the property rules?

I think the property rules are absurd. I think the whole Currawong issue - which we did successfully resolve by changing the strategy - highlighted the absurdity of a set of rules that were put together in the thirties to stop people seizing control of 2KY applied to other property assets. If the Labor Council is going to operate effectively and ,manage the resources of affiliates needs some flexibility. By the way, the rule that I'm proposing is I still think is highly inflexible - the whole hurdle process is still there with one minor change, that means that if you have seven unions objecting they ought to at least reflect 25 per cent of the membership base of the Labor Council. I think that this is consistent with the principles of the people that drafted the rules - they wanted a 75 majority for property proposals. They gave the principle of seven unions because we had less unions at the time and it may well have made sense then.

The AGM will also consider a rule change that would distance itself from the ACTU. What is the thinking behind this?

I don't think the rule change distances Labor Council from the ACTU. It clarifies what the role should be, and that is to manage the affairs of state affiliated unions, our relationships with state government and manage the labour market in NSW. That ought to be done with reference to the ACTU and in conjunction with other national or international obligations we have. So I think it's more a clarification rather than a distancing.

So what's the effective change?

It's just a technical issue of modernising the rules to reflect the current period. That rule's been around for a long, long time and I just don't think it reflects what we do. While we support the policies of the ACTU, we also do more than that. We initiate policies, we have international relationships ourself and we have national obligations as well.

So would that free you up to run agendas contrary to the ACTU?

The Labor Council in the past has not been shy to take up certain aspects of the Accord, for example, that it didn't like - even though it may have had ACTU endorsement. This is a vibrant Labor Council that often has different views. The Vizard proposal for example, we had different views on that, and I would hate to see someone trying to impose, by way of a rule, obligations on this Council that the majority of people here don't support.

On the ACTU generally, it will enter 2000 with a new leadership team. What will be the benchmarks of their success?

I think they've set their own benchmark: whether they can translate the organising approach through the national movement. To me, there's other benchmarks; whether they can work within all the grouping s of the labour movement; for the first time two people from a Left background are in the two senior positions. they need to be mindful of the fact that they have to deal with unions that don't have the same cultural base and they have to be mindful that process is important if you have that configuration of officials.

I think Greg Combet has some very specific challenges in modernising the administration of the ACTU - which I think he is very capable of doing. And if Sharan Burrow is elected as president, she has a particular challenge to reach out to sections of the movement that she hasn't had a great deal to do with in the past.

Assuming they can be successful in that, their next challenge is setting the movement on a path of organising and revitalising itself, and doing so in a constructive way, not a prescriptive way, but a way that is much more encouragement and general direction setting, which is the sort of thing we're doing in NSW. If the ACTU tries to be prescriptive in any way, it will lose a great deal of support. I hope they've learnt the lesson about the best way to convince people

What do you think is the greatest single challenge facing the union movement in the year ahead?

I think the greatest challenge in the year ahead, and the year after, and the year after that is to reposition itself as something that's still relevant. That means dealing with the cultural issues - I have concerns about the seniority mentality that dominates some parts of the movement. We need to be able to get younger people into the movement, it needs to be relevant to those young people and it must change its culture to accommodate them. It also needs to have a look in a very genuine way at how it could do things better. It needs to be more entrepreneurial, it needs to explore alternatives - and that means to accept failure . To me it's a question of positioning, revitalisation and experimentation.

So in terms of the union movement, are you a millennium doomday-ist or an optimist?

I'm an optimist. One thing I've always been impressed with, is the amount of young people attracted to unions. I'm not impressed by the fact that we can't keep them because we don't have structures that can accommodate them, but we seem to constantly have a lot of bright enthusiastic people around the place. If you're attracting those people, you've got to be optimistic about your future. The real challenge is to ensure that they quickly move into positions of influence in the movement, so that you essentially have them developing the strategies to attract people like them.


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 42 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Costa Bravo
Labor Council�s chief trouble maker chronicles the battles of the past year and ponders those still to come.
*  Unions: More Wins Than Losses
Workers Online ranks the Top Ten industrial relations stories from a year of frenetic activity.
*  International: Eric Lee's Year in Review
The editor of Labourstart looks back over his favourite stories of 1999.
*  Politics: So Many Questions
It was a year in politics that threw up more questions than answers. We look at some of the sticky ones.
*  Republic: Referendum With Class
Labor heretic Michael Thomspson analyses the failure of the Republican proposition.
*  Environment: Seattle Kills Greens V Jobs Bogey
The sight of US unionists, environmentalists and human rights activists being attacked by police in Seattle shows how far the progressive movement has come.
*  Deface a Face: Give Him a Hairdo
What better present could Michael Costa offer Workers Online readers than the chance to give him a Deface a Face style make over?
*  Labour Review: What's New at the Information Centre
See the latest issue of Labour Review, our resource for officials, activists and students.
*  Review: Cultural Wasteland
Workers Online resident door-bitches Zanga and Paul pass judgement on the year that finished the millennium.

»  What Price Aussie Jobs as Olympics Loom
»  TWU Activist Named Organiser of the Year
»  Unions Lock in New Years Eve Deals
»  'Scrooge' Destroys Staff Christmas
»  Rule Changes to Restructure Council
»  The Great Salary Rip-Off
»  George to Kick Start NSW IR Reforms?
»  Shaw Loses Key Advisers
»  More New Faces at the New ACTU
»  Reith Second Wave Not Beached Yet
»  Peace in the Gong
»  Workers Support Register Gathers Steam
»  Pay Equity Enters Campaign Mode
»  Union Aid Agency to Establish Dili Office
»  Job Vacancies at the LHMU

»  Guest Report
»  Sport
»  Trades Hall
»  Piers Watch

Letters to the editor
»  Aquilina's Insult
»  Well Done 1999
»  US Union Site Worth a Look

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