|Issue No 43||24 February 2000|
Interview with Peter Lewis
Outgoing ACTU president Jennie George looks back on her time at the helm and charts some challenges for young women in the union movement.
On the day you took over as ACTU President down at the ACTU Congress in Melbourne, and you had balloons and singing and dancing and it was a very positive feeling. If you go back to how you felt then, have the expectations been met over the last six years?
I think for a lot of women when you get to powerful positions, you are not really sure what awaits you. You've never imagined that you are going to be there. So, I've always tended to go with the flow. I had some qualms about how I would be accepted among the blue collar male fraternity. I came out of a particular milieu with a particular support group and I think, being plunged into some of those very conspicuously male disputes very early - like Weipa and the Hunter Valley coal mine dispute - ensured that it didn't take too long for me to gain the credibility that you need in that position with the broad cross section of the movement.
Did you have to change your style? Were you consciously saying "I've got to be less white collar"?
Yes. To be an effective leader you've got to be empathetic to the culture of the people in dispute at the time. I remember at Weipa I did have to at times become part of the male culture. I had to be seen by them as identifying with them. But that's not to say that you recreate yourself to be what you're not. They expected me to be a staunch feminist and I had to convince them that I had an interest in an agenda that was broader than just that. At times I had to be one of the boys as well.
Broadening this out a bit, the perception in recent years has been that the ACTU President has been more a figurehead and the intellectual force of the ACTU has been the Secretary. In your time, did you feel that you actually did put your stamp on parts of the ACTU? And I guess, if so, what areas do you think you've left a bit of Jennie on the ACTU?
Well, if you look at the rules , apart from being the public spokesperson and the chair of the meetings, the role of the ACTU President is not defined. I guess each President has left their own mark. I think I've left my stamp - not in an intellectual sense, because I have never pretended to be anything other than what I am- and what I essentially think I am is a good people person. I'm a good campaigner; I'm a good thinker, strategically. I believe that in leading you also have to have a vision for the future and you can't have a vision if you are divorced from the kind of realities that drive the future agenda.
I'm very much part of that baby boomer generation, that had their roots in the protests of the '70s and the women's movement and came to leadership positions in a culture that is decidedly different to what it is today. So, I've had in the back of mind that 2000 should be a time for generational change. I'm too disconnected from the views of young people now, who essentially need to shape the future. But my biggest legacy has been to reshape the ACTU and the union movement from a totally masculine, male dominated culture to one now where it is accepted that women have a role and a stake in shaping the priorities of the union movement.
Beyond 2000 I think we need a huge quantum leap in the union movement and you can't keep relying on the ideas and views that generated my involvement and commitment to the union movement. It is not going to be sufficient in the future. That's why I thought 2000 was symbolically a good time to depart. As I said at the time, I think there needs to be a cultural change. I think we are not moving quickly enough in terms of some of the obvious structural and cultural changes that the movement needs to embrace to continue to have an impact in a workforce that is very markedly different to the sixties and seventies when I got involved.
Costa got himself into a bit of trouble by suggesting that the ACTU should be looking for not just a woman, but a younger woman to take the reins. What was your take on that debate?
Well I heard what Michael said and he never made the issue of age the issue. It was unfortunate the way the debate seemed to polarise around that. I think what he was saying was that the President is essentially the figurehead of the organisation. Now I think age is totally irrelevant to the capacity of the person to be an effective figurehead. I mean, you can have young people that are old in their attitudes and older people that are really switched on and I think every President will shape how they do their job. There is nothing that is defined. What I consciously set out to do, was first of all to try and alter the perception of the ACTU among the rank and file. There is no doubt at the end of the Accord era there was an element of disaffection. The ACTU rightly or wrongly was seen to be somewhat removed from them and their concerns. I think in leaving now I've left my stamp in that area. I think the ACTU is seen to be a group of people that are there for working people in their struggles.
Secondly, I'm leaving at a time of great unity in the movement. I mean we are an incredibly broad church. A large part of the role of the ACTU President, is to get around and about, to try and understand and juggle the competing factional and sectional interests. I think I've done that reasonably well. such that every affiliate - and there was a period there where the TWU disaffiliated -- feel part of the organisation. So I leave the ACTU with a better organic relationship with the rank and file with unity in the ranks and with female representation firmly entrenched in its structure.
The next challenge is a more substantial one - it's really a transformational one. And I don't know exactly what the answers are, but I do know that the nature of work is changing so rapidly that our structures are not in sync with that.
What are the specific areas of problems in the structures?
The structures arose out of our history and tradition. The structures reflected organisations that were highly unionised and in many cases almost a de facto compulsory unionism. They were organisations that were embedded in a system of conciliation and arbitration with the award system defining membership rights. Now, things are so different. The coverage of people under the award system is shrinking. Some of the stats show that maybe 30 per cent of the workforce are now outside the coverage of the award system. Technology is changing the nature of work organisation. The huge growth sectors are areas where we don't have a tradition of unionisation and most unions that I know are still structurally based in the past and not looking to the future.
Let me give you an example: How are we going to recruit among groups of workers who, say, work from home? How are we going to organise them? We are certainly not going to get them along to the standard union meeting once a month when they're often in the situation where they have got other competing interests. I'm not sure that we've been bold enough. Let me just float a few ideas that I have, just for the sake of the debate:
What I would do, is look at the feasibility of having potential union members join at a central point. I would have a union card that is transferable from employer to employer, and then I would have internal administrative arrangements that then allocated people to the appropriate unions or the appropriate organisations that could best fit their interest.
So you wouldn't join a particular union?
I would join the union movement. Not dissimilar to the Olympics project here, where people are actually getting jobs through a central auspice and then the arrangements are made internally. Look at the growing number of casual workers, and the fact that a lot of people are now working for more than one employer, moving on rapidly, often from employment, tragically enough to unemployment. We have a structure where they have to know which union to join; and they are often not even offered a differential for casuals. It just becomes too hard to join.
How do you then organise people who seek something other than the traditional form of organisation that unionism provided? I'm not saying that the structures are not suitable for some industries. If you look at the miners, the lodge structure will always be relevant there. But look at other experiences - for example, in America, where they tried to recruit clerical workers into the union. The old style union didn't work as successfully as the Nine to Five venture, which appealed to people by way of a more modern cultural expression where they weren't seen to be joining something that was in their perception, a little bit outdated, but something that was moving with the times.
Over summer we saw the Christian students setting up Smart Casual. That's a similar idea I guess?
I think so. The strength of unions in lots of industries was that they were the agents for the supply of labour and when you look at the huge expansion of labour hire which is all in the private sector and mostly un-unionised, then I think we've got to do a few more creative things. I think the Nurses at one stage tried their own employment agency. So I think unions must look at providing employment opportunities and looking at more creative forms of organisation of those people. It may be that in the future we're looking at networks of people that are connected. So you might have people say in the call sector industry who become members of a network that is then affiliated with the unions, rather than their first point of entry being a union that often seems a little remote from their particular needs and aspirations.
Isn't the biggest difficulty there the traditional factional allegiances of the unions so that you've got basically a member becoming a pawn between different unions struggling for relative power within the ALP structure?
I think that's probably a factor, but I think the demarcations arise as a result of our historical linking to monopoly coverage rights that went with almost de facto compulsory unionisation in certain industries. And I think in a more deregulated industrial environment -- and even if Labor gets into power it's not going to be a totally re-regulated system - we've really got to start looking at our structures and trying to make them a lot more fluid than they have been.
I for one, don't have the kind of entrenched opposition to enterprise unionism, providing it is genuine unionism and not employer dominated. I can't see anything wrong with the notion of workers collectively organising at a workplace and then being linked in to the union in that industry. I don't see anything wrong with networks of outworkers that are then a part of the union in that industry. I think what is impeding some of our progress is the kind of rigidity in the structure that is not changing with the times.
Now, that is a huge challenge. I would impose a greater test on people that have principal status in an industry. I mean I think principal status goes with responsibility to the collective union organisation. That's why I've always been a bit upset about the kind of inference that the ACTU and Bill and myself are somehow personally responsible for the legacy in declining unionisation. I mean you can't deposit the responsibility on individuals alone. But I think what has happened, we've too long had the luxury of monopoly membership rights without the accountability.
So you're basically talking about competitive unionism?
No, I'm not talking about competitive unionism. I'm saying that if you are deemed the principal union in any given industry, and over a period of time you are not unionising, you are not doing things differently; not encouraging members to join; not recruiting; then I think you've got a responsibility to the collective to explain why that's the case. Now, there are unions that go through periods of difficulty, but there's got to be greater accountability.
What form should that take?
Well, what I would say, that after a given period if it's clear that the union is not meeting its obligation to members, then that ought to be reviewed by the ACTU.
Secondly, I would come down very strongly against competitive poaching of members that are already in a union. I think unions now appreciate the responsibility of performing well, because long term the solution is not just in recruiting new members, but in ensuring that existing members don't de-unionise.
I think the paradigm of just organising and recruiting misses essential explanations of some of that decline - which is that existing members sometime feel aggrieved about the level of service being provided. Surveys consistently show that.
What I would do is corral existing members and put a fence around those so that there are no silly competitive raids on existing members. That's too easy. But if the principal union is not showing signs of really lifting their game, then I would make possible a more coemptive ethos among the unions that are already in the industry. Say, for example in the Tertiary Education sector where there might two or three significant unions. I would say, well OK, lets corral the existing members in the unions where they are, but let's have some limited form of competition among the unions in the non-unionised sector, and see by performance what the outcomes are going to be.
I mean we are still spending enormous amounts of time, energy, money and resources in fighting demarcation disputes. Now, I think the ACTU Congress would have the authority to bite the bullet and impose a no poaching rule on existing members to stabilise the situation, but also then by agreement and consensus to allow some limited form of competition for members in the non-unionised sectors on an industry basis.
That's really essential isn't it for the good unions that are doomed to be presiding over contracting workforces. I'm thinking for instance of the miners or the MUA. To give them a lifeline to survive...
If we are saying that work organisation and the nature of work is changing, but we still have demarcation based on outmoded forms of work and work classification then those pressures are going to exacerbate. Furthermore, I think that for a union movement that prides itself on support for democratic principles, there comes the point where views of members are legitimately part of the equation. Now, that's all very easy to talk about in theory, it's much harder to implement in practice. But I really think that structurally we, need to give these issues a bit more impetus. People have got to be less defensive about their little empire and really look at the bigger and broader picture. And you can do that with goodwill on all sides. But you don't make those bold changes in a context where people are defensively herding together to protect their existing membership base. I mean, that's very destructive and that's the easy thing - to go and approach an existing union member. So, if we could get agreement and actually say, that's it, we rule it off there, then start looking on an industry by industry basis about new forms of organisation.
I mean it may well be that we do what we've done in some industries and you have a joint union team approach, such as with call centres, where you say, look, forget about which union has the rights, let's just set about the three unions working together to recruit and organise and establish a new form of organisation and then work out the structural arrangements later on. If we continually fight for the patch that was defined yesteryear, it's not keeping pace with the present.
Briefly, your fondest memory of your time as ACTU President?
Well I've got to say, they're all remarkably fond memories. I mean wherever you go ... Like even yesterday, I was up at National Textiles and you really realise that you've had a privileged opportunity in life to represent people who otherwise are pretty disempowered.
I guess the highlight was the maritime dispute because that really showed that when we pull together and work together we can achieve remarkable things despite the huge odds that were stacked against us. I've read enough history to know that when workers take on the State the lessons of history have usually been that the State wins. But here we were, through a combination of unity and good spirit and commitment and the clever use of the law, and a clever industrial strategy, we did what probably no one expected we could achieve. So the days and nights on picket lines and the eventual outcome of that I think was something that will always be in my mind.
At a personal level for me, I think having carriage of the Second Wave, because I had the responsibility to map out the strategy; to motivate people; and then to deal with the negotiations with the Democrats and to force Peter Reith to actually withdraw a major plank of his so-called reform agenda, so that was a good personal note for me and the team I worked with.
The overall highlight of my term was the great people I've met and worked with and been lucky to represent.
Oh look, not really. I guess like anyone you have days when things don't swim your way. No - no regrets really of any monumental significance.
Finally, let's look at the crystal ball twenty, thirty, forty years. Are you confident that unionism will be around in the 21st Century?
Yes, I'm confident that unionism will survive, but it will be in a different form. I mean, workers will always need organisations to defend their interests. Unionism arose out the need for collective defence against capitalism and while the nature of capitalism is changing and the nature of work is changing, there will always be the need for organisations to defend the interests of little people. But the form and expression of unionism will be different because we - our history - has been one based on structures and organisations that reflected the aspirations of predominantly blue, male-collar full time workers. Twenty six per cent of workers are now casual. Young people are coming into the workforce as casuals and our structures don't adequately appreciate or deal with that. I would estimate that 40 per cent of workers at the moment are what you call precariously employed. They don't fit readily into the models of yesteryear, and I think the challenge will be for the union movement to allow people with different ideas to have their place in the decisions for the future.
Look, it's a repeat of what I and women of my generation found in the seventies and eighties. Until the union movement allowed us to reshape the debate and the terrain there was a limit to men in grey cardigans going out recruiting women. Well, so it is in the Year 2000. If 40 per cent of the workforce are contingent workers, precariously employed, we need to be listening to their voices, because they, above all else, probably understand the kind of unionism that taps into the aspirations of a workforce that is markedly different to the one that the baby boomers like me found our roots in.
There are incredibly capable young people in the movement, but it's a bit like the women - they are still knocking on the doors of the main stream debate. I think we've got to open the doors and do more than just have occasional meetings of the ACTU Youth Committee. They are much more in touch with the people that we will rely on into the future and the membership decline among them is profound.
I think this recent National Textiles dispute showed up very importantly, was that without union organisation I am sure those individual National Textile workers would have walked away with virtually nothing. And it showed to the Australian community that the union movement is still the bulwark against injustice, still the main body of people who speak out against injustice and for the rights of ordinary people. There are many issues in our community where the union movement can make substantial inroads by projecting a plea of fairness and justice in an increasingly globalised market economy where the dollar is the bottom line.
I think it is important that we continue to be active in public policy debate. I mean, one thing I found is that the unions that are really effective are unions that also have a point of view; they are activist; they are democratic and representative. I think the more that we can plug into issues of concern of ordinary people and be seen to be their protectors and defenders, then the more empathy we have or potential we have to recruit them. But you are not going to recruit contingent workers who are 40 per cent of the workforce, into structures that are predicated around the needs of a permanent workforce,
I would think if I was a young women starting out my career in the union movement, what I would do is probably form a casual workers' union and with like-minded people set around organising around the needs of casual workers and then get the structures to respond to that. Now that would be a challenge!
So they are some of the thoughts that I am going to leave the young women. I think it is a real tragedy that for 20 years we have fought for things like maternity leave and parental leave and carers leave and access to a whole raft of rights for women in our award system, and now what we are finding is that increasing numbers of people are falling through the holes. Greater numbers of people are on individual employment arrangements and employers have cleverly been able to exploit the growth in casualisation to circumvent the benefits that women of my generation fought for. The challenges are there: but they're different and will require different solutions to those we fought for in the seventies and eighties.
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