|Issue No 43||24 February 2000|
While We Were Sleeping
It's been a long hot summer for Australian workers - from the showdown in the Pilbara to the victorious National Textile workers. We look at the stories Workers Online missed while we were in the banana chair.
All in the Family
Concerted union campaigning ensured the closure of a Hunter Valley textile mill became the first political crisis of the Prime Minister's year. It wasn't just that his henchman Peter Reith had failed to deliver protection of workers entitlements, leaving the 300 workers owed about $11 million. It wasn't that there was a stench wafting across the whole deal. It wasn't even that one of the directors was the PM's big bro' Stan.
It was that the union movement rallied to force the Prime Minister into a bad policy position - a one-off handout to a group of undeniably deserving workers. For the best part of a month, the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union rallied around their retrenched members at National Textiles. The Labor Council took up their cause, organising a meeting with the NSW Government and a barbecue outside Stan's Point Piper pad. Then the TWU gathered further public support collecting thousands of signatories outside the cricket and football.
It all got too much for Johnnie who decided to throw wads of taxpayer money at the workers in the hope the issue would go away. And that's where his problems really started. As his public opinion ratings plummeted, more questions about the complex corporate web that bro' Stan had woven came to light. But Howard's biggest mistake was to make policy on the run; ensuring there was not just a perception of favouritism, but an excuse for every other retrenched worker to wonder why they aren't eligible for the same special treatment.
And where does this leave the scourge of unpaid workers entitlements? Even if Reith's 'safety net' goes through, thousands of workers will be left thousands of dollars out of pocket every year. And for unions that means only one thing - dozens of more cases of injustice to organise workers around.
The Wild West... The Big Australian, Small Towns and Strange Ideas
In late 1999, as the union negotiated enterprise agreement was expiring, BHP launched a campaign to de-unionise its iron ore operations in Western Australia's isolated Pilbara region. They announce, to their workforce, to the union offices, and to the general public that they would no longer negotiate with unions. At all. About anything. Instead, they were "offering" individual contracts to each employee.
Japanese steel makers had forced down iron ore prices. Merger talks with Australia's other major iron ore producer Rio Tinto had failed. Accessing and transporting high grade ore was becoming increasingly difficult. Faced with these and other problems, BHP seem to have made the rather simplistic assumption that individual contracts, giving them almost complete control over their workforce, would, somehow, automatically make them more profitable.
With a high riding new CEO, American Paul Anderson, and (judging by the approach ) a copy of 'De-unionisation for Dummies', BHP set about trying to capture control of the workforce. Something senior management no doubt believed would be quick, easy and relatively painless. There had been no real industrial action for over 10 year. There was an ongoing and rather ugly inter-union coverage dispute. The continual battering of Western Australian unions under the hostile far-right Court government legislation had left them depleted, and apparently battle weary. The Pilbara, an isolated area in an isolated state in an isolated country, had already seen Rio Tinto successfully de-unionise their iron ore operations a decade earlier.
But the workers, and their unions, were not ready to roll over and beg. The workforce were simply not ready to trust management. The more they asked what changes BHP wanted to make, and the more managers simply answered "we don't know yet, but you can trust us", the more uneasy the workforce got. National union leaders recognised very early on the significance of BHP's push, and along with the ACTU committed significant resources to helping their members and activists in the Pilbara organise against BHP's attack.
With support flooding in from around the country, and with a very visible and active union presence locally, the vast majority of workers continually refused to sign the individual contracts, and demand that BHP negotiate with their unions. They held stop work meetings, told their managers as individuals and as groups, and held a 24 hour strike to protest. Workers took to presenting managers with yellow and red union warning cards, explaining that the continual pressure amounted to harassment. Colourful stickers, asking BHP to "be reasonable, negotiate" flooded the worksites and the towns.
Still management pushed the workers to sign the contracts. They pushed them through "captive audience" meetings with high ranking BHP managers. They pushed them with two different "bonus" offers. They pushed them in one-on-one conversations, day in and day out. They pushed them with a steady stream of letters addressed to their homes. Eventually, the workers had had enough, and held a four day strike. On the second day of the strike, at the Newman operations, the state police decided that the production of iron ore was so essential as to warrant actual physical violence against those on the picket lines. A batten charge led to several injuries, and the video footage of the violence cemented national and international support.
The Pilbara communities of Port Hedland and Newman are small, close knit, isolated communities. Almost everyone was concerned that a biter industrial dispute would split the towns, and leave the communities bruised and scarred. But the organisers and activists had little trouble in getting community support. People in these towns have seen what individual contracts, and the unfettered managerial control that comes with them does to isolated communities. How the moral of the towns suffers, the safety at work, the downsizing of workforce that leads to the slow, inevitable decline of the towns. For many, the only thing worse for the communities than a bitter industrial dispute, would be giving in without a fight.
Following the four-day strike, union solicitors were successful in getting injunctions prohibiting BHP offering any more contracts. Finally discussions between BHP management and union representatives have begun. Negotiations are continuing.
The Victorian Era Turns Nasty
Allegations that a Melbourne union delegate was bashed by thugs hired by the bosses, led to a city-wide shutdown of the building industry and renewed focus on a push for a 36-hour week. Victorian construction unions have been pushing for the 36-hour week for some time, although it could be better characterised as 48-hours. Under the agreements, workers are guaranteed an extra two hours overtime each week and ten hours on the weekend. But work is capped after that is reached. Employers denied being involved in the bashings, but they are exercising a bit of industrial thuggery, the MBA issuing lock-out edicts against workers on designated days each week.
Whether the campaign is about more overtime or a serious attempt to better distribute work is a moot point. But it is unlikely to flow on into NSW in the short term, given that the building unions have recently completed a round of enterprise agreements. Insiders say the different approaches reflect different cultures and economic circumstances in the two cities. "We're in the middle of a boom in Sydney and workers want as much of the action as they can," one said. "They know the down times will be coming around again after the Olympics, so they're working hard and saving big for now." With CBD builders pulling in $90K salaries, don't hold your breath waiting for them to push for shorter hours.
A group of funky Christian students grabbed national headlines in January by launching 'Smart Casuals' a network of casual workers. While the media billed it as a 'new trade union', Smart Casuals won't be sparking any demarcation wars - it's more a loose network of young workers, run by the Australian Christian Youth Workers.
According to their literature, the group will operate in all mainland capital cities and offer "parties, rallies and forums" for young casual workers". Whether these will be characterised by flares, renditions kum-ba-ya and lashings of GI cordial remains to be seen or is that just my own warped memory of Sunday School?? (Or is that Organising Works??)
For more details go to http://www.adelaide.net.au/-aycw
Olympics Pay Warning
The NSW Labor Council scored some silly season headlines warning employers to lock in pay deals now or risk labour shortages during the Games period. While some papers tried to turn this into a threat of industrial warfare, the issue of wages is a reality that the bosses just have to cope with. Look at the figure: 180,000 jobs for the event at attractive rates means a lot of casual workers will be moving from their current precarious employment. As Costa commented at the time, workers didn't invent casualisation, but they'll use it to follow the money in the boom times. So bosses beware - lock in your staff early or do the work for yourselves
Meanwhile, the Liberals Olympic spokesman Andrew Humpherson kicked a spectacular own goal attempting to beat up outrage over the fact that union officials will have access to Games sites to help put out any industrial bushfires during the event. In a thundering press release the dopey Lib morphed the Labor Council's secretary and his able assistant into the one person - decrying the fact that 'John Costa' was sucking the public teet. We know they have the same haircut, but really....
To sign up for your piece of the Olympics action join Unions 2000 - http://www.labor.net.au
Missing Education Minister Found
After avoiding eye contact with NSW teachers for 18 months, Education Minister John Aquilina was finally dragged kicking and screaming to the negotiation table. The invisible man of education emerged following intervention from the State Labor Advisory Council. Unsurprisingly, the new avenues of communication have led to progress in the talks ... add with Costa.
Meanwhile, public servants have been offered a 16 per cent pay deal over four years. Nurses and health workers are waiting on final sign-off, while the Public Service Association this week accepted the increase after a membership ballot. The deal followed six months of tense talks after the Treasurer handed down a budget without any allocation for pay rises.
Ford's Free Computers Gazumps Virtual Communities
As Virtual Communities begins its roll-out of hire purchase computers for union members, Ford has gazumped the ACTU by offering its 350,000 workers worldwide free Internet access. While we hate to say "we told you so", this is exactly what we warning in the lead-up to the VC deal. The value is not in the computer hardware, but in the network of users who you sign up. Proof that the VC people are very smart cookies.
The VC portal is up and running at http://www.vtown.com.au . The site will be welcomed by enthusiasts of Lara Croft's breasts and rigorous beauty routines, although unionists expecting a cutting edge home base may be a little disappointed. Then again, as one unkind soul has remarked, the site does have all the charm of a 1950s filing cabinet. Back to the shopfloor comrades, we say!
'White Gollywog' Slips Out in Silence
And, if you didn't notice it Bill Kelty exited public life with a minimum of fanfare. We would love to tell you what he was thinking, but he won't talk to us. We sent him a very nice letter requesting an interview, but he never replied. Which gives Workers Online the strange honour of having access to Peter Reith, but not the head of our own movement. Funny world, eh?
The most intriguing post-script from the affair has been the reaction to a piece by the Sydney Morning Herald's Brad Norington claiming a fallout in relations between Kelty and his successor Greg Combet. Workers Online understands that Combet is threatening to sue the SMH over parts of the report, raising concerns that the ACTU's 'shoot the messenger' approach to media relations will continue under the new regime.
Interview: Parting Gestures
Outgoing ACTU president Jennie George looks back on her time at the helm and charts some challenges for young women in the union movement.
Unions: While We Were Sleeping
Itís been a long hot summer for Australian workers - from the showdown in the Pilbara to the victorious National Textile workers. We look at the stories Workers Online missed while we were in the banana chair.
Media: Freudian Slips
The coverage of Jennie Georgeís final days as ACTU President were a case study in the art of psycho-tabloid.
Legal: Cookiesí Fortune
The breakaway union led by a man personally backed by the Prime Minister has been refused registration in a ruling that raises questions over the whole enterprise.
Politics: True Deceivers
In his controversial new book, Andrew Scott argues that Labor's rhetoric has outstripped its achievements.
Review: Rebel With a Cause
A new Michael Moore has emerged at the frontline of subversive television. His technique? Combining organising with silly suits.
Satire: Victorian ALP shock: "Apparently We're in Power!"
A recent survey conducted by the Victorian State ALP has revealed that the party is in government.
International: Right Hand Drive
The rise of the extreme Right in Austria carries some important lessons for our own society.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005