|Issue No 48||31 March 2000|
Arthur Rorris on the South Coast
The new South Coast Labour Council Secretary, charts the challenges facing the movement on the South Coast and how the SCLC might meet them.
The Role of the South Coast Labour Council
The SCLC is a peak regional council of unions. Its affiliates, are in the main, local or state branches of unions. The SCLC is not a union in its own right, in fact it is not a registered industrial organisation. The SCLC is an unincorporated association whose primary role is to represent its affiliates and their interests. Whilst this may seem obvious to many, it has often been a contentious issue on the South Coast.
There needs to be a re-focussing on our primary tasks of assisting and representing South Coast unions in their campaigns. The grievances of individual workers can no longer be handled directly by the SCLC, they should be referred to the relevant union. In a nutshell, what I am saying is that the members of the SCLC are the affiliated unions, not individuals. The best way to maintain and strengthen the autonomy and effectiveness of the SCLC, therefore, is to strengthen the role and participation of the affiliates themselves in the organisation.
The SCLC needs to demonstrate its capacity to assist South Coast unions in their day to day work and in their respective priorities as well as to pursue the bigger regional agenda. Below are some ideas on these two issues.
The SCLC must, in consultation with its affiliates, address declining union membership on the South Coast. At a time when our affiliates are embracing the organising model, the SCLC needs to develop a program of activity to assist them in their organising strategies. This can be done in a number of ways including targeted industry-by-industry campaigns and using the SCLC as an institution to promote unionism in the region, through the media, community forums and the education system. It is very apparent that our activist base is getting older, we need new and younger blood if we are to maintain and improve our level of activism and to make our organising strategies effective.
The Illawarra and South Coast, particularly since the decline of the heavy industrial and related sectors has experienced relatively high rates of long term and youth unemployment. Unfortunately, even when the national economy surges the South Coast does not seem to get anywhere near its share of employment growth. Without going into a detailed analysis here, the point is that the SCLC is in a good position to again intervene and play a key role, as it has done in the past, in the regional development agenda. Where alliances for productive, employment generating investments in the region can be formed with the community, government and business interests, they should be actively pursued.
For example, the State government has set aside $10m to assist in the attraction of employment generating investment to the region. By being involved in this process and in the planning of our region's development more broadly, the SCLC will also be able to promote union friendly practices in emerging industries.
Whilst there are many opportunities that need to be explored, upgrading the transportation infrastructure is a necessary component of any medium to long term regional development plan for the region. Basically we need to move our products and our people faster. It seems crazy that more than 16,000 workers who commute from Wollongong to Sydney daily can spend 3 hours of their time each day on a train that travels 80km each way. Cutting travelling times by half, whilst ambitious, will not only assist commuters but will undoubtably lead to significant new investment in the region.
Another area that should be targeted is the communications and IT industries. Apart from being potentially high value adding and growth industries, our region already has an R&D base at the University of Wollongong and a skilled pool of labour as well as plenty of relatively cheap industrial land.
The SCLC has a proud history of militant union activity. In recent times, faced with an ideological and legislative attack particularly from the Federal Government, the movement on the South Coast has been very good at organising opposition to these attacks on workers and their unions. Unfortunately, whilst the movement has been quite good at campaigning and telling the broader community what it opposes, in recent times, the SCLC has not been as good in saying what it actually supports, what it does stand for.
As a consequence, the SCLC projects an oppositional or reactive image of itself to the community. As hard as it may be in these times, the SCLC needs to move back to the front foot. We need to engage ourselves in the debates, forums and decision making structures in our community. We need to be and be seen to be part of our communities' structures rather than being alienated from them. We live in a 'union town' we should be exercising our leadership role.
That is how the SCLC entrenched itself as a powerful, autonomous and broadly respected institution on the South Coast over the last century and I believe that with those same principles, albeit with new strategies for our times, that is how we should proceed into the new millennium.
Needless to say, the views expressed here are my own (not of the Council) and are intended to be a contribution and perhaps a 'kick-start' to the debates that will occur on the South Coast in order to rejuvenate the Council and maintain unity in the movement.
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