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  Issue No 48 Official Organ of LaborNet 31 March 2000  

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Interview

The New President

Virtual interview with Peter Lewis

At the end of her first week in the job, new ACTU President Sharan Burrow trades emails with Workers Online.

 
 

ACTU President: Sharon Burrow

A lot has been said in recent changes about the need for unions to change to an organizing approach. But what changes do you think are required at the peak body level?

In short, how can you drive bottom-up activism in a top-down manner?

Renewal is a central challenge for the union movement and Unions @ Work sets out a plan to support workplace and community activism. Strength in the workplace is central to the ACTU having a strong voice for working people.

With regard to information technology: the market is valuing the Virtual Communities venture at about $300 million. Given some people appear to be getting rich quick, do you maintain it was a good deal for unions?

20,000 computers, representing the most affordable deal in Australia, have already been distributed by Virtual Communities and demand is running at 2,000 per week. With the vast majority of these sales going to union families we have already begun to bridge the gap between the information rich and the information poor. As the communication tools come on line the unions will have enhanced capacity to encourage activism and member engagement in union affairs generally.

At the same time companies like Ford and giving away computers to get their workers online. If this spreads, doesn't it mean our members have been sold a three year dog?

The Ford offer is magnificent and it would be fabulous to see it spread but as someone who has unsuccessfully fought with State and Federal Governments for free technology for teachers, an industry where technology is an essential tool of the trade, I am not holding my breadth. Our members and their families need affordable technology now.

You come from a white-collar union, but much of the ACTU's activities - the big disputes - still seem to be focused on the traditional areas like mining, construction and the waterfront. How do you broaden out the image of unions so you can be relevant to more workers?

The ACTU has an active role to play in supporting the struggles of all unions and building increased public awareness of their plight. These struggles are common across both white and blue collar sectors and include; job security, a decent wage and reasonable hours with the capacity to balance work and family commitments.

The 36-hour week for example, is fine for industrially strong workers, but is undeliverable - and arguably unwanted - but workers in the growing areas of the economy. Aren't we in danger of locking ourselves into a retro image?

Every union survey demonstrates that members with secure jobs are facing an unprecedented intensification of work. Much of this overtime is unpaid and for women this is particularly significant when we are responsible for more than 50% all unpaid overtime. Equally those workers in precarious employment, the bulk of whom have too few guaranteed hours to secure a decent regular wage, want secure and reasonable hours of work. This is a challenge for all unions.

The 36 hour week agreements in the building Industry in Victoria represent a significant breakthrough in raising the debate about reasonable and affordable hours of work. History tells us that campaigns for reduced hours have traditionally begun in the industries with stronger unions and spread over time.

Working hours constitutes a significant debate in Europe and in France Governments have provided incentives for employers who reduce hours and employ additional staff. But for want of a visionary Federal Government, this would be a progressive solution for offering opportunities to young people and the long term unemployed.

The Victorian context marks only the beginning of this debate in Australia.

Individual contracts - are emerging as a flashpoint issues. Some unions want them outlawed by a future Labor government. Others unions recognize that they are a reality and their challenge is to help their members negotiate good deals. What's your position?

AWA's or individual contracts have been used by employers as a weapon to de-unionise workplaces. They are secretive and generate divisive competition between workers. All too often they are also the tool to reduce job security through shorter term employment.

The call for the abolition of individual contracts will be a debate at ACTU Congress and if I was a betting person I would predict that the unions will determine that individual contracts have no place in an industrial relations system based on awards and collective bargaining.

Common law contracts will always be available to employers and employees as well as specific over-award/agreement arrangements where these are relevant.

You this week have come out criticising the IRC - but given we opposed the Second Wave by defending the independent umpire, isn't this a dangerous line of argument?

The Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) has a central role to play in our IR system. My criticisms this week were directed at Peter Reith who has deliberately weakened the Commission thereby undermining its' powers to set and protect standards or arbitrate protracted disputes where appropriate.

The original powers of the Commission must be restored.

Peter Reith, pretending to be the champion of the IRC, was laughable.

There was some heavily reported comments from Michael Costa when the ACTU presidency was being discussed along the lines of: if we want a figurehead to attract new members, we should be looking for a young woman. What was your take on this?

Do you think it's important to start developing younger women for future leadership roles? If so, how?

I'm not sure that Michael really thinks 45 is old but needless to say I hope that women will always be judged on their merits. Michael is right though in that we have to encourage young people to become active and take up leadership roles. I will certainly champion young women and believe it to be a central challenge for the ACTU leadership to work with unions to ensure that we can hand over a strong union movement to an upcoming generation.

As figurehead what are the messages you want to deliver to the broader public about unions? Is it about militancy?

Unions have a membership base of almost 2 million working people and their families. This is the largest representative group in Australia; thus we build from a strong base.

Unions sit at the core of their communities and the ACTU will articulate an independent voice reflective of their concerns.

Activism in the workplace and in our communities is the key to delivering safety, job security, reasonable hours and just wages and conditions. Further will pressure Governments to re-investment in essential services such as education, health, housing and transport.

What percentage of these new workplaces do we need to capture in order to have a long-term future as a movement? Could we, for instance, survive with US levels of unionization?

US levels of unionism are not where the Australian unions want to go. The union movement is a vital voice in Australia and the simple fact that wages are 17% higher for union members is indicative that 'unions work'

Before Jennie George left she floated ideas for new structures of unions - casual workers, for instance, forming their own association and then choosing a union to affiliate to. Does this idea have merit?

The Dutch unions (FNV) have a progressive sense of unity where they market a single identity for all unions. While the unions are largely industry specific and membership is directly associated with the relevant union there is a sense of pride and community in recruitment members to a broad union community. Whether this or other means is the direction we take should be the subject of debate in the interests of renewal, strength and solidarity.

Finally, what would you like to be your gauge of success as President?

I would like a little more time in the job before I determine this but in general terms I would like to see greater numbers of activists, particularly women and young people, with whom we can build a vibrant industrial and social movement in the interests of a fairer Australia where people matter most.


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*    Visit the ACTU

*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 48 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: The New President
At the end of her first week in the job, new ACTU President Sharan Burrow trades emails with Workers Online.
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*  Health: Making Sense of Medicare
Nurses lift the lid on the Medicare myths as they shape up for a major national campaign.
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*  Unions: Bush Bashing
The Finance Sector Union is taking to the road to pressure the government to impose community service obligations on banks.
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*  Politics: The French Connection
While Victorian building unions are seeking a 36 hour week, Eurpoean nations like France are taking a more communcal approach to working time.
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*  Economics: Mutual Obligation
New statistics show that an increasing number of people are volunteering to contribute to the community.
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*  History: Living Library - Part II
More on the rich labour history that is housed within the walls of Sydney's Mitchell Library.
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*  International: Russian Revolution
Russian trade unions are calling for the revision of a draft Labour Code, against the backdrop of Presidential elections.
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*  Review: Casino Royale
Laurie Aaron's new book is sparking a lively debate about how a progressive agenda can be adapted to the challenges of globalisation.
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*  Satire: Chop ‘em Up and Stick ‘em in Acid”
The West Australian Government is poised to pass Pakistani-style sentencing laws.
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News
»  Workers Demand Internet Access to Organise
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»  ILO Condemns Australian Labor Laws
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»  Flying Doctor Grounds Aussie Jobs
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»  Bank-Bulance Hits the Road
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»  April Deadline on Olympics Pay Claim
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»  Pressure Builds on Stellar Contract
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»  Shares Plummets But Rio Bosses Get Millions
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»  Nurses to Launch Medicare Campaign
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»  Action Boosts Wages for Disabled Workers
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»  SA Workers Close Building Industry
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»  Political Economy for Activists
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»  Workers to Set the Tunes for Dili Streets
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»  OBITUARY - George Petersen (1921-2000)
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Columns
»  The Soapbox
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»  Sport
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»  Trades Hall
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»  Tool Shed
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Letters to the editor
»  An Open Letter to Ansett
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»  Moved by Wal's Life Story
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»  The Problem With Mandatory Sentencing
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