|Issue No 50||14 April 2000|
The Gospel According To ...
Interview with Peter Lewis
Green Bans legend Jack Mundey looks back on his days in the BLF and the lessons that can be drawn from that experience today,
How much do you think the movement has changed from the time when you were a union official?
Well, quite considerably. The 80s and 90s - were years of decline because there was a lot of erroneous policy within the union movement, with the concentration on top level wheeling and dealing at the ACTU, when the Labor Party was in power. The forced amalgamations you would have to say now in hindsight in many instances were errors because they took away the right of the rank and file to determine what was happening, and I think we are only getting over that now. And I think unless there is a return to a concentration of rank and file participation as a starting point, we are not going to get very far. I think you can see the decline in living standards has come about partly because the union movement is no longer equipped with the power to fight around issues that it did in the past.
And that's really a question of numbers isn't it? They just don't have the numbers on the ground?
Well, it's partly numbers but it's also ideas. I think the crucial question is "do you involve the rank and file?" And even though it can be slow at times I think it is imperative. All the experience the world over within the trade union movement shows that it is only when the rank and file are actually involved in a high level of decision making that you get the union movement united and fighting.
Not always united by the way. I should withdraw that. Even if the union movement has a difference of opinion, it doesn't matter. At least things are happening. But when you have a situation where social democratic governments are in power and they try and deal with the unions at a top level - sort of social contracts - then most of those have been failures because really they are saying "Well, look, keep the lid on things, don't let the workers spoil the progress we are making with 'our economy' ".
Do you see any parallels between the situation we face now and the situation you faced when your team got elected to run the BLF?
Well, there are similarities. And the main one is one I just spoke about. The builders labourers, even though it's now widely publicised known, was a small union and it came in because of the brutality of the leadership. It was a rotten leadership that worked in collaboration with the employers; drove militants off jobs; smashed rank and file organization. And the union responded by building up a rank and file movement and then taking over the leadership. And I think the richness of the Builders Labourers experience was that when they took over the leadership it retained some of the grass roots feeling, that it wasn't just a change in leadership. So the leadership didn't become the same as other union leaderships with their collar and tie and cars and advantages. It became a leadership that based itself on the workers, received the same wages as the workers on the job, had a rotating leadership, it had limited tenure of office - things that were actually very controversial within the union movement. And I think that they were so important, because it meant that the membership felt that they were part of the leadership. The leadership was not up itself. It was not using its position as a stepping stone to power in government or in the judiciary. They were looking for a real identity with rank and file and leadership as one. And that's a lasting testimony I think of the builders labourers leadership and membership, as was shown in Rocking the Foundations. And when I speak all round the country now - I mean all the young people say "that was great, that's how we'd like unions".
Watching Rocking the Foundations - it seems very similiar to the organising approach that everyone's talking about in the union movement now - moving to a bottom up approach to union organisations. Do you think some of the things you guys did with the BLF should be looked at today?. Stuff like rotating leadership, limited tenure, that sort of thing. Is there a place for that in the modern union movement?
Rotating the present leadership - they probably won't support that. Of course, I think that's part of it, but probably more important than that is involving, genuinely, the rank and file. If you look back through those years when the union movement was shrinking, there were no public meetings, there were no mass meetings. The richness of the union movement in the 60s and the 70s - there was action - there was public action. There were meetings, always meetings. You turned the television on there were meetings of metal workers; meetings of building workers, maritime workers, and so on. And then you go through a situation where that went by the board. And I think you have got to look at the years of the Hawke and Keating, when there was too much reliance on wheeling and dealing with Kelty and Labor Council and other leaders, and not sufficient involvement of rank and file.
Watching that doco, there was also a real heart and soul about the movement. Has that been lost?
I would agree, but one of the reasons was that - it was politically a richer period in the sense of the fight against the Vietnam war, against apartheid, when the South African Rugby Union team came here, support of our aborigines, the women's movement, the gay movement. All of those things were blended in with the industrial struggles as well. So you have to look back on the 60s and 70s and early 80s as a period of a lot of political movement, and I think that helped. So those things were all there and the more progressive elements of the union movement were involved in it. And I think all these different things gave it such an atmosphere where progressive forces could come through.
But I believe it could happen again, and it must be based on community contact. I think that the union movement must have connection with other parts of society that are also suffering. And we are finding now that despite all of the wealth that exists in western society, in all the western countries, partly because of globalisation, privatisation, deregulation, that the gap between rich and poor is widening. The thing that Australia can feel proud about is that from the early part of the 20th century there was a fight by the union movement for egalitarian principles. Sure, some of their policies on White Australia were terribly wrong, but within the workforce, there was a fight for an egalitarian principle that I think was strong and one of the reasons that the living standards in the 20th Century were higher than many other countries was because of that egalitarianism in my belief.
A lot of that egalitarianism was linked in with protection of the economy. If we accept that the world has moved on from a world where there was defined nations with high walls around and that we do have a more global world, how can we possibly get a structure in place that can allow that in the modern context?
I think the way that you posed the question was wrong. Nobody believes now there should be "high walls around" a la Jack McEwan. But I do believe that if governments are going to have a role to play, they have got to make judgemental values about the economy and about certain industries and about certain work. I don't believe any country can just say "open slather" and let the multinationals use the world like a chess board and move it around.
I mean there are some classic examples. Korea is one. When the Korean union movement stood up and fought hard for improvement to wages and conditions, what did they find? They found the multinationals then moved to Burma or Thailand or Indonesia. And so the picture's the same. At the present time because the union movement is not strong enough the world over to counter this there has got to be a real insistence within each of the countries to trying to build an international connection. Because the only way to confront the wrong doings of globalisation is for the union movement of the various countries to link up together. It's not a question of high walls and protectionism, It's a question of concern, as Seattle showed... It gave a glimpse of what could happen when people who are really concerned about grass roots issues - environmentalists, unionists, other people in society that are not tied in - came together - are concerned about ordinary citizens and not about share markets and big business.
One of the areas of the workforce that we as a movement have struggled to win over is the emerging white collar service sector. Do you have ideas on what we can do to get those people into the union movement and do you think that the tactics that you used with building workers in the 60s and 70s can translate into those other industries?
Well, I think it's obvious that in recent times that the so-called difference between those new industries and old industries are going to change. The bubble has already burst in many instances. I think we must realise that whether workers work in blue collar or white collar industries, they have got many of the same problems. There's really not a new world, there are changes occurring but there's not a new world. And there are still problems there. There are low paid white collar workers too. And it's not as though there is a rich segment that is breaking off and starting up a new go. I think the problems are much the same really, they are just changing from one sector to another.
How much confidence do you have that the union movement is going to survive in the long run?
Well, I think if the union movement is to survive, it has to change very much and particularly in its contact with other movements in society that have got similar issues to come to terms with. In my life, the most exciting thing that happened to me was the environment movement and the union movement. And I think they are two movements that are crucial for the future. On the one hand humankind cannot ravage the planet in the way that we have in the 20th Century. There is no way that we are going to do the same thing in the 21st Century and get away with it. Already signs are showing - like the global warming is now a reality. 99% of scientists say that it is so. So there is not a question of whether it is or whether it isn't.
The same thing goes with countries like Australia about what the population will carry. Carr, a right wing Premier, I think raised some very good issues about what is the carrying capacity of the country. A fragile country, ecologically very, very fragile. And when you get people saying we could carry a 100 million or more - how could they carry them. So I think the question of population, the question of what resources we use and how we use them are really burning issues. And of course the workers' movement have got to be concerned about which products they make. For example, we all pay homage to ecologically sustainable development. Every country in the world has agreed with the United Nations on that thing - ESD. But really it is nothing but a cliché in the interests of most people. Particularly the present Howard Government. And so I think that there has got to be a change in the thinking - and I think that those sorts of people - environmentalists, trade unionists, are natural allies. They can build bridges and come together.
Finally, if you could cast your mind back to the highs of the Green Bans, when the BLF was inventing a new sort of unionism: do you remember how you felt then? Has the world turned out the way you though it would?
No, nobody ever has a world that turns out the way he or she thinks it will be, including you. It never turns out that way. For a shorthand answer, I rest content with the fact that I was one that was pessimistic about the ability of growth, growth, growth. And I think that that's been borne out. We cannot continue that way. But we can continue to have ample food and clothing and shelter and a decent life for all if we think about all people. But unfortunately, we are now getting locked into a society where the gap is widening and that is a frightening thing, where the rich is living enormously well. We all know the figures. The gaps are widening alarmingly, and I think a part of why it's widening alarmingly is because the union movement has lost a lot of its punch. I think the union movement has to come to terms with that and build a base to say that we want an egalitarian society again. That's when the union movement will start to win a lot more people to its side.
Interview: The Gospel According To ...
Green Bans legend Jack Mundey looks back on his days in the BLF and the lessons that can be drawn from that experience today,
Unions: Spinning at the Casino
In the lead-up to this weekend's historic strike, active LHMU members at Sydney’s Star City Casino have been making their own news.
East Timor: Rebuilding From the Nightmare
NSW Attorney General Jeff Shaw travelled to Dili to get a first-hand perspective on the reconstruction work required.
History: Internal Democracy and the BLF
How the rank and file team that took over the BLF in the early sixties attempted to devolve power to the grassroots.
International: Towards Liberation
Zimbabwe trade unions are at the centre of the democratic struggle going on within the African Nation
Republic: The Referendum We Had To Have
Paul Norton finds some hope in last year's resounding defeat of the republic proposition.
Work/Time/Life: @work in the e-century
Marian Baird takes stock of how far we’ve come, or not come, in terms of our working life.
Review: Rocking the Foundations
Pat Fiske's wonderful documentary on the BLF should be compulsory viewing for anyone in the union movement talking about shifting to an Organising Model.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005