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  Issue No 60 Official Organ of LaborNet 30 June 2000  




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Turning Tides

Interview with Peter Lewis

ACTU President Sharan Burrow reflects on the disappearance of the middle class and what the union movement can do about it


One of the statements that you made in your opening address which the mainstream media hasn't picked up on, was the need for the union movement to win back a middle class which is disappearing. Can you expand on what you meant by that?

Australian society is now a divided society. Increasingly, you have people like the top 20% who take home 48% of weekly income and the bottom 20% that take 3.8 home, but if you look at that middle ground then we have seen a hollowing out or an erosion of the middle classes. Now, once Australia moves away from an egalitarian notion that all people can actually aspire to a decent standard of living with a secure future through job security and family support through central public services then what we've got is insecurity, more people being pushed to the bottom and a race to the bottom. That's what we're seeing. In WA for example, individual contracts are the best example of how a race to the bottom is on for people who would have once considered themselves somewhere in that middle class spectrum.

It is an interesting repositioning. Rather than the unions identify as the working class to actually be pushing this almost to stop being an underclass is more the game now isn't it?

Well, I'm not talking about pushing any kind of class structures. What I am doing is reflecting on the economic base of Australia. Australia as an egalitarian society had aspirations to lift working class people to the point where they could have a more egalitarian base - now that has been described in Australian economic history as middle class, what ever that means. For me it means a decent living wage, secure jobs and secure futures through a grantee of opportunity for your children.

We are losing that and now the economist describe it as an erosion or a hollowing out of the middle classes - that's what I was trying to point out. What it says for working class people is that old mantra that I grew up with - get a good education, its free, get a good job, buy your home and make a difference where you can. All this is now becoming harder and harder and its about, if you like, the slow death of optimism for now three and four generations of people who are not only working class but increasingly marginisled into the poverty spectrum through welfare dependence, unemployment and the like.

Does it frustrate you when the practical measures that you have put up for these ideas are interpreted as nothing more than a shift to the Left?

I think that its certainly frustrating because what it does is deny the responsibility that journalists and politicians have to have a good look at what's going on. But you know, I'm not much worried about it because when you actually look at the research you find 96% of Australians support increased investment in the public health system, 96% of Australians support free public education and the appropriate investment levels to deliver it. When people actually believe that there should be a fairer society, and we have seen that through those Australian articles just last week, then I have to say, that if those who would detract from that agenda about a fair share for working men and women and their families want to call it a march to Left, well it is a nice little, kind of disguise, of what is actually a very serious agenda, and we'll get around that.

Probably the fieriest debate over the week has been the fair trade. There were obviously different views put, but where do you think the grey areas in the fair trade debate exist?

Well, I think it was a terrific debate. I honestly think this is a critical debate for the future. We deal every day now in Australia with the negative impact of deregulation and privatization in our own country. The challenge for us now is how you deal with that, on a global stage, when international trade, international investment, and now international management and provision of services, is up for grabs. Where globally, capital would hope that there would be no rules, that their notion of a level playing field means that they could operate anywhere, irrespective of the impact on people. They are not interested in fundamental human and trade union rights, like poor labour standards, like a responsibility to protect the environment, like acknowledging that Governments have soverancey around central services like health and public education.

We can no longer simply worry about our own backyard - that local context is now also the international context. It's as much of an issue for us as it is for people in any other country so our responsibility is to be concerned about underpinning those global futures with secure rules. Now I think we put them up, we gave it a definition - that's an international definition developed by growing collocation of churches, community groups and unions calling for a fair trading environment. We can now define what fair trade is now.

If others seek to interpret that as some diplomatic code for protectionism, I would argue that's their problem. I think the notion of fair is now part of our cortex of what is going on in our own society and internationally and if we want to put a set of fair trading and investment rules for global futures then we have a right to do that. In fact we have a responsibility to do that and I think that the debate was a really healthy beginning to what going to be a long term agenda for us its now called business.

Do have a personal position on social tariffs?

Well social tariffs is one of the issues being talked about internationally. I said in my speech that there is no danger in monitoring international debate. I would add to that, I want to actually look at the debate in terms of those who are talking about conditions that the IMF would place on its support for countries or the World Bank place on it's support for countries in need and whether or not they would work with countries where there is no respect for labour standards or the environment or essential social services. You see the World Bank is already recognizing that part of the devastation wreaked in Asia was increased dramatically because there was not balance between economic and social policy. Now when the World Bank starts to talk about that, that gives us a chance to say well lets look at the options for generating reform of international institutions like the WTO financial institutions like the bank an the IMF and the like. That's our business and so anybody who is afraid of monitoring international debate I think is just, well you know, denying that we are intellectual people who have a responsibility to understand what's going on in world. So nobody has called for the introduction of any thing, other than a fair trading environment and our governments to respect that, and agree to it, and advocate it internationally.

What's failed to be recognized here unfortunately, I suppose, at one level its unfortunate that none of this is possible in a unilateral context. Governments in a global system can't unilaterally act to make sure that except in their own country poor labour standards, for example, are respected what they do have right to do though and a responsibility to do is to advocate that the multilateral nature of trade and investment frameworks must respect those things for all countries for all working people throughout the world.

And that's what your going to be concentrating a bit on in the post Congress period is your trip overseas?

I am going overseas in September, although that is some time away. I will be taking part in the Millennium Debate, as one of the Asia Pacific representatives. That's a debate setup by the ICFTU for all union centers throughout the world with a representative structure - a committee - to look at structures and priorities for the future. In other words, how to restructure and reform and rejuvenate if you like the international union framework much like we are doing here you now. What are the new priorities, what are the strategic directions, what are the structures that will make that possible.


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*   Issue 60 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Turning Tides
ACTU President Sharan Burrow reflects on the disappearance of the middle class and what the union movement can do about it
*  Unions: Fear and Loathing in Wollongong
For four days this week, too much unionism was barely enough. We bring you the highs and lows from behind the scenes and inside the bars of this week’s ACTU Congress.
*  Politics: The Group Hug
Opposition leader Kim Beazley came, saw and conga-ed. Here's what he said to the ACTU Congress.
*  History: Unions and Family Trees
Trade union records may not be the first port of call for a beginning family historian, but down the track a little, these records could bring to life an ancestor who previously was just a name printed on the page.
*  International: Fiji Bans Lifted
Fiji employers are expected to start reinstating all their workers over the next week, now that Australian union bans have been lifted at the request of the local union leadership.
*  Review: Room to Manoeuvre
Full employment with a highly skilled well-paid workforce is a realistic goal for Australia, despite the supposed constraints of globalisation.
*  Satire: Satan Subpoenaed To Cricket Inquiry
The King Commission of Inquiry into cricket match-fixing yesterday heard evidence from Satan that he never influenced Hansie Cronje to accept bribes.

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»  The Soapbox
»  The Locker Room
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  None the Wiser for History
»  Virtual Kelty
»  The Burke and Wills Syndrome
»  Rally for Refugees
»  industrial Gazettes Looking for a Home
»  Sharan Burrow at the IPAA

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