|Issue No 85
|23 February 2001
Tony Abbott – Workers' Friend?
Interview with Peter Lewis
The new Workplace Relations minister relives his own union background and explains why he's really just another worker at heart. Honestly.
Unlike most Liberal IR Ministers, you actually come from a trade union background. In your AJA days, I hear that you ran a few strikes.
I didn't exactly run a few strikes, but when I was at the Bulletin, ACP management one day, quite unilaterally, decided to sack the entire photographic department - and at the Bully we did most of our stories with photographers, so the journos and the photographers very much worked hand in hand. So, we were all shocked, stunned, dismayed, appalled, flabbergasted - when management just came in and said they were sacking the photographic department. So we immediately had a stop work meeting. There were various appropriately angry speeches made and I moved the resolution to go on strike, which was carried, as far as I can recall, unanimously, and we went on strike for a couple of days.
I'm not sure that in the end the strike was particularly productive, because as it turned out we got the magazine out in three days rather than five. The photographers stayed sacked, but they all ended up earning a lot more as contractors than they ever had as salaried workers. So, I guess that was an example of militancy, which may well have, in the end not have achieved its objectives, and its objectives may well have been counter-productive anyway.
My next dealing with the union was when I was briefly managing a concrete batching plant for Pioneer, and I got the company ideology - this is in the late 80s - this is in 1988. The ideology of the company was, in those days, was that the concrete industry had been run for far too long for the benefit of the owner-drivers and not enough for the benefit of the company and its shareholders - and we had to change that. So, like an obedient young fella I got to the plant in the morning, marched up and down the line of trucks like a Prussian army officer, telling owner-drivers who had been in the industry for longer than I had been alive, that that truck was too dirty, and that truck was filthy, and that truck had a leaking valve and had to be fixed.
Naturally enough, this wasn't very popular, and I had been there a couple of months, and a phone call came through one morning from the quarry manager, saying that there was going to be a strike starting at midday, so can we put a bit of stuff on the road to you. And I said sure, send me as much as you've got. I'll use it. I can keep my plant open for longer than I otherwise might.
I didn't think anymore about it. All these trucks turn up at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon with gravel and sand and aggregate, wanting to dump it. And I couldn't dump it without running material from the ground bins up to the overhead bins. It took me about half an hour to figure out how to turn the conveyor belt on because all the staff had gone home. I finally got it going; the materials were dumped; I went home feeling that I had done my job well. A phone call came through at 5.30 the next morning from the senior plant operator saying: "Did you turn the conveyor belt on yesterday?". I said "Yeh". He says "Right - nothing moves - this plant's black - like to see you get yourself out of this little fix Sonny Boy!" Ha, ha, has.
So anyway, I drove out to the plant that morning, thinking well, you know, this is a bit of a problem. How do I solve this? I thought that there's really only one thing to do, and that's to beg. So I got over there and I said to the senior plant operator. I said: "Stan I'm sorry. I'm new in this industry. I appreciate that I've been a bit of a so-and-so, but you've made your point and I will try to be different."
He said to me: "It's out of my hands. It's in the hands of the union organiser." So I said, who's the union organiser and what's his number? I rang him and I sort of begged and pleaded, and he said: "It's more than my job's worth to let this go. Bloody Pioneer are always pulling stunts like this. We've had enough of it! We're sick of it! Got to do something." So I said, well, look why don't we put the old final warning. That if I ever do this again, I'll be run out of the industry. And there was silence on the end of the phone, and after about ten seconds he said: "I'm putting you on a final warning mate, if this ever happens again you will be run out of the industry."
So anyway, I have to say I did learn my lesson, and what I did learn was that company rhetoric couldn't be taken at face value, and I made it my rule after that to keep a case of beer in the fridge and at 4 o'clock every afternoon I would go and have a couple of beers with the drivers and the plant operators in the crib room, and I have got to say that the best jokes, the best stories and the best times were all actually had there, rather than on the end of the phone trying to sell more concrete.
Both those stories seem to be examples of positive experiences of unionism ...
Oh they are. Look they were in a sense positive experiences. Certainly they were both learning experiences for me. When I was at News Limited, where I went subsequently, we went on strike a couple of times. And I was against the strike on both occasionsThey were pay and conditions strike. It wasn't a fundamental question of justice strike. And I can remember standing up and it was in the lower Trades Hall in Sussex Street, it might not even be there anymore, and arguing in front of six to seven hundred people that we shouldn't go on strike and not meeting with a particularly warm reception.
But you still chose to stay in the union at that stage. What was it about unions that made you want to be part of them?
Historically trade unions have had quite an important and valuable role civilising the workplace; establishing the dignity of labour and so on. I think that unions today have in some respects too much power - too entrenched a place in the system, and I think it would probably be in their interests, the Labor Party's interests and the national interests if some of those things are changed. But, my view was that I was in a unionised industry; my colleagues were in the union; and I should be in the union. So I was in the union, and in fact I stayed in the union, I think for twelve months after I left journalism. I went in as a political adviser, where of course there was no tradition of union membership. Because I'm not against unions as such. But I have a critique of unions which I think is worth pursuing.
But let me finish on Tony Abbott and unions. My most recent experience - prior to taking up this job - was some dealings with the SDA over the issue of carparking fees for staff at Warringah Mall in my electorate. Now, my view was, and is, that to suddenly hit staff with a compulsory carparking fee. Most of the staff have got to drive, they don't really have public transport options, and once you are there you have got to park and really, especially for the older staff, they have got to park as close as possible, which means parking in the Warringah Mall car park. To hit people like that with a $3 a day parking fee, amounts to a $15 a week pay cut to people who are only earning just over $400 a week. It is very unfair. So I was a supporter of the union, and I suppose in a sense the union was a supporter of mine in campaigning against that fee. And I am pleased to say that thus far at least, Warringah Council has refused to approve Warringah Mall's attempt to hit the workers with a $3 a day parking fee, mainly Warringah Mall. So that was another positive, if informal operation.
Just on your past, you were also involved with Santamaria's DLP. Talk us through that.
When I was at Sydney University I was involved with something called the Democratic Club and the Democratic Club was the independent successor of the old DLP Club. There were strong but informal links between the Democratic Club and the NCC. Not all of the people who were involved with the Democratic Club had the link with the NDC but many of us did. And certainly I was happy to draw inspiration, guidance and occasionally some practical help from the NCC in terms of the work that I was doing on campus.
Well, let's move on to the present. You were talking about the role of unionsand how you think they have become too powerful. Explain what you mean by that?
I think Noel Pearson has made this comment about indigenous activism. During the early 90s indigenous activists lined up, almost to a man with the ALP and then the government changed and indigenous activists felt they were dealing with the enemy. Now the trouble is the enemy was the government of the country, and if you try to achieve good results for your people, you have got to work with the government of the day, even if it maybe wasn't your first choice. You have got to work with it because it is the government of the day for better or for worse, and there was I think a resistance on the part of a lot of indigenous leaders to doing that.
As long as the unions are institutionally linked with the Labor Party, they will have a sense of ownership with Labor governments and a sense of antagonism with non-Labor governments. That is to say, there will be an unhealthy closeness with Labor governments and there will be an unhealthy alienation from non-Labor governments.
But surely they are different. They set up the Labor Party!
And good parents let their kids go their own way. My kids will one day set up their own household and I hope they will always love me, but they are certainly not going to always obey me. Hell, I mean, it's hard to get them to obey me now and they are only eleven.
Are there any issues that you wish you could be working closer with the unions on?
I would like the unions to feel less hostile to workplace agreements. We have set these things up in such a way as there is no reason why a worker who doesn't enter into an AWA can't use a union as his bargaining agent, or can't use a union to provide information. There is no reason why workers who have gone on to AWAs can't remain members of unions. The only fundamental difference between an AWA and other agreements, is that there is no absolute necessity to go to the union to make the agreements - but there is no reason why you can't use the union to help you make the agreement. Why don't unions say to their members, look, if you think you can get a better deal for yourself out of an AWA, fine, by all means go down that path, but if you want our help and assistance we are happy to provide it.
I would have thought that many workers would have thought, well, hang on a minute, no one knows the ins and outs of industrial law better than the unions. I can probably go and get the unions' advice for a fair price, but if I go and engage Allen, Allen and Hemsley or someone, I may well be paying several hundreds of dollars an hour for their assistance. I won't be doing that with the union, so why don't I use the union?
By contrast, most of the unions - most of the unions but not all - seem to have adopted the attitude that anyone who goes onto an AWA is basically a pariah who has set himself or herself outside the general sort of territory that we unions wish to inhabit, and I think that is a pity. I mean, I would have thought that sensible, intelligent organisations - unions no less than political parties like to say that if you are not against me you are at least potentially for me. Whereas the union I think is saying, if you are not for me you are against me, which I think is a counter-productive attitude.
Let's go back to that point of hostility. A fair bit of it with the union movement stems back to the waterfront. I am wondering, would you have handled that dispute differently?
It's a few years ago now. I wasn't close enough to it at the time and I can't remember enough to give you a definitive answer. Look, I am a human being, with my background, my attitudes and my instincts - and Peter Reith and I are obviously somewhat different in that respect - but look, do I have any criticisms of Peter Reith? No I don't. Do I think that in the end that dispute probably didn't work out too badly? Yes, I do. I think it did probably work out OK in the end. Almost inevitably I would have done things somewhat differently, but I don't think that Peter Reith did it badly. I think it unfortunate that the whole thing got as polarised as it did, but it was probably inevitable when you were dealing with a very, very determined union. You know, a very sharp, but I think necessary conflict.
You have been talking about how the workplace is like a family recently. The question that unions would want to ask you is, what happens to the bad family?
Well, the bad families go to the Family Court, but most families never go to the Family Court.
But when they do, what is your view of the adequate safety net for workers that should be there?
I'm not unhappy with having an Industrial Relations Commission, or some similar tribunal, establishing a safety net. But I think it really should be a safety net, not an elaborately conceived and elaborately explained blanket. It should be a safety net not a blueprint for major aspects of the employment relationship. And that is all it should be. It should be a safety net.
So you are saying the basic minimum wage and what else?
Well, we have apparently got 20 allowable matters.
Do you reckon that's about right?
Look, it is no secret that we would like to further reduce the allowable matters. At the moment allowable matters include union picnic days. Well, I don't know that we really need to have union picnic days as an allowable matter. I think it's fine to have it in an agreement if the workforce wants it, but I am not sure that awards should be included for a start.
You have been in this government a while now. How do you think you'll be a different IR Minister to Peter Reith?
Well, look that is not for me to say - more for others to judge. There is an election sometime towards the end of this year, and who knows what the outcome of that election will be. Notwithstanding the results in Queensland and WA, I am reasonably confident that the Coalition can win, but the fact is that just at the moment my horizons are somewhat constrained by the fact that we have got an election coming up pretty soon.
Do you see part of your role to campaign against the unions?
No. I see part of my role as being to point out the realities of the Australian industrial system and the industrial culture which sustains the system and, as I said, I think it is a pity that the unions and the Labor Party march in one step the way they do. And I think it is a pity that as much of our industrial regulation is still institutionally in the hands of the unions, as opposed to being in the hands of the unions who have gone out and won that position and worked for that position on the merits of their arguments.
What do you understand by the term "Organising'
How do you mean?
Greg Combet came to power with a commitment to Organising. What's your understanding of that approach?
Well, it sounds to me like a term of art and not being close enough to the context of belonging to a union, I could only have a stab at it.
If it is basically about pushing unions back down to the shop floor and delegate structure, what would your attitude be?
Well, that sort of thing certainly sounds like a sensible idea - in the same way as sensible political parties try to revitalise their grass roots and build up their branches. It certainly sounds like a smart idea. But the difference between a political party and a union is that political parties don't have ways of dragooning people into membership. Political parties can't send people who are serviced a charge!
Let me ask you about this. What do you think unions should do about free loaders. You know, people that are union members pay their fees. Officials go out and do the hard yards, negotiating agreements, but the people in the workplace that aren't a member get the pay rise without having to pay. What is the solution?
It's not really a fee for service situation. I mean there is no analogy between what the unions do for people in a particular workforce and what a doctor might do for someone who comes in to get his injury bandaged because if they weren't there there would not be a pay rise.
In many enterprises the only practical way to get a pay rise is for the union to negotiate some kind of agreement, is because of a culture which has been in there for a century or more, whereby the bosses will only talk to the unions. The bosses will not talk to individual workers or bargaining units other than the unions. So it is not the proper market situation. It is not a proper fee for service context, and to sort of hit people for a bargaining fee in a context where they have no choice but to accept the union pay rise, other than not to get a pay rise at all - for no one to get a pay rise - to insist on that is to insist on compulsory unionism. And that is just not right.
You've said you'll put legislation up if the decision is not overturned. But won't the Democrats oppose this?
I'm not sure about that. My understanding is that while most people support the right of the union to charge a bargaining fee, they believe that individual workers - as opposed to the workers collectively - have got to agree. But it is not enough for 50% + 1 in that workplace to agree that the union can charge a bargaining fee. The actual worker being charged has to agree, in advance, to paying a fee. That's my understanding of the position.
The big issue that comes out in all our surveys is job security. What also comes through is the feeling that in the deregulated labour market that security is weakened? What policies would you like to offer up to these people?
It is a very good question and it is a very scary thing to think that your job is at risk and especially for bread winners. Your job goes. Your house goes. Your family goes. It is a terrible situation to be in. So it is a very good question. At the end of the day though you can't legislate jobs for life. You can't guarantee anyone's job if there isn't in the end an economic justification for it. I think that the way to best protect jobs is to have workers and managers working cooperatively in the enterprise, trying to ensure that whatever the enterprise is, is as creative, flexible and adaptable as possible in terms of meeting the market opportunities.
Not for a second would I say that every boss is a great bloke. That every boss is the benevolent employer. A lot of bosses don't understand that a happy workforce is their greatest asset. A lot of bosses are into short term, they are not into and into medium and long term planning. I accept that. But still, industrial militancy is rarely the way to go, and building up a kind of them and us log jam isn't really the way to go either.
Those who are experts in these matters - who have spent half a lifetime in the field might think that this is all a bit simplistic, but you just cannot keep uneconomic businesses going without subsidy. And we cannot endlessly subsidise any business and any enterprise and any industry. And in the end, if there is not a dollar in it - if there is not a natural dollar in it, sooner or later it is going to fall over.
One issue that I haven't mentioned that I should mention is that I am very keen to pursue, as a matter of urgent priority, some greater work on promoting employee share ownership. Now, this is the kind of thing which is not necessarily affected by the general legislative log jam. Depending on the packaging we have got. I think that there would be some reasonable chance of getting a package passed this side of an election if there is broad support.
Do you expect that support?
Well, it is certainly my objective. My objective is to try to promote shop floor employee share ownership, rather than mahogany row employee share ownership, and I think that over time that has got to help to break down the old class war antagonisms in the workplace. I mean, if more workers have got a financial stake in the profits of the business, as well as just in the wages that the business can pay, they will better understand the position that the owners and the managers are in. y the same token, if there are more worker shareholders, the owners and the managers will have a better understanding of the predicament of the worker as well.
And if one of the problems of Australian industry is too much labour turnover; too much short termism; too much willingness to make decisions on the basis of the next quarter's profit forecasts, rather than the next five years' staffing requirements, well I think employee share ownership could help correct a lot of those things.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005