|Issue No 90||30 March 2001|
On the Up and Up
Interview with Peter Lewis
On the eve of new figures showing the slide in union membership may be bottoming out, ACTU secretary Greg Combet takes stock of the state of the movement.
Greg, it is almost two years now since you put out your Unions@Work Manifesto. Has it made the impact you intended?
Well, you would always like to see a lot more happen, but I think there is real change happening. Whilst I think it is going to take a long time before that translates into some significantly increased membership numbers for unions, and therefore a stronger position to be able to get better outcomes for working people and their families, there are really good signs.
Just the evidence of the number of people that are attending this Organising Conference I think shows that across a very diverse range of unions in all States, from workplace delegates up to national officials, there is a lot of interest in organising; in what it means for unions in terms of change; in what it means in terms of trying to get a better outcome for workers in the future.
So there is a tremendous degree of interest and enthusiasm. I think that there is no doubt that the labour movement is back on the move and we are going to be doing good things in the future, but as we have emphasised from the outset, when we released the report in August 1999, it takes time, and you have got to have the debate and win the debate and put into place the steps to make the changes.
You have yet to be asked what is the single step you think the movement has made in the last two years that has been in the right direction, what would it be?
I think a very honest appraisal about where we are at. At the ACTU Executive I have encouraged a number of unions on each occasion to make a real presentation about what has happened to their union through the 1990s, and as Sam Moait recorded earlier today in her address - she said five years ago she went to the Executive and unions were saying everything is sweet and we are all growing and it is rosy. Everyone knew that wasn't the case.
What we have now is a lot of honesty about what has been happening. Senior officials and branch officials explaining what has happened to their membership; what has happened to their industry. They are analysing what changes have occurred and analysing the changes they need to make in the union to go forward.
At the last ACTU Executive we had two branches in Victoria come along and say look, this is where we are at in this project in this process of change. We haven't done everything right, we've made some mistakes but we have come a long way and there is really some encouraging signs. People are being honest and they are debating the issues and I think that has conveyed a sense of hope that we can make the changes that we need to, and I think it has also distilled in people's minds what we are doing it for.
Everyone in unions works very, very hard, but you have always got to keep a very clear view of what you are doing it for and what the vision is - what you want to achieve. And I thin people have got very squarely in their minds now about the importance of lifting the living standards of working people and their families. That is squarely in everyone's view. They can understand what we are doing it for.
So I think we have got the motivation and the vision right - the debate going - and in some unions there is a well advanced process of change; in others there is a fair way to go but the process is certainly gathering some momentum.
I guess the other big change has been the cooperative ventures between unions. Particularly the Call Central. That must give you some hope that rather than the ACTU being a body to sort out demarcs, you are now becoming a body to facilitate joint ventures?
That has not been an easy project. Call Central, early on when we brought the unions together, pretty much what anyone was interested in was demarcing the industry, and so the tendency was to do what we had always done - that is argue about something where really no one had any members much at all. We overcame that. We have got a protocol of cooperation between the unions. That is not to say that there are not some ongoing issues that need to be sorted. There are. But fundamentally there is a commitment to organising Call Central. And there is a lot of employment there. There is a lot of scope for all unions to organise, and we have tried to go about it in a cooperative way.
But even in traditional areas, that has been another important change, and I mentioned today in my address about the BHP dispute in the Pilbara. This was an area where the unions had terrible relationships and there had been coverage fights and all sorts of disputation - poaching of members - really bitter, entrenched distrust - and that weakened us organisationally on the job. We have been able to get those unions together in a combined, united way for a prolonged period of time to turn that around. To the extent that there is a combined union organiser, and I haven't heard one word from any official at any level, of complaint or disputation about coverage or membership, and amongst the workers on the job when I was last up there a month ago - they were ecstatic. Because they are not interested in Union Bullshit really. They are interested in solid workplace organisation that achieves the goals that they want it to achieve.
So there are a lot of good signs like that.
Just talking about organising for a moment. It seems that it has almost become an all-pervasive term. What does it mean in a nutshell?
I spent a bit of time on that today, because I think that is an issue. It can mean different things to different people, and that is fine. But we are having a two day conference about organising, attended by 650-odd union people from around the country and it is good to re-visit what organising actually means.
It is a very simple thing as far as I am concerned. It is about activism in the workplace in particular - but activism in the wider society as well. It is about involving people in their union. It is not just membership recruitment; it is actively involving people in campaigns in the workplace to achieve the objectives that those workers want to achieve. That is what it means for me.
Other people have been apprehensive about talk of models; about servicing and organising. They have been apprehensive about evangelical approaches imported from the United States in an inappropriate way. They have been concerned about individualism versus organising. A whole range of things - and that is why we visited that today. There are different views and they should be kicked around. It doesn't matter, if it means some different things, or is applied in different ways that are relevant to people's circumstances. But, let's kick it around - and really for me it is union organisation. I don't think there is any great science to it, but there are certain principles about union organisation that we need to re-assert.
What do you say to the industrial legal officers within unions, some of whom say they feel 'dealt out' of the new vision of unionism?
I am not interested in dealing anyone out. As you might know, I have got an industrial officer background, so I am acutely aware. I don't denigrate for one second, any work that anyone does in the union movement. Every contribution is extremely valuable, and I genuinely believe that to be the case.
In bringing about change - in focussing on the workplace - in recognising the diminished role of the centralised wage-fixing in the award system - it changes industrial officers' roles. They mustn't be left out of this process of change. They have got to be integrated into it. There is still a very important job to do in some of that traditional work - in award arbitrations in the different systems. There is very important work to do about legislative change - but there is also important work to do to link those things to what goes on in the workplace - and so industrial staff have got a critical role - as critical as anyone else in my opinion - to play in unions in the future.
Their work might change. We are talking about change to organisers' roles here. We are talking about change to delegates' roles. Industrial officers aren't insulated from any of that and neither are officials. So it all has to be seen as part of a broader picture I think.
The other thing starting to crop up - I noticed in the press last week there was a national union where the leadership is being challenged because they "have failed to embrace the organising model". Does it concern you that in the end something like this can become a doctrine that people use for various reasons?
I made the comment today that I am not much into doctrines or theories or models very much. I am into practical, pragmatic methods that deliver for working people. Keep your eye on the objectives: lift living standards; fairness; health and safety in the workplace. Organising as we are discussing it here at this conference is one of the means to achieve that - linked to a whole lot of other things.
In terms of internal union politics, people will use all sorts of things in all sorts of ways to justify and advance their position, so I don't particularly want to buy into that. I thought it was a rather cute line when I saw it in the media, but I don't draw too much into it.
But it does run the risk of devaluing the term, doesn't it?
Yes that is possible, but I think people understand politics. I mean, there is a political struggle in that particular union at the moment, and people will use all sorts of things. The irony of that comment is that that is one of the most well organised unions in CBD construction that there is - around the world in construction. It is a pretty well organised outfit, and they have built that union on organising methods. Doesn't matter how you characterise it. You might call it something different. So, it is a bit of politics and don't pay too much attention to it.
Let's talk about Federal politics. The election is looming. Obviously there couldn't be a better time to be in the union movement than now, with the likely onset of the Labor Government. How are you viewing the next six months?
A lot of hard work. But hard work that I hope can lead to a change of government. And unions I see playing a substantive role in the course of the next six months, in taking to people in their workplace and in their communities a debate about the issues.
And the issues are: People's hours of work. Balancing their work and family commitments. Job security. The difficulties of being a casual worker when you don't enjoy the community standards like paid sick leave or paid annual leave that most of the rest of the workforce do. Those sorts of things are key issues for working people and you have to have a look at what political parties have got the best programmes to satisfy those things.
The unions have obviously got a long, productive relationship with the Labor Party, and if you look at Labor's programme - the influence that unions have helps ensure that that programme is going to deliver some results for working people and their families.
So we are going to be taking those debates out there. Discussing the various approaches that have been taken to them by all political parties. I think people are fed up with John Howard. I don't think they would believe him, even if he said he suddenly had started listening and became concerned about what is worrying the people out there in their homes in the real world. I don't think they will believe him.
So, we will be working very hard to bring about a change of government. I think this has been a very poor government from a whole lot of angles. It has been poor for working people; it has been very antithetical to union rganization - which has been a bad thing - I think demonstrably. But it is also that their claim to be a sound economic management outfit is in tatters. This is not a good government for economic management. The GST has induced the negative growth in the December quarter. Even the Reserve Bank has acknowledged that now. It is not a good economic manager at all. They are blowing away the budget surplus and who knows where we will end up. They are quite irresponsible.
So, I think the next six months should be pretty interesting. I think the tide has turned well against the Howard Government now, and I think the important thing is that we are able to get a better outcome for the labour movement in the future.
Looking forward towards the Labor Government, we have said that there is not going to be an Accord. What is the relationship going to be? Have you got to the stage of talking to people in Labor about how the two wings of the labour movement will interact?
We talk frequently. And we also talk to the Democrats and other parties too. But obviously, how we view it, as the ACTU - and I think this is generally the view across the union movement - is that there is 100 years of history between unions and Labor, and that has been very important for Australian society and Australian working people. It has delivered a lot of things, that relationship between the industrial and political wings of the labour movement.
Times are different. Most people refer the relationship to the Accord period, and the last had Labor governments. There won't be an Accord this time. Not for some grand political reason really. It is just that the world has moved on. The main change that has happened is that there is no centralised wage fixing system anymore. There is a decentralised bargaining system. And the Accord was founded on a centralised wage fixing system.
But there will be a good relationship between unions and the ACTU, and Labor. We will be pushing very hard about the issues of concern to workers. And it is the issues that will define the relationship more than anything else.
If there are fights over junior wages and things that divide us, obviously the relationship will suffer. If there is a good community of view about the key issues that I have mentioned, obviously the relationship is going to be a good, productive one.
Does it concern you that without the Accord the unions just end up being another interest group that is struggling to get the ear of the government?
No. I think the quality of the relationship will be determined by how unions advocate the issues. How effectively Labor embraces policy responses to those issues. But as I say, there is 100 years of history in this. This is another phase of the relationship between the industrial and the political wing. I am very committed to making that a productive relationship from the ACTU's point of view. So is Sharan Burrow. So is the ACTU Executive. But we will be out there arguing the issues that we think are important.
There might be things that divide us at times, but I think overwhelmingly it is going to be a very strong relationship.
Finally, you foreshadowed more stats out this Wednesday, showing that the slide may not have been arrested. How do we interpret that information?
Well, I would be happy to be wrong. But I am very conscious from going around the country and talking to union officials; negotiating with employers - that the structural change in the economy is proceeding at a grand pace and the impact of job losses in the industries that have traditionally been well unionised, is continuing.
You might remember when we put out the Unions at Work Report, we were talking about - I think we had to recruit two hundred odd thousand people, just to break even with the structural change. I think that structural change has accelerated since that time. There is an enormous organising job to do, just to keep up with the pace of structural change.
We will have a look at the figures and analyse them very closely when they come out. I would love to of course see an improvement, and I am hopeful that there will be, but my practical experience says that with what has been going on in the labour force and with the economy turning down in the December quarter, there is still going to be some problems. And not only that, we are only just starting to turn around some of the anti-union legislation that the conservative government brought into place. In Western Australia - I was over there last week talking to the government about their IR changes and if Labor is elected federally, obviously there are IR law changes that are needed there - and it is a cultural change that can be led by Labor governments too, that puts away some of the conflict and the division and encourages people to cooperate. All of those things have an impact and I think over time we will see the situation turn around.
Interview: On the Up and Up
On the eve of new figures showing the slide in union membership may be bottoming out, ACTU secretary Greg Combet takes stock of the state of the movement.
Unions: Organising Theory
Labor Council’s Chris Christodoulou reports back from this week’s ACTU Organising Conference
Economics: The Failure of the Third Way
In his presentation to this week's ACTU Organising Conference, John Buchanan painted a dark picture of the emerging labour market.
History: Emblems of Unity
The Gregory J. Smith Collection of Trade Union badges was auctioned today in Sydney. Smith compiled a book on 763 of his remarkable collection which was published in 1992.
Legal: Della's Compo Plan
Labour lawyer Richard Brennan places the NSW workers compensation reforms under the microscope.
International: East Timor Goes Union
Workers in the fledgling nation have established their equivalent to the ACTU to build a safety net for workers.
Satire: Management for the Post-Industrial World
A new management fad is sweeping the post-industrial world, which has major social and political implications at the macro and micro level. We have called it "Purge Management Strategy" (PMS).
Review: Surviving The Temptations of TV Island
Cultural analyst Mark Morey rakes over the coals of American TV culture to find very little is there.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005