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That Friday Feeling
By Phil Doyle
In October Anthony joined former ETU members in the construction industry in voting to walk off the job for 48 hours in support of a 36-hour week that would allow them to spend more time with their families. The strike comes as the 'Build A Life Campaign' gathers momentum in introducing more sensible working hours into the industry.
Anthony has been around the electrical trade for a while now. He joined the ETU in 1970, and in that time he has seen some changes. "People used to say 'have a good weekend'. Now I say 'I won't, I'm having one day off, I'm not going to have a weekend'. I used to enjoy going away camping or fishing; I can't do that anymore."
One anecdote from a sparkie illustrates just how important electricians are in the scheme of things: A carpenter, a fisherman and an electrician are driving along, and the discussion turns to the relative importance of their trades to the Bible.
"The Carpenter would have to be the most important trade,' said the Chippie from the drivers seat. "After all, that was Jesus' dad's job wasn't it?"
"Nah," said the Fisherman from the passenger seat. "Who did Jesus go out and get when he wanted disciples? He got Fishermen!"
"I dunno," piped up the Sparkie. "I think it was an electrician."
"An electrician!" exclaimed his two incredulous travelling companions.
"Well, up the front of the Bible doesn't it say 'and let there be light'?"
The Unwritten Law
There have been many changes in the way electricians have done their job since the Electrical Trades Union started 'lighting the way' back in 1902 - many Sparkies would wonder how they managed to get on for so long without the cordless drill! - But a quick look at hours worked reveals that 100 years down the track it's a case of back-to-the future for many in the industry.
At the turn of the century there was a maximum wage in the industry of seven and sixpence a day, or a dollar fifty, which worked out at roughly 260 pounds a year. Hours of work varied from 60 to over 100 hours a week, with no annual leave.
In 2002 electricians earn on average between $45,000 and $50,000 a year. While the award allows for a 38 hour week, which was achieved in 1982, the ETU knows that in reality electricians in the construction industry work up to and over 60 hours a week.
"It's the unwritten law in this industry," says Anthony. "They don't say you have to work six days a week, what they do is ask 'you don't mind working six days a week do you?' If you don't want to work six days a week they won't give you a start, or they'll drop you for the next job."
When Tony worked on the Finger Wharf job in Woolloomooloo a supervisor told him and his workmates that if they couldn't work seven days a week then they "may as well not be here".
"There were 60 electricians on that job, at the end of it 40 of them got the bullet," explains Anthony. "One minute you're doing 12 hours a day, the next minute you're not doing anything."
In the great Australian tradition Anthony explains his situation with wry humour: "If you came home and found the milkman in bed with your wife, well, you'd know why."
Working Hours and the ETU
The ETU was formed around the issue of working hours and celebrates its centenary this year.
"The Electrical Trades Union was founded 100 years ago this month when workers took action to reduce working hours which, at the time, averaged 60 hours a week," says Electrical Trades Union State Secretary Bernie Riordan.
"A century later, after achieving a formal 38 hour week, we are now back in a similar situation of long working hours.
"In some companies workers are being told that their preparedness to work Saturdays is regarded as a Key Performance Indicator. So while working a six-day week is technically optional, in reality workers have little choice.
"Our members are telling us that the impact of these hours on their ability to play an active role in the family and community are severely compromised."
Anthony Stavropoulos agrees: "I come from a Greek background. It was a pretty humble background. We came from a village and moved to the city," says Anthony. "We came here because of the inequities, the monopolies and so on. We realised the only way we were going to share the cake was if we were organised."
"Don't get me wrong, I think the money's important, but if you can't do important things with your family and those that you love, what's the good of money?"
Thin Edge of the Wedge
Anthony believes long hours are a wedge that breaks up families. His nephew died of a heroin overdose. His brother, who had worked long hours to provide for his family, was shattered.
"He worked hard for years, but he wasn't able to be there for his son, at the soccer and so on. They drifted apart," explains Anthony. "These long hours fragment the family. Other things take precedence, be it the mortgage or repaying the car. In the end your kids grow up as strangers."
"My brother has built a six bedroom, five bathroom house, and now he lives there like a ghost, because the closeness hasn't been built up - there's no connection with the kids and the relatives, so people grow apart."
Bernie Roirdan also points out that long hours do not just effect individual workers and their families, but they also take from the broader community because workers do not have the time to contribute to organisations such as sporting clubs, churches and schools.
The 'Build a Life' campaign is seeking six paid long-weekends in an effort to bring family-friendly working hours to the construction industry. Under the proposal, the entire construction industry would be closed down for three days, six times a year; with shut downs coinciding with existing public holidays.
"Employers are on notice that they have two options: either agree to civilised working hours or face a long period of industrial disputation," says Riordan
Anthony Stavropoulos is worried for the future if reasonable working hours cannot be introduced into the construction industry:
"What we're gonna become is like the old serfs who work for the manor house, and our lives become meaningless," says Anthony. "The manor, he is important and gets to do what he wants to do, but we, the serfs, become unimportant and look at ourselves as unimportant. A person becomes a chattel to a banking institution or whatever."
Anthony, who supports the ETUcampaign, believes people should discuss issues that are important, like excessive working hours, at work:
"We can talk about footy or tennis as much as we like," says Anthony. "But Andre Agassi making another million doesn't enhance my lifestyle. Being on my boat fishing, now that enhances my lifestyle."
As part of the ETU Centenary the ETU are producing a 128 page pictorial history, which will be a prized possession for any trade unionist. Contact Anna Collins for a copy at mailto:[email protected]
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