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February 2003   

Interview: Agenda 2003
ACTU secretary Greg Combet looks at the year ahead and how a union movement can keep the focus on the workplace at a time of global crisis.

Peace: The Colour Purple
Local communities across Australia are taking stands against war by displaying purple banners. Jim Marr visits one.

Industrial: Long, Hot Summer
As Workers Online took its annual break, the world kept turning � at an increasingly alarming velocity.

Solidarity: Workers Against War
Joann Wypijewski reports on how union locals in the USA are fighting the hounds of war at home.

Security: Howard And The Hoodlums
With all the talk of terror, the Howard Government�s Achilles heel is its tolerance of Flags of Convenience shipping , writes Rowan Cahill

International: Industrial Warfare
Scottish freight train drivers have already acted to disrupt the war effort in the UK with crews of four freight trains carrying war supplies to ports walking off the job, writes Andrew Casey

History: Unions and the Vietnam War
The Vietnam experience steered some unions towards social activism for the first time. Unions are today key players in the anti-war movement, writes Tony Duras.

Review: Eight Miles to Mowtown
Mark Hebblewhites looks at two summer movies that tap into different sounds of American culture - white boy rap and motown blues.

Poetry: Return To Sender
Resident bard Divd Peetz discovers that Elvis has become the latest shock recruit to the peace cause.

Satire: CIA Recruits New Intake of Future Enemies
CIA Director George Tenet announced today that the agency has begun recruiting future enemies for the year 2014.


The Soapbox
Getting On with The Job
Premier Bob Carr chose Trades Hall as the venue to launch Labor's IR policy for the upcoming state election.

Justice in Bogota
Sydney lawyer Ian Latham knows how to pick them. He�s gone straight from the Cole Royal Commission to justice Colombian-style.

The Locker Room
Heart Of Darkness
There is a school of thought that there is, in fact, only one World Cup - and it doesn�t involve cricket, writes Phil Doyle.

Danger Mouse
John Howard's politics have trapped him into supporting an unpopular war. He is in political trouble, Leonie Bronstein argues.


A Call To Arms
Workers Online returns from our summer break to face a world on the brink, the structures of global cooperation being crushed by the iron will of the earth�s last remaining superpower.


 The Cuffe Link � Taxpayers Cough Up

 Carr: Secret Lib Plan to Slash Public Sector

 Abbott Comes Out Swinging

 Thanks a Million: Cole�s Lawyers Clean-up

 Corrigan Dogs On Jobs Promise

 Gnomes Fess Up � Unionism Best For All

 Owens Survives 30-Year Ban

 Ribs and Rumps Something for Government to Chew On

 Badges of Honour

 Guards Rail Against Assaults

 Workers Online Scoops Global Prize

 Currawong Must Pay It�s Way

 Let�s Get Real! 2nd Australasian Organising Conference

 Guard Knocked Out in Villawood Escape

 Activists Notebook

 Bouquets and Brickbats
 War Talk
 A Tale of Two Malls
 Talk Back Tom
 On The Beach
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Agenda 2003

Interview with Peter Lewis

ACTU secretary Greg Combet looks at the year ahead and how a union movement can keep the focus on the workplace at a time of global crisis.

We start 2003 amidst the drums of war. What implications will this international focus have on the sorts of domestic battles for workers rights the ACTU is focused on?

At one level it makes it harder to promote and generate debate about issues affecting working people in the public discourse. But there's no doubt that, notwithstanding all of the focus on international events, change is proceeding apace in workplaces across the country and that's having an adverse affect on many working people. This is still dominating our working lives - the affects of casual employment, low pay, difficulty in balancing work and family, the sorts of working hours a lot of people are facing, the myriad of issues that are there are real in people lives. I was in one big workplace yesterday and that 's what's on people's minds. They're obviously concerned about the international environment, but they're most specifically and directly concerned about things affecting them. And it goes beyond their workplace, of course, it goes to issues such as the collapse of bulk billing, the cost of education and the like.

For the union movement, particularly over the last five or six years, international conventions have been a very important forum for arguing against the Howard IR agenda. Are you concerned at what appears to be the looming breakdown of international consensus on security and the implications that may have on the broader system of international agreements?

Oh, absolutely. Unions have a longstanding commitment to internationalism and in particular the post war international institutions. These things were developed with a widespread level of support throughout the world community after the Second World War in an effort to preserve the peace and prevent acts of aggression. If nations, including our own, adopt a path that says 'well we don't' really care what the United Nations says about this, we're going to attack Iraq unilaterally', it represents one of the most serious threats to those international institutions that we've seen in the post war period. So we are very concerned about that and it's not going to be any surprise that other nations also say well we don't care about international institutions either, whether it be the UN of the ILO or anything else. So there are very important issues involved here and it's extremely important that the labour movement broadly speaks up on behalf of the international organisations that are designed to protect people.

More difficult perhaps is the question: where should the union movement go if the UN does approve US intervention?

I think that's obviously the key issue. Once you express your support for international institutions and a UN process then you have to very carefully consider the outcome of that process. I don't think that debate has been thoroughly had at all yet within the union movement and certainly we've got to consider the consequences of that further within the ACTU and with all our affiliates. But in carefully considering the issues it is very hard to make out a case for an attack on Iraq if indeed a peaceful process of containment can validly work. So I think there's a fair bit of debate to be continued.

Domestically, the Cole Royal Commission's is on the agenda. How do you see this playing out?

Well we're expecting the Report of the Cole Royal Commission in the next couple of weeks. I think the 24th February 2003 has been nominated, whether or not it becomes public that day, we'll see. I think given the way the Royal Commission has been conducted and reported regularly in Workers Online, it has been a very, very unfair process. There have been 363 employer witnesses all making allegations against unions, union officials and workers. Those allegations haven't been able to be tested in cross-examination because of the way that the Royal Commission has been conducted. Unions haven't been able to cross-examine those employer witnesses.

Up against that we've had a grand total of 36 workers and workers representatives give evidence. It's been very unfair and I think as a consequence you can expect the Report will be a litany of allegations and complaints against unionism in the construction industry. We have to be ready for that and be ready to argue our case. I think undoubtedly the Government will then use that report to try and argue for further legislative change. There's now another Bill, we understand, coming into Parliament, which will be designed to remove union officials from office if they don't adhere to particular orders of Courts and Commissions. So I think we're going to see further legislative attack. That means there's a lot of political lobbying work to be done this year in Canberra. We've also got to fight our case publicly so that people in the community understand what is going on here and I think that is going to be one of the really significant challenges that we will have this year.

At the same time we're also looking towards to the HIH Royal Commission, which the preliminary suggests up to 1,000 civil and criminal charges being leveled. Do you see this as being a case of a few bad apples or a system at the top end becoming more and more corrupt?

In terms of HIH, I think we have got serious problems of corporate governance in this country. There are serious problems of corporate governance in the United States and we've got them here too and HIH is but one example. There's been others, One.Tel, there's been a litany of them. There is now an overwhelming case that we need to strengthen the law to improve corporate behaviour and the conduct of directors and CEO's. CEO's salary need to be bought into line in a way that creates legitimacy within the community. We've got to ensure that fundamental standards of corporate behaviour are respected and that directors can be pursued legally if they are not. There is something wrong at the top end of town.

The Howard Government is failing to address that. What we see it doing instead is introducing a new Bill into Parliament designed to hold down the wages of low paid people. They're prepared to regulate low paid workers, low income workers, people who depend on minimum wages and regulate them to an even lower standard living. But it continues to do nothing about the obvious failures of regulation at the top end of town. I think people can see through this and it's a case the union movement needs to argue very strongly this year.

Its now been nearly seven years that Labor's been in opposition Federally. How has the role of the ACTU changed over that period?

Well, it's change profoundly. In 1996 we still had an Accord relationship of sorts between the ACTU and the Labor Government. Obviously the loss of Government for Labor meant very profound changes for the ACTU as an organisation and for the union movement generally. I think over that seven years its been a strong transition to a situation where we've refocused in recent years on rebuilding organisation at the workplace level, trying to look a bit more widely at how we can attract and recruit people in areas where jobs are growing and also completely re-jigging our policy agenda. Our policy agenda must be driven by the interests and aspirations of working people and working families. I feel we're still in a transitional process at the moment to really making the changes throughout the union movement right through the ACTU, through the Federal unions, the State unions and down into the workplace. We've got a long way to go but I think the signs are very positive and obviously that's meant a very different role for the ACTU, but I think we're adjusting to that pretty well.

Of course in the business world the theory is that change is constant, there is no end point. Do you actually seen an end point when you'll say the reform process is over or is it just going to be ongoing?

Look, hopefully we can look back in some years time and say well, gee, we did successfully make major institutional changes throughout the union movement in that period, the late 90's early 21st Century. This will reflect our transition from an institution involved in a centralised wage fixing system to institutions which are focused at negotiating pay and conditions at a workplace and industry level for people. I hope we can say that we improved our campaigning capacity enormously, that we were able to rebuild membership and organise people in growing parts of the economy and - providing we make those changes - I think we will look back and say look we did make a big shift. But you're quite right, change will be continuous, the economy is going to continue to change, the nature of work and technology will to continue to change. We must adapt to it. But I think we've been in a phase where we've had to make hugely significant organisational changes in order to deal with this reality. I think we were possibly a bit slow in turning the ship around, but the ship is turning around now and there'll be a point where we can say generally I think we're on the right course.

We've now got Labor Government coast to coast at a State level. Are you looking for more leadership at that level to promote workers rights?

Yes. There's a lot of employees for a start that still have there workplaces regulated after state jurisdictions. There are many, many employees in that position and there is more that Labor Governments at State and Territory level could do. You know they could certainly assist the process of organisational change to deal with the centralised bargaining; for example by working with unions and employers where it' appropriate to stimulate a far higher level of delegates education so that people can be equipped with the skills to participate in workplace level bargaining. That is a fundamental need that exists, I think broadly in the labor movement, including the Labor Party. There needs to be a response to that, and resources are needed and I think Labor Government's can contribute here.

At a policy level, I think Labor's got a lot to do to make sure that they fully comprehend the nature of change taking place in the economy and the workplace. That they fully comprehend the impact that has on working people, whether it be through the generation of casual jobs, low paid jobs, contracting out, the use of labor hire firms, the conditions people are subjected to, with some of the growth sectors like call centers. I don't think the process of Governments public policy making has come to grips with this reality yet. I think unions are far ahead in that understanding, but there's a lot that Labor governments can and should do to ensure that people are better protected in that process of change. It's not going to be enough for the Labor governments to say - oh well that's a Federal responsibility - and I'm not suggesting that that's what they're all saying, but there is a tendency to think well we'll leave it to the Federal system. Well the Federal system will not deliver under Howard and Tony Abbott. I'm certainly working hard where I canto convince Labor Governments - we're in constant dialogue with them and we want to see a bit of action in the next few years.

Finally Greg, how will you gauge your success in 2003?

Well we've got a lot on this year and I guess I want to revitalise, if that's the appropriate terminology; putting the emphasis on our two key themes, union renewal - organisational renewal, organising, education - and giving greater emphasis to our policy renewal process, our emphasis on work and family issues. How we can continue to build living standards for low paid workers and how we can get a better deal for casual employees throughout the workforce, many things like that. Both of those themes are intertwined in that issues lead to organisation and membership and union renewal. So I want to push on with those and put up a number of policies changes at the Congress. In the lead up to the Congress in August we've got an Organising Conference in May. We will also be producing a report along with ACIRRT and launching that at another conference in May about the policy challenges that we've got ahead for employees in the workforce.

We'll be putting material forward, we'll be stimulating debate, we'll be taking policy responses to the Congress. These are the things that I'll be looking back on when I get to the end of this year to see just how effectively we've been able to continue our program. I want to look back and see a good outcome in the wage case and our other test cases, membership has lifted, unions are continuing to change, we've improved living standards with better pay, we've pushed on with some OHS issues, and we've done better on delegates education. You know I've got a whiteboard here full of all the objectives and I'll be hoping to look back on that positively. I've been in the job now three years, almost exactly, and I can look back over that three years and say we've achieved a lot of things. But I'm very mindful of what we've got to push on with so I want this year to be a year of achievement for us.


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