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May 2003   

Interview: Staying Alive
CPSU national secretary Adrian O'Connell talks about the fight to keep the public service - and the union movement - alive.

Bad Boss: The Ultimate Piss Off
Wollongong workers on poverty-level wages are losing up to $5000 for taking toilet breaks, according to the union representing staff at a Stellar call centre.

Industrial: Last Drinks
Jim Marr looks at the human cost of the decision to close Sydney�s Carlton United Brewery

National Focus: Around the States
If Tampa told us that John Howard circa 2003 is the same spotted rabid dog from 1987, this week�s assault on Medicare confirms it reports Noel Hester in this national round up.

Politics: Radical Surgery
Workers are vitally interested in Medicare, not least because they traded away wage rises to get it. Now, Jim Marr writes, the Coalition Government is tearing apart the 20-year-old social contract on which it was founded.

Education: The Price of Missing Out
University students and their families will pay more for their education following the May Budget, writes Tony Brown.

Legal: If At First You Don't Succeed
Love is wonderful the second time around, goes the famous torch song. But is the same true for legislation? Asks Ashley Crossland

History: Massive Attack
Labour historian Dr Lucy Taksa remembers the general strike of 1917 to put the recent anti-war marches into perspective

Culture: What's Right
Neale Towart looks at a new book that looks at the failings of the Left, while reasserting the liberal project

Review: If He Should Fall
Jim Marr caught Irish folk-rock-punk legend Shane MacGowan at Sydney�s Metro Theatre. He was surprised but not disappointed.

Poetry: If I Were a Rich Man
Through a distortion in the time-space continuum, we have found a recording showing how people a few years into the future will deal with health care.

Satire: IMF Ensures Iraq Institutes Market Based Looting
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has agreed to monitor the Iraqi economy to ensure that the reintroduction of looting into the economy conforms with free-market theory.


The Soapbox
What May Day Means to Me
Reader Marlene McAlear penned this tribue to May Day and worker solidarity.

The Toast
Labor Council secretary John Robertson's toast to the annual May Day dinner in Sydney.

The Locker Room
The Numbers Game
In life there is lies, damned lies and sporting statistics, says Phil Doyle - but who�s counting.

Brukman Evicted
ZNet's Marie Trigona reports from the streets of Argentina in the rundown to last week's presidential election.

The Costs of Excess
Some tall business poppies had their heads lopped this week as the laws of economic gravity applied their always chaotic theory.


Solidarity Forever
Another May Day, another year gone, another year to look back on our history and celebrate the past and talk about how we can make our movement strong again.


 Mystery Men Behind Pan Bungle

 Charities Brace for Medicare Backlash

 Court Throws Out Cole Prosecutions

 Child Actor Dodges Broken Voice

 Rio Tinto: $40 Million for Boss, Eviction for Workers

 Child Care for Oldies Too

 Winning Poster Shouts at Freeloaders

 May Day Tragedy Claims Union Lives

 Westfield Cleaners to Down Mops

 Question Marks Over Nursing Home

 Burn Payout Highlights Compo Fears

 Costa Blows Whistle on Canberra Raid

 Hoops Bet on National Body

 Tear Us Down, Buttercup

 Activist Notebook

 Is Labor History?
 Bob Gould Sprays Gerard Henderson
 War and Peace
 A Strange Light
 A Little History
 Does It Have To Be?
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Staying Alive

Interview with Peter Lewis

CPSU national secretary Adrian O'Connell talks about the fight to keep the public service - and the union movement - alive.


The federal Budget is just around the corner. Do you expect another round of cuts or are there positive expectations in the lead up to this Federal Budget?

In the early years of the Howard Government, they were quite savage in cutting 100,000 jobs out of the public sector. Last year's budget was the first occasion where there was actually an increase in staffing in some places. Interestingly those increases went to some of the worst affected areas, like the tax office and welfare agencies, as well as Customs and border protection areas. The numbers are still well below what they were, but it was the first time since 1996 that we'd seen a change and some increases in funding.

As to this year, we anticipate it will be fairly much business as normal in terms of the public sector. That means ongoing 'efficiency' dividend cuts and perhaps a few slight increases tied to new projects or policies. We've seen no indication that this government supports of concept of quality public services. Exactly the opposite really.

I met with Tony Abbott last November and we asked him then what, if anything, they anticipated in terms of public sector changes and he said "no significant changes at all". Since then some issues have arisen that weren't anticipated, perhaps as a result of the war and government policy changes.

Whenever we have a state election the rhetoric seems to be all about the importance of nurses, teachers and police officers. Do you think there's a sense that public service is back in vogue and if so, how do you translate that into your broader membership base?

Well, I think certainly the era of privatization is over; the era when the private sector providing services was seen to be automatically preferable to the public sector; the perception that public servants were inefficient, ineffective, cardigan wearing, tea-sipping types. I think that stereotype is dying.

I think there is a wider appreciation of the role of public services, particularly as we've seen the effects of privatization - the declining service standards, office closures and large corporations doing a 'hit and run'. And that's why I think you'll find no support at all for the privatisation of the remaining services of Telstra or indeed a whole range of other public services.

Yet it seems to be the nurses, the teachers the cops who are being put on a pedestal. Is there a problem in actually portraying what a public servant does in the modern world? Is that something that your union's grappling with?

Yes that's a fair observation and we're trying to address it. It is really important to celebrate and promote the public sector. Take the recent Canberra bushfires for example. Notwithstanding the efforts of people right across the community, it is the public sector that people turned to in a crisis. You had ABC radio keeping people informed about the direction of the fires, you had Centrelink workers providing immediate financial help, you had community services counsellors out helping people cope with losing their houses, you had emergency services staff doing their thing. And behind all these people are teams of other public sector workers making it all happen.

A lot of work that gets done by public servants isn't automatically recognized as a public service because it's not automatically high profile. What we try to do in our journals and publications is identify interesting jobs and people and say this is a public sector job and get people to look at it say "Wow! I didn't realize that's a public sector role."

The CPSU faced a crisis after 1996, how bad was it for your union?

It was a crisis that could have lead to our not being in business today if we didn't make dramatic changes. Because of the massive public sector cuts, we lost in the order of 50 per cent of our membership in a very short period of time. Although we knew that the Liberal government was coming, we were not prepared - in terms of how we did our business, how we were structured, how we managed our affairs. In the mid 90's, as a union we were flabby and out of condition. We hadn't done a lot of those things that unions these days recognise need to be done. The upside of this crisis is that it has actually made us make changes that we might have otherwise not faced up to.

I think we're now leading the way in many respects in terms of those things that unions need to do to be relevant in the 21st Century. Both in terms of structuring ourselves appropriate to the way our members do their job, and also the attitudinal change that's taking place within the organization. The agenda that we as a union must run, is the members' agenda.

The old idea of the union official running their own political agenda, put too much distance between the unions and the members. So for us, the new catch-cry is... we've got to be effective and relevant to the lives of the members that we represent now ...and the workers that we seek to represent in the 21st Century - not to other political agendas.

Of course one of the agendas that you guys confronted was the Howard Government's IR agenda and the attempt to spread individual contracts into the public sector. How successful you been in parrying that move?

We've met the government on its own turf. I believe that the conservatives actually believe in their own rhetoric. They think that, given the choice, workers would choose not to be represented by the unions, not to be part of a collective agreement. But that has not happened. Given a free choice, public sector workers are saying they want to be represented by the union. Even those who aren't even members recogonise the value of getting unions involved in bargaining.

I mean, in Tony Abbott's own department members chose overwhelmingly to be represented by their union.

Over all, I think that something like 90 percent of our agreements are collective agreements and 90 percent of the public servants are represented by unions through a collective agreements, whether they are members or not.

I suspect the Howard Government is unhappy at the choices public sector workers continue to make in bargaining. Abbott's agenda now is to take that choice away. Now he's saying to public sector managers... "you must employ people on AWA's.. if you want a promotion, you must be on AWA's".

We've also tackled him on that and he seems to have moved away from that position too...for now... I think because he's now aware of the legal difficulties in implementing the policy and the conflict with the very core of that pubic service value of that promotion on merit.

That said, I've got no doubt that the government is going to continue to try and find ways to implement the policy of breaking down unionism, breaking down collectivism, taking away the effective choice of people to be represented by the unions and we're going to have to meet that challenge. It'll be more subtle than a head on assault, but it may be that managers, for example, will have part of their bonuses tied to increasing the number of people they get on AWA's. Those sort of more subtle, insidious arrangements.

So in effect, you've been running recognition ballots in every department?

Well, I haven't thought of it that way, but yes.

And has that been a good thing for the union in terms of re-invigorating the union within the department?

It's been a good discipline on the union. The union actually has to be relevant and if you're not relevant then people will vote with their feet. They've got the choice, they don't have to support the union. They don't' have to participate in the union. And if they've got the opportunity to go off and have an agreement outside the union, well then they can take it. So in that sense it's actually assisted us make a cultural shift in our organisation to make sure that we're relevant.

What misconceptions did you discover about your membership? What were the wrong messages you were sending out?

A lot of the agendas that we were running years ago were well-intentioned, but perhaps off the mark. It was cases of elected full-time officials, union specialists, labor relations specialists thinking they instinctively knew the things that members wanted, when more detailed research would have shown a slightly different set of issues. That particularly applied to some of issues around workers' family for example. Childcare is a good example. Childcare is important to a segment of our membership, but clearly not all. We found out some members wanted the ability to stay home. What they actually wanted was us to campaign for more more leave. Yet we sort of had a policy position that childcare was the only answer, in all cases. Obviously, in hindsight, the key thing that was missing was giving people the space to make a choice and not have a solution imposed upon them.

The other issue that has emerged in recent times has been the politicisation of the public sector, particularly at the federal level. How do you, as a union go, about re-establishing the independence of the public sector

Under this government, public sector politicisation has grown dangerously. No one is threatened directly with the sack for not towing a particular line, but the signs are clear enough. It is very subtle, very insidious.

The whole 'kids overboard' debacle gives us a glimpse into how the Howard government continually blurs the line between operating for the good of the country, and operating for the good of the Liberal party. They are not the same thing.

How do we combat it? First up, we expose it where and when we can. Secondly we need to do more to support whistleblowers and people with the guts to speak out about it.

Part of the answer, too, relates to how we operate as a union. We need to ensure that we aren't seen to be a partisan politically. How can we campaign against politicization of the public sector if we, ourselves are seen as partisan? This really message resonates among our membership because they actually work on a day to day debate with the government. They're often more acutely aware about the relationships with one political party over the other.

That would have been a tough one for you, a left wing trade union probably socially opposed to the racist end of the boarder protection debate, but with members who probably want more resources. How do you juggle those sorts of issues?

Well, on one level, it's simple. Our job is to represent the members, not what our own personal political views may be as officials. And on border protection issues, they're not necessarily in conflict. We are running a 'better borders' campaign right now to stop the Government outsourcing inspectors.

Just on that broader political independence, while your members see the union getting bashed by the Howard Government they don't want you to be close to the Labor Party?

That's right. And I think a lot of our members have been around for a long time and remember that privatisation and a lot of those issues started with the Labor Party. What they want us to do is to be professional in our relationship with all political parties. So whoever the government of the day is, they expect us to have a professional and positive and constructive relationship. Now, clearly in the case of the current government, we've got a significant problem, because they are not only fundamentally opposed to unionism, they are actually out to destroy unions and unionism. Its not like we've got a dispute over something and once the dispute settles we then get on and we accept that each others lives. They are fundamentally opposed to us and seeking to destroy us. So our relationship is strained by that position and that ideology

Finally, what lessons do you think the CPSU experience over the last seven years can teach the broader union movement?

Well I'm always reluctant to lecture the broader union movement, but I'll tell you my own view. I think clearly the unions have got to restructure. I think the greatest single failing of the union movement is our inability to put our ideologies of solidarity into practice. We continue to waste resources on territorialism, on protecting our own patch and acting in a bureaucratic and institutionalised manner rather than in a genuine movement.

The biggest barrier we had to overcome within the CPSU was our own organisational culture. The crisis we faced meant actually convincing people to give up control over things such as finances and staffing and concentrate on organising, for the greater good of the union.

When it comes to being an effective union movement, unless we overcome that unwillingness to challenge ourselves and change, then I think we'll continue to have great difficulties.

We're dealing with some of the most ruthless well-funded employers in the country - Telstra, IBM and the Federal government. They've got deep pockets and they are very clear and strategic about what they want.

Some could argue we're boxing above our weight taking them on. And yet we've got other unions in the same industries with us we could be joining forces with. Are we be working together with them to beat a common foe? Well, yes and no. Sometimes we're fighting each other. I can see how this might look to a worker in one of these unorganised industries. They must see unions squabbling and say 'you guys mouth all this 'stronger together' values, but look how you act'.

Until we get our act together, people are not going to get on board, particularly young people. Unless we can overcome that sort of narrow, self-interested behaviour and start acting collectively, genuinely collectively, then I think that we're going to have great difficulties.

Just in the main white collar unions, think of the money we all waste duplicating administrative resources. It's madness when there are areas like the Job Networks, all and IT and Telcos that remain largely unorganised. If we were a business we'd make a strategic alliance, pool our resources and we'd go and tackle it.

Now you don't overcome problem like that - I've discovered - by criticising people. My project is not only to keep growing the CPSU in our heartland, public sector areas, and in those new areas that we've targeted like Telcos and IT, but to try and make strategic and effective alliances. What I'm trying to do is develop good working relationships and alliances with the union such as the ASU, FSU, CEPU and APESMA.

The new jobs are in the service industry, they're in the white collar industry - that's the future of employment here in Australia as far as we can see. This is where workers are moving from the public to the private sector. They are the areas that we, as responsible unions, need to get our act together. None of us has the resources, or the ability, to go and unionise those sectors by ourselves.

I'm appalled that old-style, cold war left/right politics stills plays a role...I disdain it. People who continue to promote that stuff as an excuse for not building effective union alliances are doing real damage to the movement's future. To me it's just bullshit. A complete phony excuse for actually not doing the job. Organised labour, in my view, is the only thing that has the capacity internationally to tackle the problems all workers face. If unions go under then it's going to be a pretty bleak world.

But there are still reasons for optimism and hope. We see it all the time. In new delegates, in new organisers. In members realising they can actually take back a bit of control and respect by sticking together.


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