Interview: The New Deal
Unions: In the Line of Hire
Culture: Too Cool for the Collective?
International: The Domino Effect
Industrial: A Spanner in the Works
National Focus: Gathering of the Tribes
History: The Welcome Nazi Tourist
Bad Boss: Domm, Domm Turn Around
Poetry: Just Move On.
Review: Reality Bites
The Locker Room
The Secret Life of Us
It Is Still About The Members Isn't It
The New Deal
Interview with Peter Lewis
You've been talking to Australian unions about creating a bigger idea of what unions actually are in the community. What's your experience from America that you're bringing out to Australia?
What American unions are trying to struggle with is how to return back to an important period in our history where we really were the moral center of politics than a community. So in many ways American unions are trying to transform themselves and be seen increasingly as inclusive organisations that are connected to communities interests and really advocating for issues that are in the public's interest, rather than think of this as new. In many ways it is taking a page out our history and trying to get back to what the roots were in the labour movement when we really were about social justice and we really were the centre of moral justice in our communities.
Everyone would love unions to be like that but what are the barriers that are in the way towards actually becoming something that is more in touch with the community?
I think it's always a struggle to try to figure out where labour's interests intersect with the community. But so long as we're open culturally to try and figure out where our interests intersect and where we have a basis for unity with the community it leads us toward a different set of activities. I don't know if its so much a barrier in terms of getting and doing it versus just having a philosophical commitment as a union that you're trying to link to the broader community.
You've described the path that you've taken as a 10 year journey. What are the first steps along that path?
I think one of the first steps is by a labour movement coming together with all of its affiliates and asking itself what does it want to look like 5-10 years from now, how does it want to be perceived by its members, what are the words it wants the broader community to think of when it thinks of the labour movement, how does it want to be perceived among elected officials? I think any attempt to get from one point from where we need to be in the future really begins with sort of planning asking yourself as a group, as a collective how do we want to be seen, and what's our strategy for getting there?
Of course part of that is seeing where you can go. Tell us about some of the achievements you've gained through this change. I'm thinking, particularly of for instance, the building contracts link to providing the unionised service jobs
We've tried to work really hard over the years in the South Bay Labour Council to transform the culture of the labour movement into one from being the labour movement being an individual loosely knit collection of unions to the labour movement being a collection of organisations that stand in solidarity with one another and so for example, the example that you alluded to, when the building trades are getting ready to build a project in say San Jose they won't find a project labour until they have a developer and they have assurances and guarantees that their brothers and sisters in the services sector side are going to be taken care of and so as more unions think about each other and think about their collective interests we really are building a strong movement that's able to leverage power for all aspects of the labour movement.
Is this a conversation just amongst the leadership or does it translate to the workplace as well and if so, how do you extend that conversation?
I think the conversation starts with leadership but it doesn't end there. I think that the extend that we're trying to transform the culture within of our unions to be an inclusive organization, flexible organisation, democratic organisation and that by definition requires that we engage our membership and that we really figure out ways to get deeper down into the membership and democratise our organization. I mean we can't really re-build the labour movement if we don't have activism and participation from our members at every level.
You've only been here a short time but how far do you think the Australian unions are down this track if we're anywhere?
I'm so impressed by what I've observed in the Australian labour movement. I think that there's an incredible amount of integrity. There's so many good people that I have observed that are really committed genuinely they're trying to re-build a movement for workers rights in this country. I think there are incredible assets the Australian labour movement has that we don't have in the US. For example your union density is higher than ours. You haven't hit the same levels that we've hit. Your relationships with the Labor Party while often times may not be a perfect relationship you have so much opportunity to really control the party so that it can increasingly meet the needs of working people. We don't have that same kind of relationship with the Democratic Party in the United States so I would say you're density, your laws, your political relationships in the Labor Party, make you in many ways more asset rich than the US.
If anything we are politically in a process of distancing at the moment and I guess that we can learn from your more difficult relationship with the Democrat Party. How have you gone about staking out your political agenda then exerting influence on politicians?
Increasingly in the labour movement and the US in general and the Silicon Valley in particular is trying to build its own independent political power. We're trying to do a much better job at being clearer about what are expectations are with those candidates that we endorse. We're being much clearer about the fact that our expectations are linked to our desire to grow. If we say on the one hand that we want to grow as unions and that organising is a priority then we ought to have expectations from political leaders that they're going to provide support to us as we try to grow. That means having different expectations from political leaders than we have historically had. So one change is to change the expectations from the elected officials. The second change is to increasingly build our own independent political action arms that go door to door to get people elected. That phone on behalf of candidates and as opposed to just folding all of our members into a candidates campaign we build the campaign on behalf of that candidate and that begins to transform the power dynamic.
What are some of the achievements in terms of tangible political results that you can point to in your region?
Recently in San Jose, which is the sort of capital city of Silicon Valley we've been able to win a seven person majority on the city council. Now that we have a strong majority in the city council, we're moving forward a public policy initiative. It's very innovative. It calls for a series of social standards to be met anytime local government makes public investments. In other words anytime government uses its public resources to do develop there are now going to be criteria that call for the jobs that get created to be union jobs. Jobs that have healthcare attached to them. There's a criteria for, if its a mixed use land project that there be affordable housing components to the job. In other words we aren't just looking to get good people elected to say OK we've got labour trends here but we really are using that portable base to advance the social agenda and linking these broader issues like housing transportation to development projects and linking that to creating union jobs allows us to do a public policy strategy to not only grow on movement to getting people elected but also to advance broader sort of policy issues and that begins to make a labour movement look very different than it has historically looked.
Finally, just casting another 10 years down this development. Where do you see this taking the union movement in America and hopefully around the world?
It's a great question question. What hopefully will come about from the broader labour community alliances. It is my hope that the issue of economic justice and the right for workers to be able to participate democratically within their workplace becomes a civil rights issue of our era. Increasingly the power that we confront with globalisation and the fact that corporations really can run the globe unfettered, unrestricted means that the issue of the right to workers to organise in our country and around the world must become the civil rights issue of our generation. In order for that to happen however, we have to build the constituency of people, in addition to labour unions, but outside of that movement that begin to see that having a voice at work really not is just an issue that is important to the institutional interests of the labour movement but is a public interest agenda. It is our only and greatest last hope for being able to create counter power to the enormous power that corporations enjoy today.
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