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Year End 2003   

Interview: Robbo’s Rules
Labor Council secretary John Robertson rules the line through 2003 and looks forward to a bigger and better year to come.

Unions: Fightback 2003
Tony Abbott, no less, summed up the tone of 2003 when he complained workers were frustrating his agenda, as Jim Marr reports.

Bad Boss: Madame Lash Whips Tony
Jim Marr explains how a local can manufacturer knocked off a quality field, including a notorious American call centre operator, in the race for Bad Boss honours.

Politics: United Front
Facing a new leader and new rules, Jim Marr speaks to key union players about the hot issues at January’s ALP National Conference.

Economics: Looking Back - Looking Forward
The year ends with the thought that 2004 must be better, writes Frank Stilwell in his annual review of all things economic.

International: Net Benefits
International editor Andrew Casey looks back on a year where workers stood up globally for services we once took for granted.

History: The New Guard
Who were Australia’s fascists in the 1930s and was John Howard’s father in the New Guard? Labour historian, Andrew Moore, uncovers some surprising information about Australia’s fascist past.

Poetry: What is the PM singing this Christmas?
Our Kirribilli spies, led by resident bard David Peetz, have been listening in on the PM's preparations for Christmas, and have recorded the Howard family rehearsing this new Christmas carol.

Review: Culture That Was
2003 saw the Howard Government signal its readiness to swap culture for agriculture in a free trade deal with the US and film maker George Miller lament that Aussie's had run out of stories to tell anyway, writes Tara de Boehmler.


The Guessing Game
We have consulted our regular list of mystics and gnostics to offer these throughts for the future.

Folk You Mate
Jan Nary looks at the role of workers songs in the upcoming National Folk Festival.

Shane Maloney – Crime Writer
For a crime writer whose books are set against a backdrop of unions and Labor Party politics, Shane Maloney confesses to little direct experience of either.

The Locker Room
Workers Online Sports Awards
Noel Hester and Peter Moss give their annual rundown of the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of sport.

The Web We Weave
Social Change Online's Mark McGrath's annual review of how unions are using the web to grow.


Backs to the Wall
How does one judge a year like 2003, when on the surface the powers of darkness – read Bush and Howard and union-busting bosses - can point to the scoreboard and claim ‘we won!’?


 No Joy for ANZ - This Time

 Nurses, Teachers Win Big

 Govt Coy on Sackings Threat

 NSW: State of Discomfort

 Fashion Police Collar Moe

 Telstra Picks Up Union Signal

 E-Missiles Strike White House

 STOP PRESS: Doubts Over Driver Test

 Juggler Catches Union Gong

 Chubb Beats Up On Own Guards

 Commuters Face Long, Hot Summer

 MUA Members Play Santa

 Bennelong Grinch Strikes Again

 G’day To Union Made Wines

 Activists Notebook

 Tom On Mark
 Looking The Otherway At Christmas
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Fightback 2003

Tony Abbott, no less, summed up the tone of 2003 when he complained workers were frustrating his agenda, as Jim Marr reports.

Abbott highlighted the success of unions and failure of his AWA strategy, in a submission to Cabinet colleagues, several months before being relieved of the Workplace Relations portfolio. In retrospect, it seems the Monk may have been blessed with the gift of prophesy because 2003 was the year of fightback with its main industrial stories folding into larger themes.


NSW Labor Council filed a gound-breaking Secure Employment Test Case that sought to stop employers using labour hire, contracting and casualisation to cut earnings and weaken job security. It is set down for hearing next year against an interesting background.

- The NSW IRC rejected arguments that it was unlawful to bind third parties to negotiated agreements. In turning down an employer appeal against clauses in an ETU pattern agreeement it effectively removed labour costs from the contracting equation, accepting the contention that such mechanisms ensured a level playing field so labour costs were "not used by any company as a commercial advantage".

- Earlier, the same body had ruled labour hire employees at Kellogs' Botany warehouses should attract the same rates as direct employees.

- Hundreds of individual contractors flocked to the union banner in state capitals to knock over Telstra's attempt to slash their earnings by sub-contracting Foxtel and broadband installations to lowest-price contractors.

- Seventeen Tasmanian meatworkers picketed through one of the coldest winters on record to roll an attempt to sub-let their jobs to body hire outfit, Newemploy, at knock-down rates. The picketers were back paid for their six months of solidarity and re-hired after tearing a hole in a practice that has decimated earnings and job security in their industry. Tasmanian Industrial Relations Commissioner, Pauline Shelley, said arrangements between Blue Ribbon and Newemploy had been a "contrivance to avoid award obligations".

- Flag of Convenience shipping was listing badly after a seven-nil High Court decision brought former CSL vessels Stadacona and Yarra under Australian industrial jurisdiction. Both had been re-registered off-shore, with Federal Government approval, in a bid to undercut Australian wages, safety standards and conditions.

Light began to shine in the entitlements tunnel where unions, sick of waiting for Canberra to deliver on election promises, took their arguments to the street. At Pan Pharmaceuticals, AWU action secured the entitlements of hundreds of Sydney workers after the company folded in dramatic circumstances, while relentless agitation from members of several unions wangled hundreds of millions of more dollars out of authorities for families grounded by Ansett.


Unions re-established themselves as primary defenders of the social wage with high-profile campaigns against federal and state moves on health and education.

By the end of the year, Federal Government had thrown hundreds of millions extra at Medicare in a bid to ram changes through but was still encountering Senate resistance.

Militant action by academics, and support workers, spearheaded a campaign that forced Education Minister Brendan Nelson back to the playground. He had to shave the roughest edges off moves to increase the cost of education; increase HECS repayments; and limit opportunities for the less affluent. At state level, TAFE workers and students, compelled the NSW Government to make similar concessions to those seeking TAFE qualifications.

Strikes at Sydney University forced Nelson to drop funding linkages with demands for IR changes, including the introduction of AWAs.


Qantas made headlines with its insistence on the right to arbitrarily test any employee for drink or drugs. Resistance to open slather requirements saw the airline enter negotiations with a range of unions, led by the ACTU. The toing and froing continued as 2003 became 2004. Similar demands across a range of industries pushed NSW Labor Council into developing an alternative, based on impairment and developed by experts who had worked with the NSW Police.

The same organisation earned its own headlines for submissions in unjustified dismissal cases that swung on new protections contained in Video Surveillance legislation. Labor Council argued that the Western Sydney Area Health Service had "illegally" followed, photgraphed and filmed nine health workers, on and off the job, before sacking them for picking up takeaway meals during the course of 12 hour shifts.

It called for both the health service, and private investigators, Websters, to be prosecuted for breaches of the Workplace Video Surveillance Act. That legislation had been enacted, earlier in the year, in response to three years of union agitation.


While Commissioner Cole and his political masters had made the 2002 running with their refrain that safety was a hammer in the construction workers' tool box for world domination, building unions hit back with spades in the 12 months just finished.

Incensed at a rash of incidents that claimed the lives of colleagues in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, they demanded criminal sanctions on recalcitrant bosses. More than 10,000 bore down on MacQuarrie St in a cross between a political demonstration and a remembrance service for 16-year-old Joel Exner. NSW Industrial Relations Minister John Della Bosca, a longtime opponent of specific industrial manslaughter laws, left discussions with bereaved family members promising action and setting up a working party to see how it could be implemented.

His ACT counterpart, Katy Gallagher, brushed howls of right-wing outrage to ensure her territory became the first Australian jurisdiction to write industrial manslaughter onto its statute books.

The year, meanwhile, was not a good one for either the Cole Commission or its political authors. It opened with the launch of a book that argued its processes had been "fundamentally flawed", a contention was enthusiastically endorsed by media heavyweight and one-time Liberal Party identify, Alan Jones. Before long, key Commission's witnesses were bobbing up in real courts where their dealings were scrutinised and found wanting. Next thing, the papers were full of corrupt Workcover investigators who hadn't even registered on Cole's $60 million radar.

By year's end, perceptions of the building industry and its problems had altered. Governments in every state washed their hands of Cole-fired federal legislation. The Senate hived it off to its own inquiry, effectively reopening the case and pushing resolution back by several months, at the very least.

Meanwhile, the threat of a national miners strike helped convince NSW to retrospectively legislate away technicalities on which the owners of the former Gretley Coal Mine hoped to sideline prosecutions over the 1997 deaths of four miners. The new owner, Xstrata, had filed 16 interlocutory injunctions, over three years, in a $5 million bid to keep the deaths from judicial review.


The period opened with elite members of the business community engaging in their normal habit of sitting around showering gold on one another. The public subsidised a $32.7 million Commonwealth Bank payout to funds manager, Chris Cuffe, by around $10 million, courtesy of tax deductions. The "people's bank", headed by millionaire David Murray, then announced it would sack 3700 more wage workers and embark on another round of branch closures.

The Sydney Morning Herald revealed the names of more than 100 public company executives who hauled down annual wages in excess of $1 million. That's just wages, as recorded in company reports, nothing to with investments or any of the other lurks or perks or their trade.

Federal Parliament heard that the characters who dudded 300 Metro Shelf employees of millions of dollars in entitlements had spirited luxury cars, including a Mercedes Benz and landcruisers, away from their waterfront mansion in the hours before the company bit the dust.

Union members launched a string of campaigns designed to draw shareholder attention to the problem. The TWU forced corporate governance onto Boral's agenda, only for the empire to strike back with a rules re-write that will limit the ability to promote future policy changes to shareholders worth at least $90 million. That brought a reaction from Labor Party Senator, Stephen Smith, who set about working on changes to company law that would allow Mum, Dad and worker shareholders to be heard.

Then suburban branch manager, Joy Buckland, took the fight right up to the gates of the ANZ Bank, challenging chairman Charles Goode for his seat on the board. Buckland campaigned for proxies, arguing shareholders should not, in the interests of good governance, return a man who held multiple directorships. Buckland's campaign, on behalf of customers and workers, struck such a chord that while Super Industry Funds and the Australian Shareholders Association couldn't quite bring themselves to recommend a vote for the president of a trade union, they did the next best thing, suggesting their members should vote against Goode.

The general campaign was given impetus by ground-breaking data that turned executive salaries from a moral to an economic issue. Academic research, commissioned by NSW Labor Council, revealed multi-million remuneration packages were a stitch-up on workers, shareholders, customers and the community. The boffins crunched the numbers and came to the conclusion that, in general, the more you paid the less you got. Specifically, they found that once CEO salaries exceeded 20 times the average wage, there was a demonstrable deterioration in company performance. The hard data gave unions, and interested politicians, a springboard from which a campaign to restructure corporate salaries, and lotto-style bonus packages, could be launched.


Despite holding the line on a number of issues, Australian workers still found their living standards and rights to participate in collective organisations under severe attack. Morris McMahon and Geelong Wool Scourers became causes celebre but they were just two of many places where Aussies were forced to cop months without wages in efforts to retain rights considered basic, just a few years earlier. The story was repeated from the mines of the Pilbarra to Sydney's glass towers.

Buoyed by an extraordinary hand dealt by the Federal Government employers continued to play their cards for all they were worth. But, as Workers Online repaired to the beach, at least three issues were brewing that fitted right into the fightback scenario.

- Call centre workers with TeleTech were muscling up at Moe, Victoria, and a number of NSW sites. Both the CPSU and USU were involved in scraps to replace AWAs, used by the American giant to slash earnings by thousands of dollars a year, with collective agreements. TeleTech is notorious, internationally, for its IR procedures and its aggressive behaviour was just what the Howard Government had in mind when it rewrote the workplace rulebook. A key claim being resisted by the corporation is that it signs-up to minimum conditions contained in the newly-registed Call Centres Award.

- Another international giant, BHP Billiton, was trying to square away its latest union-busting campaign with claims to be a good corporate citizen. BHP signed off on a protocol, developed by UN secretary general Kofi Annan, committing itself to freedom of association principles, then declared non-union, individual contracts would be the price of its jobs in the Pilbarra. The CFMEU and the ACTU called its bluff. BHP was left casting about for a solution to its inability to match international talk with domestic deed that wouldn't turn into a public relations disaster.

- Meanwhile, in the Hunter Valley, AMWU members were hunkered down for a knock-em-down, drag-em-out stoush with another muscle-bound multi-national in the shape of P&H Mine Pro. This company has form. Not only is it tied up with George Bush's friends and benefactors at Halliburton but its direct owner, the US Harnischfeger Group, was the mob that brought bitterness and division to the Southern Highlands, courtesy of the 2002 Joy dispute.

Again, the Federal Government's individual contracts are at the heart of the matter. P&H Mine Pro offered AWAs and told workers it would abide by the result of a secret ballot but it didn't like the 52-10 result and has locked maintenance workers out for the past month. AMWU secretary, Paul Bastian, summed up the importance of the dispute when he said it wasn't about the agreement but the company's determination to "crush unions and impose AWAs".

Summer will be tense for employees of TeleTech, BHP and P&H Minepro but, at least, they are batting for a team with runs on the board.


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