Interview: Trading in Principle
Unions: While We Were Away
Politics: Follow the Leader
Bad Boss: Safety Recidivist Fingered
Economics: Casualisation Shrouded In Myths
History: Worker Control Harco Style
Review: Other Side Of The Harbour
All The Way With FTA?
State Of Confusion
Give Them A Medal
Trading in Principle
Interview with Jim Marr
The general response to debate at the recent ALP national conference appears to have been overwhelmingly positive. Was that a view you shared?
Yes, I think the view that we have is that Labor now has a policy agenda that differentiates itself from the Liberals in a range of areas. We would always have differences with Labor in terms of how much they should differentiate themselves but I think, clearly, the leadership change and the work that was done prior to the leadership change on policy development has resulted in a clear choice for voters at the next election.
So, having watched the new Federal Party leader in action, what is your assessment?
Very professional, plenty of ideas, he is a real alternative leader. The AMWU might have differences with some of his ideas and we will make that known to the party and to the leader but that's something we've always done. I think Mark Latham is a real alternative leader, an alternative Prime Minister.
Is he capable of stopping the seepage, if you like, of Labor Party votes away to the Greens?
I think the Greens will do okay at the next election, and I don't think that's a bad thing for democracy in this country. The Greens have been quite unequivocal on their stands in a range of areas. I think that will be reflected in people voting for them on key issues such as the war in Iraq, the environment, and their stands on some of the broader social issues.
The core trade union agenda, I suppose you could call it - living standards, workers rights - seemed to travel okay at the conference, is that how you saw it?
Yes, our first goal was trying to redress the imbalance in the Australian economy towards big business and against working people, and we have started that with the policy agenda that went before the party. The key issue arising out of the conference is how much of this policy will be reflected back into legislative action under a Latham Government and that's the issue that we, from the trade union movement, have to focus our attention on. That is, seeing conference policy implemented and not allowing an elite leadership position to develop that ignores the wishes of that expanded rank and file dominated national conference.
So, do you fear that even if the Party is successful this time around that in six years time we might be facing the same trauma that's confronting Labour in Britain?
Well, hopefully the Labor leadership is smart enough to learn the lessons from the Blair approach in the UK and to take a far more sophisticated and sensible approach towards its relationship with the trade union movement. There are signs of that already, and I think there are also signs that the leader is being less strident in some of his personal views and is taking on board the need to have a broader base to his views and get broader support within the Party. I think, to me, that was one of the best outcomes from the national conference.
And, presumably, the trade unions and broader left generally also have a constructive role to play in ensuring that happens?
That's right, and in the lead-up to the conference the Left put a huge effort into attempting to ensure that we had a policy agenda, that not only differentiated ourselves from the Liberals but was in the interest of working families and trade unionists in this country.
Free trade, how far has the debate within the Labor Party progressed since the Hobart conference?
I think the debate has come a huge way since Hobart. We now have a position where not only the trade union movement at its last ACTU Congress voted unanimously for a policy that moved to fair trade, we now have the Labor Party developing the policy infrastructure to deliver fair trade even though it wont have the word fair in its actual policy. But, if you look at the issues - core labour standards, more accountability to the public in terms of trade agreements, getting rid of the secrecy, roles for the trade union movement and non government organisations in trade negotiations and WTO meetings - then we've come a real long way. There's an acceptance that not only are economic issues to be looked at in trade agreements but also social issues, and social audits to be carried out. I think this policy is one I can take to my members and say that Labor has come a million miles from where it was with its old "free trade at all costs" approach.
The possibility of a US-Australia Free Trade Agreement is currently exercising the public mind. Do you have fears, if it is eventually signed, of implications for manufacturing, where most of your members are employed?
My biggest fear is that the United States Manufacturing Association has said its members will make a $1.4billion gain from the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement. That's $1.4billion that has to come from somewhere, and our belief is that it will come from Australian manufacturing. My big fear is that Australian manufacturing is not as technologically advanced as US manufacturing because the investment is not going in. We don't have the economies of scale that the US has in terms of its market and its capacity to have huge companies serve that market with great efficiency. And the third problem we have is the declining American dollar against the Australian dollar, which will make our manufacturing less internationally competitive with the US. So these are big issues for us.
Realistically, is there any such thing as free trade, in terms of an equal playing field?
Absolutely not, and I just repeat what I said to the Party at the conference. We've got people who just mouth the words free trade, they're like Pavlov's dogs, you say free trade and these people salivate. They're the same as the dogs in that experiment, the bell rings and even though there is no food they still salivate. That's what Free Trade is with the elite in the Labor Party. I think we've still got a way to go but we're getting better and more people understanding the issues. How can you have free trade, when workers in many countries are denied any human rights, they're denied any access to core labour standards, all the ILO conventions are being breached, women are being used in all sorts of terrible ways, children are being used. You've got child labor and you've got forced labour. How can you have free trade when companies, and countries, are using those things as the basis of their trading regimes?
What about other issues that have become quite high profile in terms of discussing this particular agreement, things like culture for example, does culture resonate with the rank and file membership of the AMWU?
I am pretty sure it does, I mean our members are a mixture, we've got all ethnic backgrounds in the membership, but the one thing that binds them together is that they have all come here to make a better life for themselves and their families in Australia. They chose to come to Australia for its attractions and they want those things to survive, they don't want it to be another Los Angeles, they don't want it to be a New York, they want this country to be Australia, and that means that the specific culture that Howard is attempting to destroy - a fair go, an egalitarian society, tolerance, we've got to protect those things. We don't want to mirror the American system, where it's dog eat dog and it's every individual for themselves, and I think the bulk of our members understand that issue. Whether born here, or not, they want to see Australian culture celebrated and strengthened.
At the conference, NSW Premier Bob Carr suggested that your view of trade might have been formulated in North Korea. What's your response to that sort of claim?
I think Bob, was certainly over-reacting. Look, let's be kind to him and say he tried to play to an audience that might have existed in our conference 20 years ago. Bob demonstrated to me that he didn't understand the modern trade union movement and that, unfortunately, is a key problem for some of the Labor Party leaderships we have in this country. They don't understand the leadership of the trade union movement, they don't understand the aspirations of the trade union movement and they don't understand how the trade union movement has progressed its position, nor how we are a valuable part of improving the capacity of industries to operate in an internationally competitive way. Bob Carr seems to have forgotten that only two decades ago we had the Button Plan that maintained our car industry in Australia, that the Hawke Government implemented the steel industry plan that kept Wollongong and Newcastle families in jobs for many years. Is Bob Carr trying to say now that that shouldn't have happened, that we had Kim Il Button? It's just nonsense. I don't think Bob Carr did himself any justice, he is a smarter politician than that and my advice to him would be, a couple of aspirins and a good lie down.
At the end of the day, are you optimistic that a Federal Labor Government will get it right on trade?
I am very pleased with the position that Mark Latham took which was not the typical Pavlov dog approach. Mark Latham did express some concern with the free trade agreement with the US and he has been consistent in that position. If the leader has the capacity to critically analyse this free trade agenda as distinct from the Premiers who just simply said - it's there we want it - without knowing anything that was in it, I'm optimistic that Federal Labor will take a good position.
We're talking here about issues not always seen as core trade union concerns, how much emphasis should unions put on campaigning around wider themes - health, education, trade, public services - essentially, are they union business?
I don't agree that these are not core labour concerns, not core union concerns. If we can't get it right on trade then you won't have a manufacturing industry in this country and my members' jobs will disappear. What can be more important than making sure that we've got jobs and a capacity to build this country? It's a core concern for the trade union movement to play a political role on issues like health, education, trade and welfare. We are entitled to have a voice, but we can only legitimately have that voice if we deliver to members on the issues that they need to be delivered on industrially. So we must be active in terms of our industrial campaigns, we must have a clear strategy, there must be a democratic union organisation that lets the rank and file voice come through, and if we do those things, our members will understand that these issues are not peripheral to a good trade union, they are fundamental. Union members know these things are not peripheral because they are very important to them and their families.
What are your priorities for 2004?
There are a number of priorities. I would hope that we can continue to democratise the AMWU, and get an even stronger rank and file voice in the AMWU. We want to put a huge effort into our education program not only for our delegates, but also our officers and elected organisers. Education is a major priority for us. We've got a national conference coming up in the middle of the year and we will be looking not at developing more policy because we've got plenty of good policy. What we will be looking at, as a priority, is how do we put an action plan in place to make that policy work effectively. We'll want to put a big effort into organising in the non organised area, and manufacturing, to recruit, maintain our existing membership base and build on it, and continue to argue for a strong industry policy and a manufacturing base within this country.
Do you have any test cases planned?
We recently had a significant Test Case which was the casual case. It provided benefits to many of our members in terms of being able to move from casual to full time work. The priority for us will be to make sure that we've got that in every one of our awards. So the priority will not be about more test cases, but rather implementing the right our members have already won to move from casual to full time work, putting it into practice.
Last year was huge industrially for the AMWU, what's your assessment of campaign 2003?
Campaign 2003 was a terrific success. There was huge opposition from employers to campaign 2003 but we gained significant wage increases for our members. We managed to set new standards in the industry in terms of workers' entitlements, ensuring entitlements were protected. Going back to what the priorities are, we will continue to fight extremely hard to protect workers' entitlements. Campaign 2003 put workers' entitlements on the agenda, we protected the entitlements of thousands of workers. We had good wage increases, we got increased access to delegates training and we continued to pattern bargain in a way that delivered an outcome across the industry. We refused to be bullied into submission by government, by the commission, or by employers to take a narrow focus on the enterprise. We will always go to our members and say that we've got an industry agenda because that strengthens our union, delivers for our members and is in the interest of all working families in this country.
Clearly that throws you right up against the Howard Government and people like Tony Abbott. How significant were the roadblocks they put in your way during Campaign 2003?
There were significant roadblocks that we managed to either get around or push out of the way. I think the clearest example of the unfair nature of the bargaining system in this country was the Morris McMahon dispute. Here we had workers who wanted to belong to a union, who overwhelmingly voted to belong to the union, but the employer used the law to simply say we're not going to bargain with the union, set about trying to implement individual contracts and used replacement or scab labor to try and force these workers into submission. There's one thing that you need every now and then and that's clear examples of workers who are prepared to battle it out. Remember, these were non-union workers predominantly before that dispute, they stuck with the union, they listened to the union, they played it smart and they had a significant victory in that plant. But all the tools that were available to the employer were used against these workers, and we still managed to win through, but, to be fair, at a huge cost to those individual workers. Fourteen weeks out on the grass is just a nonsense in a modern society.
I don't suppose that bargaining is going to get any easier in the future?
I think bargaining will continue to get tougher, but predominantly, I think, in some pockets. I think employers in general will have to come to the view that they need a more sophisticated approach if they are going to improve the productive performances of their companies. Some have already reached that conclusion. The approach pushed by Howard and Abbott and whoever the new minister is, is non-productive and many companies are taking the view that the old trade off agenda in bargaining is a negative and what they really need to consider are the multi-factor issues that improve the performance of their companies. That will mean working effectively with the trade union movement.
There's still a debate in the union movement about organising v servicing. What's your view of that discussion?
Well, I'm not a fan of an organising model that takes over a whole union and regards servicing as the work of the devil, if you want to talk in those terms. What we argue is there must be a balance between organising and effectively servicing your existing membership and we take the view that delegates, supported by organisers when they need help, need to take a bigger role in that. That's why our education program is so important. We don't want organisers tied up because there is a shortage of toilet paper somewhere but we do want a system that services every day needs of members while leaving organisers to operate strategically, and that includes looking at how to organise strategically - what's the union density in their plants, how do they build that density and how do they use those organised plants to organise unorganised plants that might do business with that operation? We are into all that but we are not into the evangelical approach to the organising model that seems to have taken over some union leaders and some of the organising officers.
Is it a legitimate debate in terms of either, or?
No, not from my perspective. You can't see it as either,or. If you have a total organising model you will be bringing people in new but they will be leaving the organisation as soon as they find they can't get any service, and you lose your base. Organising is important but you must get a balance. We are still struggling, within our organisation, to come to grips with the questions this throws up but we are talking about them and dealing with them. In an attempt to get a proper balance we think you need officials who understand the practical issues of the workplace and some of the theoretical issues that underpin the work they do. It's on that basis that we have developed an education program for officials and we have linked that to a pay increase, a significant pay increase I think, for those officials who can both go through that program and demonstrate their ability to implement what they have learned out on the job. It is a broad-based program that includes organising and proper time management and prioritisation in terms of servicing. Really, I can't stress the importance of union education enough. What we would like to see, eventually, is that when it comes time for elections our members seeing the successful completion of these programs as important criteria for people who seek leadership positions. But that is not something that can be decided by officials it requires a cultural change, and that will only occur when these programs are widely seen as relevant and effective.
You've got a massive shop steward or delegate infrastructure. How do you go about sustaining that when you have something like 6000 delegates around the country?
Without a good delegate structure you can do nothing. We recognised some weaknesses in our delegate structure and that's why we've put additional resources into the delegates education program, and the organisers' education program. Fundamentally, you have to create a culture of the delegates being the basis of our union being able to move forward and operate effectively. The delegates' culture is important in the AMWU, we've always had it, but now and again it has to be reinforced, and that's what we're doing at the moment. Where you've got good delegates, you've got good wages, you've got good union membership density and you've got workers who are respected by the employer.
Presumably, non-union sites are becoming more of a difficulty for organised labour. Putting on your ACTU hat or talking in a broader sense, is there any particular direction the movement is going to move in to try and break the back of this problem?
The ACTU has got a work plan laid out that will be driven by improving union membership density, and the tool I think we will focus on will be to increase the capacity of our delegates on the shop floor. The broad trade union movement now realises that without good shop stewards networks, without well trained shop stewards, without shop stewards that can represent the union every day on the job and be seen to be the union, then, we will always be under pressure. The ACTU is looking at education - education for the officials of unions across the country and their delegates - as being an important aspect of its work next year
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