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May 2004   

Interview: Machine Man
It�s regarded as the most powerful job in the Party, but new NSW ALP general secretary Mark Arbib wants to build a bridge with the union movement.

Unions: Testing Times
Unions are not opposed to drug and alcohol testing, but they do want to see real safety issues addressed, writes Phil Doyle.

Bad Boss: Freespirit Haunts Internet
FreeSpirit forked out a motza for a whiz bang internet presence then disappeared right off the radar � once it was nominated as our Bad Boss for May.

Unions: Badge of Honour
Surry Hills is home to one of the world�s finest displays of union badges thanks to Bill "The Bear" Pirie and a supporting cast headed by Joe Strummer, Mark Knopfler, George Benson, Annie Lennox and other seriously big noises.

National Focus: Noel's World
Shrill bosses bleat over minimum wage rise, union spinmeisters congregate in Melbourne and Tassie�s nurses take the baton from their mob in Victoria reports Noel Hester in this national round up.

Economics: Safe Refuge
A humanitarian approach to refugees and an economically rational one?? I�d like to see that. Frank Stilwell did, when he went to Young in NSW to look into the impact of the Afghan refugees on temporary protection visas who came to work for the local abattoir

International: Global Abuse
Amnesty International have joined the chorus against the violation of trade union rights in the former Soviet republic of Belarus.

History: The Honeypot
To the Honeypot come those individuals anxious to get their hands on instant wealth. So it was in the early days of Broken Hill, wrties Grace Hawes in this homage to the mining town.

Review: Death And The Barbarians
This new take on coming of age films focuses on the coming of death and the dignity and maturity it can inspire among those touched by it - though not always easily in the overcrowded Canadian public health system, writes Tara de Boehmler.

Poetry: Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
Resident Bard David Peetz uncovers some of the unfolding mysteries of talk back radio.


The Soapbox
Rethinking Left and Right Part 1
Dr David McKnight, from the University of Technology, Sydney presents a new frame for looking at the competing ideas within Social Democracy.

The Soapbox
Rethinking Left and Right Part 2
David McKnight concludes the paper he presented to the �Rethinking Social Democracy� conference, in London, April 15-17, 2004.

Out On A Limb
Phil Doyle becomes the first Australian journalist to state that the Olympics will be called off.

The Westie Wing
In the latest episode, Ian West explores what Disraeli called "Lies, damn lies and statistics".

Message from America
Searing snapshots from a landscape of uncertainty have plunged the Bush Administration into deeper crisis, writes WorkingForChange's Bill Berkowitz.


The Mouse That Roars
A number of campaigns this week show how web campaigning is reaching a level of sophistication that is transforming it from a gee-whiz fad to a potent industrial tool.


 Casual Affair Costs Family

 Dob a Driver Strikes Out

 Crash LAME�s Smoking Gun

 Axe To Fall On Skippy

 Internet Replaces Crayons

 Young Lives Crushed

 Feds Move Goal Posts

 Telstra Baulks at Two Percent

 Crane Death Brings Fine

 Worker Breaks Unwritten Law

 Private Nurses Short Changed

 RailCorp Wrecks Weekend

 Thunderbirds Are Stop

 Activists What�s On!

 Justice For Victims Denied
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Testing Times

Unions are not opposed to drug and alcohol testing, but they do want to see real safety issues addressed, writes Phil Doyle.


Glen Potter has 20 years of experience working in the rail industry in NSW and is disappointed at the draconian path that Railcorp has taken over drug and alcohol testing in the workplace.

"They don't trust us any more," says Potter. "There is no faith in the workplace."

ETU members at RailCorp are up in arms over new drug and alcohol testing, which they know doesn't address the real issues of safety affecting the state's rail system.

Rather, workers point to the new tests being used by RailCorp simply to discipline staff by bringing in a regime that is even more hardline than that used by the NSW Police.

"They have not looked at our staffing levels for years," says Potter. "Nobody has looked at trade related areas for electrical and signalling."

"The job doesn't diminish. We are just doing more work with less staff. Rail workers are dedicated to the job. You put up with short staffing because you are more dedicated."

Rail workers point to the increased use of outside contractors and a lack of training as affecting safety at work, and the impact is having tragic consequences.

"We are losing an employee every two months due to short staffing and diminished safety," says Potter.

[sub column header] Real Safety Issues

ETU secretary Bernie Riordan has slammed Railcorp's approach as "hypocritical", pointing to the lack of action on the recommendations of the inquiry into the Glenbrook train disaster, which, amongst other things, called for an overhaul of RailCorp's communications system.

"Let's get fair dinkum about safety," says Riordan. "They talk about drug and alcohol tests on people at the same time they are de-staffing safety critical employees."

Many experts in the US, where workplace drug testing gained popularity as a management fad in the eighties and nineties, have slammed drug testing as 'junk science'.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has evidence that the tests do not pay dividends in decreased accidents and absenteeism or increased efficiency and productivity.

"Alternative solutions, such as impairment testing of workers in safety-sensitive positions and wider use of Employee Assistance Programs are more cost effective and do not raise the same privacy and fairness problems," says Lewis Maltby of the ACLU.

In the US drug testing is on the wane. Many corporations have dumped drug testing, including electronics giant Hewlett-Packard.

Mayne Health, who recently won the tender to conduct drug testing for Railcorp, is just one of many corporations that have jumped on the lucrative drug testing bandwagon.

But even they don't advocate the draconian measures that have been introduced on the state's rail system.

In a presentation available on the internet, Mr Alan Richardson, Manager - Alcohol and Drug Services, at Mayne Health Western Diagnostic Pathology says that drug testing "needs to be an integral part of a comprehensive workplace program which includes education, employee consultation, opportunities for rehabilitation and an effective employee assistance program".

The Mayne presentation also states that many symptoms of alcohol or drug problems "can also be caused by illness, psychological problems, stress, fatigue etc".


Which brings us to the real safety issue - impairment.

Drug testing does not identify whether safety critical employees are too impaired to do their job, as results can test for substances that can last in the body for up to 55 days.

Unions in the rail industry are not opposed to drug and alcohol testing, but rather want to see real safety issues addressed, including that of impairment.

Impairment is where a workers ability to think and react to situations is affected in a negative way. It can be caused by workers missing sleep (fatigue), work related stress, illness and personal stress; not simply just drugs and alcohol.

After the intervention of the NSW Premier Bob Carr, unions secured a six-month moratorium on disciplinary action against any workers that positive to drugs.

"The Premier came out in support of a member who was 0.02," says Riordan. "To his credit [Bob Carr] is prepared to review the drug testing methodology."

"The current system isn't about whether someone is under the influence, as only residual effects of the drug stay in someone's system.

"This is just an attempt by a group of zealots to 'purify' the Railcorp workforce."

The peak NSW Union body, the NSW Labor Council, has backed the ETU's stance.

"This is a safety issue, not a disciplinary issue," says NSW Labor Council secretary John Robertson, who says that if RailCorp wants to change the workplace culture then those that blow over the limit or who test positive should be offered counselling.

The Big Stick

Even the NSW Police force has options for members to avoid discipline, something that isn't open to ETU members at Railcorp, which does not offer counselling or self-testing options for workers.

"This is being used as a big stick by management," says Robertson. "Including the CEO, Vince Graham and the Minister, Michael Costa."

With the NSW Premier's intervention rail unions are confident of being able to make progress on this issue in the near future, with Riordan slamming Costa's role in the dispute as "disappointing".

But for long-term rail workers like Glen Potter the current policy is little more than a slap in the face after years of dedicated service.

"I've been on the job for 20 years. Now the satisfaction is falling away. The goodwill is gone. With Railcorp nobody cares about rail maintenance workers."

"They treat us like garbage."


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