Interview: The Reich Stuff
Economics: Crime and Punishment
Environment: Beyond The Wedge
International: The End Of The Lucky Country
Safety: Tests Fail Tests
Politics: Labo(u)r Day
Human Rights: Arabian Lights
History: Labour's Titan
Review: Foxy Fiasco
Poetry: Then I Saw The Light
The Locker Room
What’s In a Name?
Let's Start A New Party
As is traditional we meet to celebrate Labour Day to honour the achievement of the eight-hour day in the 1850s
It was an achievement born of the collective action of workers in an era when the legal framework protecting workers had not yet been erected.
Unlike May Day, which evolved into a celebration of workers seizing control of the state through revolution - Labour Day was a celebration of achieving change through industrial action -within the legal frame work of the land.
It is why to many in the labour movement - it is Labour Day that is the key date in their calendar of historic events, a celebration of change within the system.
This Labour Day is of special relevance because we are entering a period where - with control of both houses of Federal Parliament - the Howard Government is setting out to fundamentally change the industrial relations system.
Behind the benign words like 'flexibility' and 'choice' the Howard agenda, at its heart, is an attempt to shift work relations from a set of rules that apply to all employees, to a series of individual relationships.
One can understand the logic - in the name of competition - both economic and political - 'freeing' employers of the union movement makes a lot of sense.
But I believe it is a misguided approach, that fundamentally misunderstands the history, and very nature of trade unionism - the collective expression of working people
This was not always the case - the so-called 'Conservative' governments from Menzies to Fraser accepted the framework - merely took the view that the union movement should operate within the law.
What the radicals in the Howard Government are aiming to do is something altogether different - to actually change the law to make many of the day to day operations of trade unions illegal
Trade unions have always worked for change within the legal framework - and it was this logic that informed the union movement's decision to establish a political wing.
As laws have been adopted, trade unions have adapted - to operate within the system in the interests of our members.
I do not think this is the time for panic - the reality is that many unions have already begun the transition to deal with hostile laws and hostile employers who see a cheap buck in union-busting.
In the past 12 months:
What is more alarming, is the suggestions in recent days that our friends in the Federal ALP may be being seduced into accepting the Conservative industrial relations propositions.
I, for one am concerned that Mark Latham is making the same mistakes as Simon Crean did as leader - being conned by the Liberal Party and AFR election post mortem into believing that it was close links with the union movement that cost Labor the federal election.
It is quite disturbing and, frankly, alarming that IR and the union movement are being used by the federal leader to justify his defeat.
I am particularly concerned with the way the new front bench is being construct ed - as if the job is to d am pen down industrial relations, b y linking it to industry under Stephen Smith.
He has has split traditional IR responsibilities amongst Smith and shadow cabinet rookies, Tanya Plibersek who will take on work, family and community; and Penny Wong who picks up employment and workforce participation.
My concern is that these women who have both supported workers in the past, try to stick up for traditional labour values they will be "squeezed' by this strange desire to cosy up to big business.
The result will be that IR is played out factionally when it shouldn't be: the women will be portrayed as the loony left so the industry element of the portfolio can hold sway.
The Labor Party will never succeed as a pale imitation of the conservatives. It is a Labor Party founded by trade unionists to look after the interests of working men and women and their families.
It's our party and that's something the federal leader needs to understand.
There has been a lot written in the media about the relationship between the ALP and the union movement - particularly in the traditional blood-letting period that follows an election loss.
Perhaps the most offensive, was the editorial published in the Australian Financial Review in the week after the election:
It read in part:
"Labor MPs and candidates are still overwhelmingly union officials, party officials and hangers on, a class of people regarded by voters in marginal seats with indifference, if not contempt."
It made this point before going on to critcise Simon Crean for not going far enough and basically calling on the ALP to expell institutional union input and replace it with the interests of contractors and small business people.
I contrast that attitude with the words of Tony Burke - a new ALP federal member, and, indeed a federal frontbencher, who was also a member of the NSW Upper House for a short time.
In his inauguration speech in the Legislative Council, Burke said:
The critics of trade unionists entering Parliament speak as though unionism was an industry, that it places people outside the "real world."
"Some in the Federal Parliament would argue that utilising a law degree to represent the same workers on the same issues, but charging them $200 an hour to meet in a solicitor's office, would somehow be more "real" than representing the employees through unions. Trade unions are not an industry. Unionism is a movement; a movement which provides a gateway into every industry. "
I know which view I would be listening to
The greatest danger for the ALP is to believe the lies being perpetuated by the business lobby.
Their primary interests are in making profits to please their shareholders and increase their bonuses - and the extent to which their operations promote the interests of working people is largely coincidental.
How can a business lobby that sits silent when the decisions made at the James Hardie boardroom come to the surface, have the gall to tell anyone what is in the national interest? Where has the BCA or AIG or ACCI been on this national issue?
If we are to have a serious discussion about the relations between the ALP and the union movement let's have it - but on our terms not in response to our political enemies.
Part of that debate is also a recognition that a Labor Government in and of itself will deliver benefits for working people.
In recent months we have seen the sort of issues emerge in this place that, frankly, would appear the work of our political enemies:
- like the lock-out of displaced Pacific Power workers
- the government's opposition
- and the refusal to bring the issue of AWAs into our procurement code.
The last of these is inexplicable - while the Howard Government demands businesses who ten der for government work place their workforce on AWAs, the Carr Government has rejected the counter proposition - that firms with workers on AWAs should not benefit from NSW government work.
This issue says much about Labor's broader problems - while the Liberal Party and business lobby declare 'Jihad' on organised labour, the ALP no longer appears t o be prepared to fight back.
With this lack of political support is it any wonder that such flawed orthodoxies as 'unions are the barrier to reform' start to take root?
The answer is to help save the ALP from itself - constantly argue the facts.
One of the initiatives I am most proud of is the regular back bench briefing which Labor Council now convenes - allowing Labor MPs to have the information to do their job in Caucus ...
The political and industrial wings of the labour movement have traditionally relied on each other to keep on course.
When we work together we can achieve wonderful things for our people - and this has occurred in NSW:
- satisfactory resolution of cleaners dispute
- James Hardie legislation - recognition of the union movement's authority to negotiate on behalf of all victims
- and just this week, the announcement
A relationship based on mutual respect and common purpose will not only inject some humanity and common decency into the workplace, it will build the movement and strengthen the ALP's electoral appeal..
It is this the ongoing potential of this collaboration:
- that stops us from saying it is too hard and walking away
- that keeps us striving for a better world through the same incremental change that bought us the eight hour day so many years ago.
- that we celebrate on Labour Day.
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