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Year End 2004   

Interview: The King of Comedy
John Robertson looks back on a year when his comic genius was finally realised.

Unions: Ten Simple Rules
Accepted wisdom has unions all but retired as serious players in the Australian game. A glance through the major industrial stories of 2004, however, suggests improved footwork, and a commitment to boxing clever, might herald a comeback, writes Jim Marr.

Politics: Rampant Indivdualism
CFMEU National Secretary John Sutton gives his take on a year when the political debate took a turn to the Right.

International: Global Struggle
Labourstart's Eric Lee looks back on a year when the struggles for labour increasingly crossed international lines.

Economics: Cashing in the Year
Look back in sorrow or look back in anger? By any standards 2004 has been a hell of a year, writes Frank Stilwell.

History: Grass Roots
Worker solidarity in Australia in the first century of invasion can give us inspiration and clues for our upcoming battles, writes Neale Towart.

Review: Cultural Realities
In 2004 popular culture shifted from reality television to reality movies, and swapped last year's light-weight subject matter for the slightly more substantial, writes Tara de Boehmler.

Poetry: Y-U-C-K
Workers Online resident bard David Peetz takes inspiration from The Village People for his latest prose.


The Crystal Ball
Workers Online consults a raft of leading psychics to find out what readers can look forward to in 2005.

The Soapbox
Scrooge Was Right
Christmas has been cancelled this year, writes our US correspondent Brooklyn Phil.

The Locker Room
The Workers Online Sports Awards
Continuing a tradition that dates back to the Twentieth Century, Phil Doyle dishes out the gongs for all things great and small in the world of sport during 2004.

The Westie Wing
Our favoutrite MP looks for a positive spin on the year at NSW Parliament


Beyond The Law
Despite the all-engulfing gloom emenating from our political wing right now, 2004 comes to an end on a strangely upbeat note for the trade union movement.


 Unions Make Hardie Pay

 Hadgkiss Gives Mourners Grief

 Mum Gets "Hopson’s" Choice

 AWAs Crash on Broken Hill

 No Fun in the Sack

 Tax Office Draws Blood

 Origin Prop a Union Hit

 Good Guy Wears Black

 Security Crisis at Sydney Airport

 Biscuit Bosses Crumble

 Ardmona Urged to Can Racism

 Bomber Predicts Big Bang

 Stolen Wages Cut

 Tomorrow the World…

 Bosses Sack WorkCover

 Activists What's On!

 Costa’s Hike Unfare
 Temporary Arrangements
 The Price Of Tea In China
 Cry For Me, Argentina
 Ho Bloody Ho
 Right Is Wrong
 Business As Usual
 All In The Family
 Swing Left Wishful Thinking
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Ten Simple Rules

Accepted wisdom has unions all but retired as serious players in the Australian game. A glance through the major industrial stories of 2004, however, suggests improved footwork, and a commitment to boxing clever, might herald a comeback, writes Jim Marr.

Blue Chip Dusted

A dogged campaign, spearheaded by the AMWU and Unions NSW, ripped away James Hardie''s fig leaf. By year's end, only "Iron Bar" Tuckey was still looking as even John Howard and Peter Costello chose to avert their gazes.

A judicial inquiry supported union claims James Hardie had ripped up the rulebook, misleading state government and the NSW Supreme Court, in its bid to deny compensation to Australians dying from contact with its products.

It found evidence of law-breaking by senior executives, Peter Macdonald and Peter Shaffron. Team Hardie eased Macdonald's departure with a $10 million payout then, just to confirm its standing in the annals of corporate bastardry, chose Asbestos Awareness Week to further grease his palm with an ongoing consultancy "worth" $77,000 a month.

Lesson Number One - even Blue Chips will get away with blue murder if we let them

City Rail Regrets ...

Look no further than our year of commuter discontent for evidence unions are improving footwork and teamwork. After all, it's not easy avoiding a train when you've been tied to the tracks and a couple of dead-set loons are, theoretically anyway, at the controls.

Transport Services Monster, Michael Costa, and his Railcorp sidekick, Vince Someone, ran off the rails when they decided to shunt collectivism out of their yard.

The pair raced onto the attack, feinting and jabbing across the system. They threw up alcohol, psycho babble, timetable changes, and threats, overt and covert, in the wake of yet another restructure. By early February, Workers Online was warning readers it was all a blindside play to cloak the real gameplan - a massive cutback in services.

Come October, with a string of unacceptable EBA demands on the table, they came clean, ripping thousands of trips a week away from long-suffering commuters. Staff saw their hands and raised them, courtesy of an alliance with travellers who also happen to be voters and, lo, a deal was done without the showdown Someone had been spruiking for months.

Lesson Number Two - it's the people, stupid!

Westerly Changes

Over in WA, worker reps spent five years telling authorities that John Howard's workplace regime was a killer. When a five-month inquiry found they had a point, few chose to cheer, feeling the deaths of 20 colleagues in the space of a year, had been too high a price to pay.

Barrister Mark Ritter made 32 recommendations to the WA state government in a bid to halt workplace bloodshed at BHP Billiton, and across the mining industry. The AMWU and Pilbara Mineworkers Union demanded the inquiry after members lost their lives at BHP sites in May. They contended the aggressive use of AWAs, in a bid to deunionise the minerals industry, had led to mayhem on and under the ground.

Ritter described the use of individual contracts, since 1999, as "a factor which has impacted and continues to impact on the successful implementation of safety systems".

His findings are expected to force major changes on the industry. They came hard on the heels of an IRC ruling that BHP had to offer union members the same wages and conditions it applied to AWA staff.

Lesson Number Three - the truth is harder to bury than people

Moral Crusaders

NSW workers reacted to the federal election result by flagging a strategic rethink that would see them join forces with conservatives to promote family values.

Unions NSW secretary, John Robertson, committed his organisation to a dialogue with churches and faith-based organisations to confront family and community breakdowns caused by the way work is organised.

Clinton Administration Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, endorsed and launched the million dollar research project at the heart of the campaign, Working NSW, which will illustrate the threats to families and communities posed by economic rationalism.

Reich told union leaders their challenge was to chart a positive agenda that would take moral arguments out of the nation's bedrooms and into its boardrooms.

Lesson Number Four - the united front is back!

Hot, Hot, Hot

In a not-unrelated development, employers came clean on why they are so hot for flexibility in the workplace.

"Simple my lud," Howard-barrackers lined up to tell the full bench of the NSW IRC convened to hear Unions NSW's Secure Employment Test Case. "The more flexible you are, the more places and positions we will find to screw you."

Actually, that's more an approximation of their evidence than an exact quote but their visions of the ideal workplace were fairly explicit. A number confirmed labour hire was used to slash workers' comp premiums, but the tone was set, from the off, by a bloke from Captain Cook Cruises.

Commander of the fleet, Anthony Haworth, told the bench his company could employ more staff as long as it didn't have to offer them work or money.

"Ideally," Haworth said, he would like to be able to offer part-timers "zero - total flexibility".

Lesson five - Some people still do want us to work for nothing

A Broad Church

As John Howard and his side-kick, Kevin Andrews, were preparing legislation to take contractors out of the union orbit, the people at the centre of their argument were beating down the door to get in.

Self-employed contractors fought under the banners of the CEPU and CFMEU to knock off big companies in good, old-fashioned industrial stinks.

Around a thousand Foxtel technicians, across four states, went toe to toe with a international media baron, Rupert Murdoch, his Australian counterpart, Kerry Packer, and this country's largest company, Telstra, in a ground-breaking blue. They struck, imposed bans, picketed, blockaded corporate headquarters and drove their vans in protest convoys, before winning significant increases and improved conditions.

Their action came hard on the heels of similar activities by technicians employed to install broadband technology.

Meanwhile, Perth tilers threw in their lot with the CFMEU to knock off a roofing cartel that was screwing down their prices. The contractors, subbies and employees, joined forces in a two week strike to knock over Monier, Bristile, Prime and anti-union activist Len Buckeridge's Harmony Group who had been demanding the use of AWAs to keep employees on what one Perth media personality described as "sweatshop" rates.

Lesson Number Six - if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck then it's probably not a kangaroo, after all

Traditional Values

Meanwhile, traditional methods continued to wring concessions out of employers up and down the country. Dozens of stories in the mainstream press told of workers shrugging off anti-union legislation to fight for their wages and conditions.

Two classic examples helped bring down the curtain on the 2004 season.

Six hundred employees at a dozen Visy sites in WA, Victoria, NSW and Queensland struck to knock off demands by Australia's second richest man for individual, non-union agreements.

Low-paid, mainly female workers at Laverton, Victoria, joined the NUW and struck to push notorious bottom-feeder, Sakata, into negotiating its first union EBA.

Lesson Number Seven - Corporal Jones would be gratified to learn - they still don't like it up 'em

Chamber of Horrors

Back in the west, the AMWU blew the whistle on an appalling piece of exploitation, involving all the usual suspects, including the powerful Western Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

An outfit called Freespirit, by someone with an ear for irony, was importing dozens of South African tradesmen and dispatching them around the state to work for bugger-all. We're talking fitters, boilermakers and the like, lobbing up on sites, large and small, for effective rates as little as $11 an hour. One boilermaker found himself slaving away at Port Hedland on $13 an hour, alongside Aussies pulling $40-plus on union-negotiated agreements.

The South Africans must have thought they were being paid under the Duckworth Lewis system there were that many deductions, not to mention interest rates on airfares and paperwork that would have made Shylock blush.

When they were pinged the beneficiaries ducked for cover. There were hospital passes going in all directions until they dived behind the skirts of a PR company.

Luckily, the AMWU was able to save most of the South Africans from deportation by getting them starts well away from the WACCI and its fellow travellers.

Lesson Number Eight - all are welcome

Milking the Cash Cow

It's official - Terence Cole trousered nearly $1.3 million for 19 months work on the federal government's Building Industry Royal Commission, including an extraordinary $237,000 in taxpayer-funded expenses.

Not bad for a bloke who spent much of his time tut-tutting about payments to people who actually worked for a living and expressed a particular dislike for expenses that weren't obvious reimbursements.

Federal Minister Philip Ruddock confirmed the Commission also made millionaires of lawyers who led the persecution of the CFMEU, including John Agius, SC, ($1.576 million), Lionel Robberds, QC, and Dick Treacey, QC.

Their handiwork led to another bunch of anti-worker activists attacking themselves to the taxpayer teat, including Nigel Hadgkiss and those who work for him at the Building Industry Taskforce. Canberra moved to beef-up coercive powers for the Taskforce shortly after a Federal Court judge characterised its existing methods as "undemocratic" and "authoritarian".

Justice Marshall was speaking after Hadgkiss' organisation demanded the personal bank accounts of building workers who stopped for a day to honour a colleague killed on the job. That followed accusations, in the Senate, that officers offered to pay teenagers for information and made secret, illegal recordings of conversations.

Lesson Number Nine -real bludgers don't carry union cards

Beating Up on Bullies

Working Australians with ears to the ground elevated bullying to the number one workplace issue of 2004. The impetus came out of an emotional Unions NSW forum that heard two sisters' accounts of how they lost their mother after she was subjected to sustained bullying at work.

Then the actions started. In NSW, Victoria, Queensland and WA working people delivered one simple message - "we're not going to take it any more". Shepparton process workers rallied outside their company's Melbourne's headquarters to protest racial and sexual harassment by managers; Baulkham Hills disability workers got a standover merchant punted; and union members struck for two days, then implemented bans, in an effort to replace a Fairfield manager.

Lesson Number 10 - human rights are union rights


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