Interview: Under Fire
Politics: And the Winners Are ...
Economics: The Common Wealth
History: Walking for Justice
International: Deja Vu
Legal: The Rights Stuff
Review: That Cinderella Fella
Poetry: Is Howard Kidding?
The Locker Room
Age of Consent
Make Ads Not Law
Nice One, Workers!
Dog Eat Dog
Interview with Peter Lewis
You have spent many years warning the union movement they need to change or their days are numbered. Has your message changed over that time? Are you more optimistic, or less optimistic than you were 10 years ago?
I am much more optimistic now because, as the book shows, we don't have to look anymore at just New Zealand or American examples. There are a bunch of unions here who have made extraordinary progress in implementing an organising agenda. So yes, overwhelmingly the book is optimistic. I think we can do it against all the odds. But there is some false complacency out there. Unions that haven't made the change, nevertheless feel that they will be OK when the new regime being introduced by the Federal Government comes in. And I don't think that is necessarily so at all.
So do you actually see unions falling over in the next five years?
I wouldn't rule it out. It happened in New Zealand. I don't want to be a doomsayer, but let's understand clearly what the Howard Government is doing. They are designing the worst legislation in the world for workers to have power. Their aim is to destroy the Australian union movement. To the extent to which legislation can do it, it will do it. Now, it doesn't mean that it happens. Our response is critical. If we respond correctly, if we change as we need to, then we will survive it. But the threat is greater than has ever been present before. Certainly greater than when Chris Walton and I started talking about this stuff 10 years ago.
The response of the unions has been a campaign at a level of unity that hasn't been seen in a long time. What is your read of the positives and negatives of this campaign that we have been running over the last six months?
The campaign is stupendously successful. It has shifted public opinion - it has crystallized what people were already experiencing in their workplaces. The problem with the campaign is that it is not enough. No matter what we do - even if we win the next election on the back of this campaign, we will still have the world's worst industrial relations legislation. When that happens we have got to have unions that are capable of surviving in that environment.
Your book talks about some of the things unions need to do to survive. What are the three most important things any union should be doing at the moment?
The first thing that they have to do is the basics. They have got to give themselves the capacity to win. They have got to have activists everywhere you look. Members of the union have got to be absolutely engaged in every part of the union they are members of. And the union needs to have money. On the whole unions charge ridiculously low fees. Fees set in an environment when we had an Arbitration Commission, when we had TUTA, we didn't need Organisers, we had closed shops. Well, Blind Freddy would tell you that the environment has changed fundamentally, and yet we are charging the same effective rate of dues.
The unions that have been successful are the unions that have put their fees up. Now, that is not an absolute answer. Surviving in Howard's new world will still be difficult. But having the resources to do the job is a precondition for doing a whole pile of things that are set out in the book.
The other thing that I am pushing hard in the book, is that I think that the central organisations of the union movement - the ACTU and the various labor councils - need more resources. I have proposed two funds. One fund is really a lock out fund. It is designed to give us a big lump of money so that when workers, like the Boeing workers, either are forced to strike or are locked out, we have got the capacity to support them. In the same way that we supported the wharfies during the maritime dispute, so that they weren't starved back to work, we need to have the capacity to support all the workers who are going to come under the gun once employers turn nasty and really start using the legislation against us.
And the second fund that I propose in the book is a unity fund. A fund where members around the country contribute to a levy that goes into organizing employees. The conviction I've got is that you have to organize to scale. You can't do it with one organizer to 2000 members. And that means that if you want to organize a really large employer, you need large numbers or organizers, and there are very few unions around who can afford to employ large numbers of organizers. The movement as a whole has got to do that.
There is a whole pile of other suggestions in the book, but those two things are central. There has got to be a reform from the ground up of everything that unions do in a basic sense. And on top of that, I think we have got to start thinking about how do we give the union movement as a whole more power.
Of course your critics would say that your model is to ask people to pay more for a model of unionism that asks them to do more. Is there a danger in actually creating a union movement that is too expensive in both time and resources for its membership?
I don't think we have tested that at all. Every union that has gone to its members with a program of action and asked the members to fund it has got a positive response. We are actually seeing, in the context of the Howard legislation, union secretaries going to their member conventions with a program for action that involves members doing more and a fee increase. The members are standing up and challenging their own leadership. They want to know whether the dues being suggested are really enough to do the job properly.
Tony Maher from the Miners put it really well at the Organising Conference before last. Participants in a workshop were worried that members were going to leave the union because it charged too much. He said, members don't leave the union because you are charging too much, they leave the union because it's pissweak. And that is the central thing that the book is about. Unions are about giving workers power at work. Well, we have got to describe to members exactly what kind of union will give them power. They don't want to pay cheap rates and lose! They are prepared to pay whatever it will take to change their lives, to get some power at work.
Apart from writing the book, the other interesting change for you is shifting from the ACTU to a position being funded by the American SEIU. What's the thinking behind your new position?
What the SEIU have worked out is that they need to organize globally. Just going after their national employers isn't going to be enough, because their national employers tend to be multinational. So, if you are going to match the power of the employers you have got to be able to organize everywhere, all at the same time. And they have started to put in place people like me in a whole raft of countries who can help local unions build countervailing power. Given that was exactly what I had suggested in the book, it made their job offer very attractive indeed. I get to have a go at putting theory into practice.
Can you understand trepidation from the rest of the movement, given the SEIU has just split from the AFLCIO about this culture coming into the Australian movement at a time when unity is probably essential?
No, I can't. The SEIU has a really good track record in Australia. They have been completely selfless in helping our movement. They have hosted lead organisers for months at a time, run seminars for senior leaders, taken time to explain their strategy to anyone who asked. Any speakers we wanted in this country, no matter how senior, they sent them. None of it cost us a cent and no return was expected. I think people have got to trust their bona fides. The support they give will continue - not just support to the Global Alliance unions, LHMU and Transport Workers Union - but to probably over a dozen unions in this country. They have made it very clear to me that they want to do whatever they can to help build power in this part of the world. What's there to fear about that?
But isn't their bona fides that they have just split the American union movement?
I wouldn't put it in those terms. What they have done is to give their members the best chance they can of winning. The thing about the SEIU is that they have a particular way of looking at what needs to be done. They always go to the endpoint of their activity. If their members want power, they ask what do they have to do to give it to them. And it doesn't matter how courageous they have to be, or how big those steps have to be, they will do whatever it is that will get them there. What has happened in the US is that they have looked at their position in the American movement and said, what do we need to do to increase density across the whole country? They came to the conclusion that the money that they were putting into the AFL-CIO was being wasted. It wasn't going to lead to an increase in density. It wasn't going to lead to workers having power. They decided to do whatever it took to win. And that is hurtful and confronting to other unions but the interests of their members had to come before all else. That's what's driving the Change to Win coalition of unions. They are putting 75% of the resources they were giving to the AFL into one organizing fund - $46 million - and that fund will be used on those key organizing targets that have to be organized if you are going to get power in the United States economy.
But you would admit splitting is a very big step in the context of union history. Is it something that you would see happening in Australia as well if the agenda you are pushing doesn't get the momentum you feel it needs?
No I don't. I think we have got a different history, we have had our split. The difference in this country is that we have had, and I think we have now, an ACTU that is responsive to what needs to be done. I mean, it is the ACTU that has been driving the change agenda. And Greg Combet at the recent organizing conference made it absolutely clear that that was what was going to continue. In proposing the two funds, I've tried to set a challenge for us all in ensuring that the ACTU has the resources to do what the Change to Win unions aim to do - have the power to defend ourselves and grow the size of the movement.
Finally, 20 years down the track, what is the Australian union movement going to look like, and how important is the way we play the next 12 to 18 months out?
There are two scenarios. One is sketched out in the book - we disappear in 2019. The other scenario that I think is actually more likely is that there will be a group of unions - hopefully very small - that will be in all kinds of trouble, because for one reason or another they just haven't changed. But there will be a group of unions that are going ahead in leaps and bounds. I think we will be organizing internationally as we never have before. And I think the unions will be far better resourced than they have ever been before. We will have the capacity to rebalance the power relationship in the workplace.
The thing that makes me an optimist is the level of change that has happened already. There is a fundamentally different way of looking at unionism that has developed in the last 10 years in Australia, and it is not some airy-fairy kind of theory. Every part of the book is rooted in practical examples of this stuff happening in Australia. The marvelous irony in the whole thing is that we have invited SEIU to send out some of their local union leaders to have a look at some of the best union branches in this country, because we have taken their work just a bit further.
Nobody in the world runs a member service centre better than the Queensland Public Sector Union, or on a national basis, the Community and Public Sector Union. Nobody in the rest of the world to my knowledge, has a better system of handling membership and centralizing accounting than the CPSU and the MEAA. Nobody in the world has a better IT management system than the NSW Health Services Union. So, yes we can adapt and as we do in so many fields, we really are very good at taking the best ideas from the rest of the world and making something more of them.
But the real test for us is just round the corner. Can we grow the power of workers despite Howard's best efforts to take that power away? As the book makes clear, that depends on what union officials and leaders do. As Andy Stern says, our future really is a matter of choice not chance.
|Search All Issues | Latest Issue | Previous Issues | Print Latest Issue|
© 1999-2002 Workers Online