Interview: Rock Solid
Industrial: Eight Simple Rules for Employing My Teenage Daughter
Politics: The Johnnie Code
Energy: Fission Fantasies
History: All The Way With Clarrie O'Shea
International: Closer to Home
Economics: Taking the Fizz
Unions: Stronger Together
Review: Montezuma's Revenge
Poetry: Fair Go Gone
The Locker Room
When the Truth Hurts
Interview with Jim Marr
So what was it like for people from a mining community to be feted by a government that is perceived to be openly anti-union?
I think people were pleased for their families to come up. There were some people who had never left Tasmania or been on an aircraft, certainly, so there was a novelty factor that was pleasant. But underground miners are not stupid, they understand there are bigger issues, that they have to worry about their jobs and worry about why this happened.
At one level, it was pleasant to have a reception. At another, they saw the event for what it was, a Prime Minister trying to join in on what was happening.
The future of Beaconsfield and its mine. How real are the fears over that?
Unfortunately, they are very real. The problem is the mine can't explain why the rock collapse occurred. I mean there are other mines that are deep and have seismic activity. The view of the majority of the miners is that the company can't mine safety. The fear of job losses is real and we believe they are going to be significant. We estimate that between 65 and 80 jobs may go and that many of them will be amongst the underground workforce, and that this will probably transpire in the next 10 days.
Brant Webb and Todd Russell are two blokes who have become household names because of their ordeal. Can you tell us more about them, from a union perspective?
Sure, they are both union members and on a number of public occasions Todd has made a point of acknowledging the role of the AWU. I don't know if the cameras picked it up but Brant chose to wear his union pin to the reception yesterday. Brant was involved in the negotiation of the first EBA we secured at the mine, last year, so they are both union men and very, very supportive of the union which is great.
Brant's father had been a metal worker's shop steward in Victoria in the 1970s. The Russell family might not have had such a long history but, certainly, when the union did its organising drive, Todd joined the union.
I mean, they both attended a union meeting within 48 hours of coming out of the ground which I thought was a great gesture to the rest of the blokes there.
Are they the sort of blokes we might see carrying banners for their workmates, or communities, in the future?
I believe so. Most of the Beaconsfield miners are keen to participate in the June 28 Day of Protest.
You have just come through a harrowing experience in which one man lost his life. From a distance, it appears, many more will lose their jobs. What positives did you take away from Beaconsfield?
These miners will carry their union memberships to whatever mines they go to in the future but the real positive was watching a community behave under pressure, when it is hearing the bad news. You know, what happens is they band together and rely on each other. That's the fact. Politics in Australia, today, is about hope versus conservatism and the people of Beaconsfield never lost hope or trust in one another. It gives me hope that things like individual contracts are not some supreme, superior, way for employment relationships.
The real test is what happens when people are under pressure and when people are under pressure, their natural inclination is to band together.
What had been the history of that mine, in terms of its relationship with the union?
Ahm, it had been an antagonistic relationship, aggressively antagonistic at times. The mine entered 1998 on individual contracts. The men had to sign AWAs to get a job. It was take-it-or-leave-it but, by about 2001, there were all sorts of promises being made and the men started to join the union. It took about three years, of our Tasmanian branch led by Ian Wakefield, turning up in the snow and the bad weather and speaking to the blokes.
We then had to fight in the Industrial Relations Commission to try and get the company to talk to us and it took until 2005 for us to negotiate the first collective agreement. Relationships hadn't been good but during the rescue some of the management decided, after the first 24 to 48 hours, to deal with us a lot more openly but no, you couldn't say, over history, there had been a positive relationship.
That's interesting, are you suggesting that, in times of crisis, there is more co-operation than would be usual?
Yes, it was interesting, it took a crisis for some managers to realise they couldn't cope with these issues on their own and, there is no doubt, they used the union to deal with the welfare of the workforce, to think about some of their industrial arrangements, and, indeed, to help with the communications challenge and ensure there was a united, positive message going out about the importance of the rescue effort.
It's almost unheard of for a union official, or a union, to be put up as the official spokesperson for a rescue effort. How come on this occasion?
I think it's what unions do well. It's the same thing all unions have to do from time to time, unfortunately. This just happened to be drawn out over 13 days with a lot of cameras present.
Sure, but it is unusual isn't it, for mine management to let the public see you play that role?
It hasn't been our experience in the past, that's true. I don't think the Minerals Council was very happy. They flew down to try and recapture their message of mining as the poster child for de-unionisation and one of the very small outcomes of Beaconsfield is it is now a lot harder to maintain that myth. I think they understood that.
o you think the federal government, itself, might harbour some fears that it has over-stepped the mark by trying to drive unions out of their traditional role in workplace safety?
Listen, I do think, I don't know I can only guess, but I suspect some of their hard-heads would love to get rid of this prohibition on union health and safety. The sheer idea that, because you represent workers, your role in health and safety should be de-legitimised is anti-safety and, I think, it is increasingly being seen in that light.
I don't think the federal government was at all happy with the role of the union at Beaconsfield because they found themselves exposed, on the wrong end of the health and safety debate. On balance, the whole rescue was a miracle and, in the end, it came down to workers and their families and friends sticking together. As part of that response they were able to rely on their union to help and so they should be.
More broadly, how do you think the union movement is travelling in its campaign against WorkChoices?
I think the ACTU is giving excellent leadership, as is the NSW Labor Council. But mainly, I think we are travelling okay because these laws are bad laws. There was no need for them. People don't think they are appropriate because they believe the pendulum has swung too far.
You are likely to be a federal politician after the next election. In terms of WorkChoices, is it realistic, to completely unscramble the egg?
Yeah, I think some of the egg is going to be hard to unscramble, I agree with the assumption of the question. In terms of what the future policies will be, well the ACTU, the trade unions and the Labor Party are working on that right now. But it will have to be the subject for another day as I go through the airport scanner on the way to catching my plane.
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