||Year End 2006|
Interview: The Terminator
Industrial: Vive La Resistance
Unions: Breaking News
History: Seven Deadly Sins
Economics: Back to the Future
Politics: Organising and Organisations
International: Web Retrospective
Review: Shock Therapy
All the Best
Interview with John Robertson
What were your highlights of 2006?
The highlights of 2006 are numerous. Obviously, both the rally's on June 28 and also November 30 were a huge success. Particularly on June 28 doing something in Blacktown and getting a turnout as large as we did was very pleasing. On November 30 maintaining our numbers across New South Wales was also very pleasing and I think all in all both events were successful. Firstly, in raising people's awareness and secondly, getting more people involved in the campaign. Other highlights were obviously, Federal Labor's announcement that they were going to rip up the WorkChoices Laws and more importantly an issue that we had been pushing at Unions NSW that any new laws introduced by a Federal Labor Government not include provisions for individual contracts in the context of overriding collective agreements.
Moving into the Trades Hall was obviously very pleasing. Seeing the refurbishment reach completion and move Unions NSW into the home of the union movement at a time when we are under such an attack I think is also a sign of the capacity of the movement as a whole to continue to operate; even in the most extreme circumstances.
Another obvious pleasing event is to see Kevin Rudd now as Leader of the Federal Labor Party, putting them I think in the best position possible to get rid of the Howard Government at the next election and ensure that working people have a set of workplace laws that are fair, balanced and provide them with proper protections that they rightly deserve.
How do you think the Rights at Work campaign is placed to deliver on its original objective - regime change?
Firstly, I'd say the campaign's original objective wasn't simple about regime change it was about certainly changing these laws and there were a number of avenues that were put in place to do that prior to the laws going into Parliament. Obviously they weren't successful. The High Court Challenge was another part of the campaign. In the end the reality is that the High Court has rejected the applications of the State's and Unions NSW that the Laws were Unconstitutional and in fact, determined that those laws do comply with the Constitution. That is all that's left for people now, if they want to get rid of these laws; they've got to get rid of the Federal Government. The point worth making on the High Court Challenge is obviously, that the High Court didn't rule whether the laws were fair, they simply ruled on whether the laws complied with the Constitution.
What impact has the change of federal Labor leadership made?
I think firstly, the impact has already been seen. And that is, just talking to people that are Labor supporters or members of the Labor Party, there is a real sense of hope with the change in leadership. There is a real sense that Labor is now very competitive in the context of the election next year and I think that frankly, Kevin Rudd gives us the best chance of getting rid of these laws by getting rid of the Government. That said, I think Kim Beazley is somebody who's made a huge contribution to the Labor Party and the Labor movement as a whole and the decision that was taken by the Federal Caucus I think is no reflection on him personally, but I think is a reflection of a need to win the next election. Not simply for the Labor Party for every hard working Australian in this Country.
If you had to rate the importance of the two polls - which is of more significance?
It's difficult to distinguish one from the other at a State level there are public sector workers who have been provided protections by Morris Iemma and the State Labor Government protecting them from the WorkChoices Legislation, individual contracts and all the other components of that law. If Morris Iemma were not to be re-elected those workers in the public sector obviously stand to lose those protections. Peter Debnam has also said that he will cut 20,000 jobs. That has direct impact, not just on people in the public service but the community at large, because any cut in jobs really does lead to a reduction in services that are delivered.
Obviously the Federal Poll is widely important to every Australian in the sense that these laws are so bad at a Federal level that if the Howard Government is re-elected firstly the election will be seen as referendum on the WorkChoices Laws and secondly, if John Howard is re-elected Australia as a Nation will become unrecognisable from where it is and where it has been for some time.
You've spent a lot of time on the ground this year - what has been the feedback?
The feedback firstly has been that people are keen to tell their stories when we travelled around on the bus. Some of the stories that we got told; parents telling us about their sons and daughters, single Mothers telling us horror stories about being forced to sign AWA's that cut penalty rates on weekends and meant they wouldn't be able to just do things like pay for childcare and put food on the table are quite disturbing. But there's a sense of hope because of the campaign and a surprising high level, and I say that only because I think there's always been a pretty strong level of support. But a surprising high level of public support for the [email protected] campaign, which I think is very pleasing and in a sense does give you a feeling that the campaign we are running in the union movement is on the money. Firstly, it's on the money in terms of getting the message out. Secondly, because people are supportive of the campaign and thirdly, that people are prepared to engage us in a conversation about the campaign and those sorts of things. The anecdotal is simply just driving on the bus around the state. Cars driving past tooting horns, driving past building sites in the north of the state; workers cheering, whistling, waving as the bus goes by. It's a pretty good indication of the sort of level of support we are getting out there. The other thing that sort of sticks in my mind about the time on the ground is the number of people who identified themselves as National Party or John Howard supporters who said they wouldn't be voting for them at the next election. I think that gives great hope.
How important is the process of establishing local Rights at Work committees?
This is probably one of the most crucial parts of the campaign. To connect with local communities you really need local people involved. You can't simply swan in on a bus, do some workplaces meetings, do street stalls, meet with religious and community leaders, do a public meeting and expect that the campaign will continue. The crucial work that is done after we leave is by the campaign committees. They can not only build support within their local communities but they can also provide a means of campaign support for workers who stand up, speak out against being forced to sign individual contracts; speak out and campaign against those business that force people onto individual contracts. They have a capacity to connect with their local community because they're based locally. They're made up of local people and they know what will and wont' work in terms of getting the message out there and engaging more people in the community. The fact is that everybody involved in those campaign committees is playing one of the most crucial roles that can possibly exist for this campaign and that is; activities in the local area by local people. They also provide a means for which we can start to hold people accountable locally either politicians, businesses or political leaders in those local areas and their role is absolutely crucial to the success of this campaign and every person that is involved is doing a fantastic job in those areas.
Aren't these a challenge to the ALP branch structure?
I'm not sure they are a challenge to the ALP branch structure. The local campaign committees are really made up of a whole range of people. People who aren't in the Labor Party, people who are in the Labor Party, people who attend churches, small businesses people. I don't think these are a challenge to the ALP branch structure. But they are certainly a means by which people can engage in the campaign. Voice their views; influence the sort of activities that are undertaken in their local areas.
What will become of these structures after the federal election?
One of the key challenges we face, and we've made this point I think most of the way through. This isn't simply a campaign about the next Federal election, although obviously that is one the most crucial parts of this campaign. These local campaign committees need to continue to exist after the next Federal election irrespective of what the outcome is. If you look at the history of the union movement we were at our strongest when we were connected with the community, and connected in a way not where we saw ourselves being part, but isolated from but being embedded in the community and as a crucial part of the community. These campaign committees provide an opportunity after the next Federal election to ensure that we maintain those links. That we start to play a role in almost guiding outcomes in the community because the committees are made up of a cross representation of the local communities that they operate in, and they are going to be crucial to ensure that we end up with a new style of union movement; a union movement that is engaging others in the community, and is also reflective of others in the community.
State Labor has also had a leadership change this year - has the new Premier met your expectations?
What's been clear from Morris Iemma is that he has taken a stance against WorkChoices firstly by running a High Court Challenge to the Constitutionality of the WorkChoices Legislation. His Government has done more than most other State Governments in doing whatever it can to provide protections for workers in New South Wales. Whilst that's not easy because of WorkChoices, what is clear is that they've taken steps and just to give you examples again to re-state the protections they've given to public sector workers. But in addition to that they've also provided protection for young workers under the age of 18 by introducing laws that ensure they can't be paid less than the award rate provided by a state instrument in New South Wales. They've also introduced legislation to ensure that anybody who raises issues about Occupational Health & Safety can't be sacked unfairly and if they are, or alleged that they are then they have access to the Industrial Relations Commission to have that matter dealt with. The framework that they've got to operate within is pretty limited. But I can tell you that Morris Iemma's done more than any other State Premier to do whatever is possible to ensure workers are protected from the extremes of WorkChoices.
Comprehend for a moment that Howard wins again - what will it mean to the union movement?
If John Howard wins the next election, I think for the union movement we will continue to campaign to do whatever we can to ensure that working people in this country have a voice and have the opportunity to be represented by the union movement. That said, I think that if John Howard wins the next election, and I've said it already, Australia will become unrecognisable. The thing that is for sure is that this Government will go further in winding back the rights of working people. So much so that you only need to reflect on the comments of Dick Minchin at the HR Nichols Society I think earlier this year or late last year where we said we need another wave of industrial relations reform. What that means is without a doubt is that the minimal protections that exist under WorkChoices are likely to go and I think that means a very difficult environment for the union movement to operate within and as a result of that you end up with rouge employers looking to exploit every opportunity they can to cut back on conditions, on pay. That then leads to a situation where the businesses that want to do the right can't compete against those rouges and the race to the bottom that has already started becomes much faster than anybody could have imagined.
And where would that see state-based bodies like Unions NSW going in the medium to long term?
What you'll see is the continuation of the change that we've made at Unions NSW. We are a much more campaigned focused organisation than we were when I first started here 15 years ago. This organisation is now responsive, reactive and also developing some different strategies to deal with those issues. Things like Working NSW are going to make a key contribution to the direction this organisation takes and frankly the union movement takes as a whole. We will, and have been for many, many years an organisation that is closely connected with unions and in particular union members, and we've been making that transition for some time and will continue to do that. They key thing will be that no-one should be under an illusions about what happens and where the work is done. Peak bodies and the State branches of unions are the ones that have got the direct relationships with the membership that will continue and I think if Howard wins those sorts of relationships and the way we operate will become much more grass roots, much more connected with workplaces and the community. The organisation here is in a strong position. It has a high level of good will towards it from all our Affiliates; I think something that gives it the capacity to do the great things that we've done this year and we will continue to build those relationships to ensure that the organisation goes from strength to strength.
Finally, any reflections on Workers Online and our collective decision to shut up shop?
On one level it's always sad, when you make a decision like we have about WorkersOnline. I think the key thing is, and we've received numerous e-mails since it's been announced, from Labor Historians asking us to archive materials and I would just like to say that we will be doing that and people can rest assured that the articles and items will all remain available. But like anything you must continue to review your operations and drive for maximum outcomes and delivery of outcomes, particularly in the sort of environment that we're currently operating in. The decision to close WorkersOnline certainly is the end of an era where we were at the cutting edge when it came to online materials, online journalism and those sorts of things. And that really has been significance. And again saw us at the pointy end of technology. As technologies changed and our environment changes, it's time to review that and next year people will see a different level and style of online activity from Unions NSW. But I'm sure what they see in the New Year will be of a great benefit of the movement, and also to ordinary working people in terms of the way we develop a research agenda and how we get that message of research out there on the net in a different form. Can I just say, finally Peter and everybody else who has been involved at WorkersOnline a big thank you for the work that youv'e done for many, many years . You used to do this and produce it on your own. But I know that the other people that have been involved deserve a huge thank you and I'm not going to name them, because I think there's a risk with that but they know who they are. They've done a great job. They've made a huge contribution to Unions NSW but also to the Labor movement as a whole for the tireless work and efforts that they've put in, in sometimes very difficult circumstances to get WorkersOnline out and make it I think the information piece that it has been for some time. So to each and every one of them thank you.
Finally, can I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Obviously, this year's been a big year. We've had a number of successes along the way. I think next year is going to be much bigger than this year and a year that I'm really looking forward to. Getting out there campaigning in the next two elections; getting out there building community support for the [email protected] campaign. This is a campaign that is historical. I just urge everybody to come back refreshed in the New Year and committed to doing much more than they've ever done in their lifetime to defending the rights of ordinary working people and making sure that we have an Australia that we can be proud of and an Australia this is just decent, believes in people being treated fairly at work and we can get on and get rid of these laws.
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