||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
Seven Deadly Sins
1999 - A Year of Renewal
It may not be a case of the tide turning, but there were enough encouraging signs in the Australian trade union movement in 1999 to suggest that we aren't necessarily drowning.
The year started with a flurry of activity around working time, detoured onto the high moral ground of unpaid worker entitlements and ended with victory when Reith's Second Wave was dumped by the Democrats.
Beneath all this activity flowed the undercurrent of organising, the strategic shift from top down unionism to grass-roots activism. Driven by TUTA's Michael Crosby, NSW unions led the way in changing their orientations fundamentally.
New ACTU secretary Greg Combet succeeds Bill Kelty with the stated aim of driving this shift across the national union structures. If he can succeed, there is room for optimism within the movement for the coming years.
Looking back on 1999, we get some clues about how to meet this challenge. The success of our work on the Internet underlines the importance of harnessing technological change to advance unionism, rather than looking at it as the enemy. And the work of TWU shows how traditional blue collar unions can make the step to an organising culture.
While unions must continue to fight for the workers of the Industrial Age, it must also engage with the emerging information workers and accept that their interests and objective may be at odds with this traditional constituency.
In a fragmenting labour market, there may not be a place for master plans; unions must be more concerned with reforming their internal processes so the interests of their members are represented and constantly engaged.
All of which will require complex and flexible thought from the union's leadership, a pragmatism that accepts change as inevitable and the willingness to try different things. As we've said before - there's no one solution to the challenges of the information Age, just lots of little ones.
Thanks to all readers for their support in 1999. It may one day be remembered as a seminal year for Australian unionism. Our challenge is to make 2000 an even better one.
2000 - Stuck Between Two Eras
Depending on your level of pedantry 2000 was either the first year of the new millennium or the last year of the old.
Looking back over past 12 months, it strikes me that the trade union movement often found it just as difficult to define its place in time and space. Was it presiding over the end of one era or the beginning of the next?
Throughout the year the movement struggled to find a way to reconcile the interests of the traditional blue-collar membership base with those of the emerging mobile labour force who have, as yet, failed to take to trade unionism.
While a new leadership team at the ACTU pushed a new organizing approach, the most spirited debate raged around the divisive and often emotive argument of fair trade versus free trade.
The reason this debate has such resonance is that it can mean whatever one wants it to. While to some it is a call for global core labour standards, to others it is a movement against the globalisation of capital in its entirety. The lines between fair trade and economic Hansonism were often blurred, with the thinly disguised subtexts that foreigners are taking our jobs.
Regardless of the actual merits of the debate, it raised the fundamental issue for unions: how can we invent a movement that is attractive to young, mobile workers, while continuing to stand up for our traditional constituency. Indeed is it possible?
In this the union movement is not alone - the ALP is also facing a quandary that will hamper its election chances until it is resolved: is it the party of progress or tradition?
The reality for both wings of the movement is that while in the current climate it may be easier to argue against change, it is a dishonest breed of populism that an intelligent electorate will ultimately see through.
The challenge for 2001 is to create an intellectual bridge that can link progress with tradition by understanding and harnessing change in the interests of working people rather than pretending to be able to resist it.
2001 - The Unmaking of History
The new millennium has got off to an ominous start. The fireworks, circuses and self-congratulation of 2000 were a thing of the past and we were left with the task of redefining ourselves in a new era.
Events at home and abroad conspired to ask us to respond to crises in new ways - from the dot-com crash to the battle for compo, from the S11 attacks to the Khaki election .
The great tragedy of 2001 was that all too often it seemed we were working from a blank slate rather than making use of our greatest asset, our collective history.
It was as if we had ruled a line through the experience of the past 100 years; that the sense of solid ground that had characterized the post-war era had been junked with the old calendar.
Our enlightened engagement with our Asian neighbors was cast adrift somewhere in the Indian Ocean, our aspirations to be an open and tolerant society marooned with it.
In its place sits a new isolationism that seeks to quarantine our affluence from the rest of the world and a leader prepared to push any race button to hold onto power.
When the election was called it was if we were in 1950 when a White Australia feared the yellow peril, rather than the year after we had celebrated the diversity of the global village.
There was a similar time-warp to the political and industrial struggles that consumed the union movement, as if a century of labour movement solidarity counted for nought.
Labor MPs crossing a picket of State Parliament opting for the interest of the employer over the worker, then turning around and accusing the unions of demeaning their precious Democracy.
Thousands of workers thrown on the scrap heap, told that entitlements they had lawfully accrued were no longer there's as the architects of corporate failure skipped town with their massive 'performance' bonuses.
And most bizarrely of all, the Labor Party, licking its wounds from losing an election that appeared 'unloseable' dealing with its hurt by turning on its only true ally - the union movement.
If there is a common theme in all these sad occurrences it is that events do not occur in a vacuum; they are part of the sweep of history that can only ever be defined in hindsight.
When we look back on 2001 what will we see? A society that got so caught up in the issues of the day that it forgot where it had come from; that in rejecting its building blocks of egalitarianism and decency now seems more fragile than ever before.
It's an adage that is sometimes sadly dismissed as a cliché: those who choose to ignore their history are doomed to repeat it.
Let's make sure that in 2002 we reassert our heritage -starting with the fundamental benefit of working together for our collective good.
2002- Terror Australis
When the historians get down to chronicling 2002 their analysis will read simply: the Bali bombing brought the new era of terror home to Australians and heightened our feelings of insecurity and fear at our ill-defined place in the world.
The new climate of uncertainty has emerged by both necessity and design. We are rightly careful of terrorist attacks on our citizens; less justifiably our politicians are manoeuvring to maximise their positions, acutely aware of the benefits an incumbent faces in times of crisis.
Within this climate it has been easy to focus on the obvious symbols of terror: Muslim extremists, Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction, hordes of refugees banging down our doors. We sit cowed in a corner, braced for war, too scared to think beyond the next attack
This white noise has drowned out the other trend in 2003: the continuing mutations of global capital as it spirals out of control, powered by the one remaining world power that regards it as an end in itself.
The mega-corporate collapses in the US of Enron and World-com were to corporate fraud what the S11 attacks were to geo-politics. HIH is our corporate Bali; individuals playing outside all the rules of humanity causing pain and distress to thousands.
Corporations larger than nations providing wealth beyond the dreams of ordinary workers, with CEO's on options packages which actually reward them for the short-term stock price, rather than the long-term health of the enterprise.
Global capital is now acting as recklessly and destructively as the extremists whose violence has shattered our sense of security.
And if the US Hawks get their war on Iraq the dynamics of global capital and geo-politics will have finally converged on a battleground on which few can confidently predict the ultimate outcome.
There is little to celebrate from this new global dynamic and much to fear; yet the bitter irony is that the times are right for trade unions.
Against this uncertainty people are looking for security, and while institutions like unions may have been out of fashion in the decade of Hedonism, they now have the history and values to draw people back.
The union creed of working together, not against each other; embracing not fearing difference and standing up to corporate power are the sort of values that give hope and meaning to people struggling to make sense of the madness in the world.
It is a story that does not just address the excesses of capital, but also the small-mindedness of Terror.
The challenge for 2003 of course, is to tell this story and give every worker the chance to control his or her life; take a stand, be a hero.
A safe holiday to all our readers. We'll be back in mid-February for our fifth year as the soapbox for the union movement and a pain in the arse for dodgy bosses and white-bread politicians.
2003 - Backs to the Wall
How does one judge a year like 2003, when on the surface the powers of darkness - read Bush and Howard and union-busting bosses - can point to the scoreboard and claim 'we won!'?
If 2003 was a year when Australia mindlessly followed the US into a war of pre-emption which trashed the multilateral global consensus, it was also a year where millions took to the streets and said 'not in our name'.
If 2003 was a year when the corporate cowboys continued to rule the land, it was also a year when a unionist armed with a positive agenda campaigned for the seat on the board of a major bank.
And if 2003 was a year when the political climate was hostile to unions, it was also a year when the Howard Government failed to 'reform' the construction and higher education systems by writing unions out of the equation.
The list goes on - Howard's political ascendancy matched by Latham's rise; Rio Tinto's contracts agenda headed off by unions at the UN; the spread of casualisation addressed by a ground-breaking case that could shift the rules of tenuous employment forever.
If the storm clouds were gathering the silver lining was also evident, and it was a lining based on a new model of unionism - fighting smart with our backs to the wall, rather than expecting to exercise power as of a right.
And all the while, a union movement deep in its reform phase starting to do something more than just reacting - running its own positive agenda for a new set of rules for the workplace.
Key to this was the work at the NSW ALP State Conference where former factional foes laid out their common political agenda and surprised noone except themselves by triumphing. How this model translates to the national conference will say much about the type of government that replaces the Howard regime.
The wins this year should not be overlooked: world-leading protection from email surveillance at work, real movement in the push towards industrial manslaughter laws and the mainstreaming of the debate on maternity leave that can only lead to political action before the next election.
Meanwhile, we saw collective action delivering benefits across the workforce - nurses and teachers alongside building workers securing improvements in pay and conditions.
And new faces too, actors acting together, league players playing as a team, breaking the stereotype that unionists are bald, fat old men sitting around whingeing about the good old days.
From the peace marches, to the safety rally to every little workplace battle for justice, the message is that Working Together works - and if you don't win every single battle at least you have more fun than going through life on your own.
These are the themes the union movement needs to spread as it draws the line on 2003 and looks to a New Year: the triumph of the individual is really just a sentence of loneliness; we are a society and when we start acting like one wonderful things can happen.
2004 - Beyond The Law
Despite the all-engulfing gloom emanating from our political wing right now, 2004 comes to an end on a strangely upbeat note for the trade union movement.
True, John Howard may be celebrating the fact that he has now held power for longer than Bob Hawke by drawing up plans for a legislative assault on the union movement.
Granted, the federal ALP appears to have lost the plot and is given its best impression of a blind man seeking refuge up his own fundamental orifice.
And, yes, the Bush Empire's second instalment does threaten the world on some many levels, from geo-political to environmental meltdown of which Australia will be a willing accomplice.
But as a movement we seem to be kicking goals across the paddock.
As we go to print, the ink is drying on a deal to finally force James Hardie to meet its moral obligation to victims of its asbestos products, who would have been left exposed to financial ruin, alongside certain death, had it succeeded in its morally repugnant ploy to skip town.
This is an heroic victory amd full credit to ACTU secretary Greg Combet and the AMWU NSW branch which kept the issue on the boil until the full extent of the outrage was appreciated.
Meanwhile, NSW rail workers are nutting out the final aspects of a wages deal that secures them decent wages and conditions, having headed off a calculated attempt to smash their union.
And we enter summer consigning the 'NSW Labor Council' to history, to return in the New Year under the 'Unions NSW' banner, sending a clear message to both our members and the general public that we are an independent body putting unions first.
The common thread running through these and others advances is that they have been achieved through the mobilisation of public pressure rather than the more traditional arena of industrial law and disputation.
Indeed, the triumph of the ACTU's campaign against James Hardie is that the corporation has been forced to go beyond its straight legal responsibility to answer public demands for a moral outcome - a remarkable achievement for all concerned.
Likewise, NSW rail workers won their campaign without needing to strike, instead aligning themselves with commuters in their demands for better service and showing the extent to which the government needs the goodwill of its workforce to maintain a working rail system.
Meanwhile, more and more unions are using research and market testing to develop new ways of projecting themselves in the public domain, something behind the re-branding of the Labor Council
Do these moves equate to a trend? It's probably too early to call. What is clear is that the legal industrial relations framework, while important, is not the be all and end all of an effective union movement.
Organised workplaces, empowered delegates, smart public campaigning are all elements that can place real pressure on employers and provide an impregnable beachhead for the movement.
The battles for fair workplace laws must be - and will be - fought in 2005, but not as an end in itself; they have only ever been a vehicle to allow working people to strike a fair bargain.
One thing is for sure; if John Howard thinks that changing the law will wipe out the union movement, then he will be expending a lot of time, effort and political capital for nothing.
Hubris? I fear the man is too savvy to go down this path. But if he's not, I say: bring it on!
2005 - Waves of Destruction
2005 was the year book-ended by two waves of destruction - the first causing untold suffering across the Indian Ocean; the second reawakening our darker angels on beaches closer to home.
In between, a hard-fought, but in the short-term losing battle, for the most fundamental of rights, the right to be treated with respect and dignity at work. And if you don't see the connections between the three, then you are not looking closely enough.
Let's start at the ocean's edge - the outpouring of humanity that greeted the tsunami, represented a real engagement with our Asian neighbour's, that did much to resurrect Keating's fallen legacy of active engagement with the region. Indeed, the public support for appeals was so stark that the Prime Minister was forced to dig in too, his contribution to Indonesia's relief efforts being an act of genuine goodness.
Then he went about undoing all this good work by pulling his extreme industrial relations agenda out of his back pocket - a happy convergence of corporate power and political opportunism dressed up as economic mumbo-jumbo that even his own Treasury wouldn't buy.
With control of the Senate in the hands of a suicidal Nat who would not even stop the sale of Telstra, the changes were never going to be stopped; that they caused the level of public debate is some achievement. At least the lemmings knew they were jumping over the waterfall.
The heartening news was the way that the union movement, that most local of institutions, managed tor ally community opposition to the changes - not through traditional tactics like general strikes but through smart new moves like building alliances with the churches, TV advertisements, video link-ups and SMS trees.
Operating in an hostile environment could well bring out the best in a movement that has only ever been as strong as its base; but we can not under-estimate the challenged ahead: union activity has basically been criminalized; government policy is to push individual contracts any way it can and the electorate has the attention span of two-year-old.
The one thing missing from the government's $55 million advertising blitz and attempt to deflect union arguments as a 'scare campaign' is the courage to admit these laws for what they are - a concerted push to integrate Australia's labour market - holus, bolus, into a global economy without rules.
Which brings us to Cronulla ...
If there was a message that sparked these riots it was delivered by the PM in 2001 - 'we decide who comes into this country' - after adopting One Nation's policies and rhetoric and selling as a future Australia's 'freedom' to harbour racist sentiments.
His studious silence in the face of the Cronulla riots can only be interpreted as an attempt to hedge his bets on the race card. As the Tampa election showed, this is the one card that trumps dissent with economic globalism.
A government responsible for further reducing the economic barriers to the world economy can only make citizens feel secure by diverting attention to cultural barriers; they may destroy the notion of an Australian economy but they can turn refugees around.
Australia is currently a nation in confusion - buffered by global change and our tenuous place in the world; desperate for some sense of controlling the madness, yet being led deeper and deeper into the world of corporate power free from rules and regulations.
Howard's industrial relations changes will only heighten these insecurities - less job security, lower wages, more jobs shipped offshore and no bargaining rights - all handing power to the employer and make workers feel more desperate and alone.
If the market swallows up working life, what have we left? Expect our fears of the outside world - where we will be more likely to blame an outside for our troubles than hold out a helping hand.
If fear and loathing reigns, Howard will be in the box seat. And if that doesn't work, there's always the tax cuts.
But no more gloom so close the Christmas! Here's to more battles in 2006 - because while those who would destroy us have never been in a stronger position, hubris is real.
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