The labour movement is preparing to unleash a serious campaign against the vagaries of insecure work. ACTU president Ged Kearney talks to Crikey about tactics in an election year.
Australia’s peak union body will launch an “aerial war” against fractured workplaces devoid of security in a bid to recapture the sentiment of the Your Rights At Work campaign that helped propel Kevin Rudd to the Lodge.
In an exclusive extended interview with Crikey this week, Australian Council of Trade Unions president Ged Kearney warned a barrage of TV ads and viral videos would tap into reservoirs of dissent among an anxious Australian populace hampered by the contingent nature of the modern workforce.
And the strong likelihood of an Abbott government won’t disrupt the broader strategy — whatever happens on September 14, a $2 levy charged to the country’s 2 million union members will be spent defending workers if the industrial relations landscape changes under the Coalition.
“We will certainly have TV commercials, there’s no doubt about that. The aerial war, the media war will be very much around those issues. It certainly won’t say, ‘vote for any party’, it will say ‘here are the issues for working people, here are the things that are important to the ACTU because they’re our members, you make your choice based on that,” Kearney told Crikey.
“The main area of focus is going to be the election, we can’t avoid it … but what we have said all along is that we want to run a long-term campaign about things we’re really concerned about, especially insecure work and insecure incomes. And the election campaign will be a subset of that.”
Kearney says the ACTU is currently running numerous focus groups to ready the best lines in the lead-up to the blitz. Although yet to engage a guru in the mould of Your Rights at Work supremo Richard Keddie (Asher’s uncle, who works closely with spinners EMC), the tender will be issued soon.
The power of Keddie’s “Tracy” ad — that famously cut through during the 2007 campaign — arguably came from her dodgy boss’ ability to dictate employment conditions over the phone. Since then, unions argue conditions have worsened with job insecurity now experienced by 40% of the Australian population.
Kearney says last year’s landmark independent Howe inquiry into insecure work will be a constant ACTU reference point, feeding into other initiatives to “protect the weekend”, balance work and family and fight public service cuts by Liberal state governments. A special campaign unit will be charged with rolling out the assault.
There is growing evidence this year’s poll could end up being fought on industrial relations issues. The business lobby has ratcheted up calls for reform of the Fair Work Act via the pages of The Australian Financial Review and union figures believe this week’s announcements from Bill Shorten on leave flexibility — an issue the ACTU has been campaigning relentlessly on for years — dovetails nicely with Tony Abbott’s lack of appeal among women given most of the sticking points surround the birth of a child.
Kearney says Australian society has changed fundamentally since the 1950s and that the industrial relations architecture needs to reflect modern realities.
“We’re not the Harvester family, which is what the act is written for … the one breadwinner out there with the wife, the two kids at home. We know that nearly 50% of the workforce is female, we know that incomes are coming from two sources in the family and that’s crucial for people to survive. You overlay on top of that the fact that people are in insecure work and when people have income insecurity they worry about how they’re going to afford their mortgages.”
“The workforce has changed so much and our legislation just hasn’t kept up.”
Kearney reserves special opprobrium for Julie Bishop’s response to the flexibility announcement: “I was astounded that Julie Bishop was just saying ‘no’. I mean, really. And there she was saying, you know, ‘workforces need to be flexible to support women but we’re not going to make them any more flexible … the only way you get flexibility is if you give up your job and go and get a casual job’.
“The Coalition is stuck in the dark ages on this stuff. The workforce has changed so much and our legislation just hasn’t kept up. It’s good that the Labor government has recognised that.”
At Old Parliament House next month, the ACTU will sit down with community groups at its National Community Summit. Kearney hopes it will forge a new “social compact” to kick organised labour forward.
The ACTU has also streamlined its own internal structures. Upon his election last May, secretary Dave Oliver admitted the organisation had dropped the ball in the aftermath of Your Rights At Work. He responded with a substantial restructuring of his own workplace — 17 redundancies amid the 100-strong workforce and a streamlining of operations into six units.
Campaigning is one thing but it will be the ability of the ACTU to translate campaigns into broader growth that will mark the success of the pitch, especially if Australia ends up with a conservative government. Labour movement density has dropped by 30 percentage points since the heyday of the 1980s as traditional industries shut down, governments launched legislative offensives and unions de-emphasised radical tactics in favour of a passive “servicing” model.
The emergence of an organising model in the US in the late 1990s — that placed the focus firmly on generating activists and progressive sentiment on the ground — was eagerly adopted by some unions, including services industry union United Voice. While elements of the “Missos” managed to generate activist workplaces, the country’s biggest union remains the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association that boasts of its genial relationships with major employers like department stores and supermarkets.
Kearney says the ACTU has situated itself somewhere between the two poles of organising and servicing. She agrees organising the untethered modern workforce is a “a real challenge”.
In the recent edited collection Left Turn, University of Queensland academic Tom Bramble was brutal in his assessment of the softer approach of previous eras, accusing the movement of giving in to the bosses and claiming it had topped itself by a thousand self-inflicted cuts.
He told Crikey that a “total sense of defeatism” had infected the movement since the 1980s Accord and that organised labour had been reduced to lobbying for Labor governments which, once elected, betrayed their roots. “Your Rights at Work got Labor elected but what we got really wasn’t much better,” he said.
Bramble says that despite recent wins by a revitalised National Union of Workers at Baiada Poultry and Toll Holdings, the Australian Building and Construction Commission, its Fair Work successor and the courts have been permitted to “salami slice the unions”. He calls for a new round of militancy through a right to strike to buttress the usual digital campaign strategies.
“The classic example is in Queensland where the state government has launched an austerity program and sacked 14,000 public servants. But the union, Together, is yet to take a single day of real strike action,” he said.
Whatever the approach, Kearney agrees it’s unions, in league with civil society, that will have to carry the burden of taking the fight to governments.
“We will identify activists who are interested in keeping the union movement healthy and alive because there’s no one else out there fighting for this sort of stuff. There’s no one out there that can take this on, only the union movement, and we need to grow to do that, we need to stop apologising for the need to grow the movement.”