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4The union heavies

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That the industrial relations issue has been neutralised in the federal election campaign is testament to the power unions still hold over federal politics. Can the labour movement regroup to help Labor at the polls in 2013?

Nearly a decade ago in the savage sandpit of New South Wales student politics, fresh-faced right-winger and future Australian Council of Trade Unions campaign tsar Daniel Mookhey was already marking himself out as an election decider.

The 21-year-old young Labor operative from the western Sydney suburb of Merrylands had just been elected secretary of the National Union of Students. His fellow wannabe suits of the NSW Right had, up until to that point, been beset by an inherent conservatism, an irrational deification of former senator Graham Richardson and a desire, first and foremost, to crush what remained of the Left. But this wasn’t Mookhey’s way.

With campuses in revolt over former PM John Howard’s decision to jack up HECS fees by 25%, the NUS leadership group found itself touring Adelaide’s Flinders University, where students were hankering for some non-violent civil disobedience, a bugbear of the Right if there ever was one. Instead of welching, Mookhey and his Unity comrades decided to occupy the Flinders administration office overnight alongside left-wing NUS president Jodie Janson and hordes of unwashed Trots from “Cuba first” shriekers Resistance.

Janson, who bought the pizza, recalls that Mookhey, who would go on to serve as a spokesperson for Labor for Refugees and Tony Sheldon’s chief of staff at the Transport Workers Union, was proud his faction was standing up for real action. “Finally he’d found a campus where the Right couldn’t be accused of pursuing total internal destruction,” she told The Power Index.

He was a bridge builder … he was almost unique among the Right in that he never used the power he had over me as general secretary for personal gain.”

Janson has moved on, but 10 years later her comrade is still in politics, beavering away on the ACTU’s 2013 election strategy as national campaign co-ordinator and knitting together the diverse strands of organised labour in a last-ditch bid for ballot box glory. So much so that when NSW general secretary Sam Dastyari fingered him earlier this year to replace the retiring Eric Roozendaal in the state’s upper house — a lifetime meal ticket if there ever were one — it was ACTU secretary Dave Oliver who intervened to keep him in the union tent.

He’s just one of a gaggle of Barack Obama-inspired 30-somethings rebuilding the wisps of the once-powerful labour movement to resuscitate the flailing Gillard government.

When the Australian labour movement has its ducks in a row, it has the power to swing polls for the ALP, even without an explicit pro-Labor message. For the ACTU, the triumphs of Your Rights at Work and Kevin ‘07 linger even when many in the movement are sick of hearing about them.

That six-year-old campaign, for all its hackneyed over-citation, still resonates — the Coalition’s do-nothing industrial relations policy indicates Opposition Leader Tony Abbott wants to keep a lid on the WorkChoices genie. Without Your Rights at Work, the Nick Minchins and Jamie Briggses would have wrested control of Coalition IR policy long ago.

After a comparatively quiet 2010 election, the unions are on the warpath this year, even as mutterings grow that it would be better off saving resources for a double dissolution on the carbon tax down the line.

The ACTU has a $4 million warchest via a $2 levy on Australia’s 2 million union members. In February ACTU president Ged Kearney told Crikey an “aerial war” was planned for the election campaign involving prime-time TV commercials and viral videos.

When the Australian labour movement has its ducks in a row, it has the power to swing polls for the ALP, even without an explicit pro-Labor message.”

The Power Index can reveal the ACTU has engaged veteran ALP-linked ad-man Bill Shannon to devise the creative message around a theme of insecure work. Then there will be an extensive community campaign targeting key marginal seats, when the results of an extensive “voter ID” program — unveiled by Crikey last month — surface. Social media and GetUp!-aping web activity will also feature.

While Mookhey and Oliver stayed mum on tactics, ACTU vice-president (and Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union national secretary) Michael O’Connor spoke in general terms about the peak body’s approach. Community campaigning, where union activists initiate direct conversations with their families and workmates, will loom large.

I think it’s where the ACTU and the labour movement is heading … we’re not relying on direct lobbying or a relationship with political parties but actually just trying to develop support in the community for what we consider to be important issues,” he said.

O’Connor has also tapped Shannons to produce five television ads with a “let’s spread it around” theme on the mining boom and issues like 457 visas and fly-in, fly-out workers. But this might not be the main focus. “The big billboards or the TV ads may get the attention, but the important part of the campaign is mobilising around this issues,” he said. “We have 110,000 members who are hopefully talking to their families and their communities. If we can get them talking then that’s quite a significant force.”

And organised labour is bigger than the ACTU. Add the CFMEU’s campaign to the Queensland unions’ fight against Premier Campbell Newman, United Voice’s Big Steps campaign and the teachers’ union’s gee-ups on Gonski, and a critical mass starts to emerge.

Even after Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s expected demise, labour will aim to re-build internal capacity — campaigning now for more ballast and heft in the future. Membership density is marooned at 18.4% nationally (ACTU assistant secretary Tim Lyons has calculated that 133,500 new members are required by 2016 to maintain the status quo).

Former deputy prime minister Brian Howe, who delivered the ACTU’s independent report into insecure work that will provide the overarching campaign narrative, told The Power Index that organised labour didn’t necessarily need to frame the debate in negative terms — like the 2007 rejection of WorkChoices — to be influential. The 1980s Accord was seen by voters as a sign the movement was on the right side of history — a sentiment that helped buoy Labor in the 1984 and 1987 federal elections.

In Hawke’s period the accord was a very significant change … to manage change that made people feel that it was essentially positive was quite a trick! I think the leadership of the trade union movement together with the leadership of the Labor party played a very important role,” Howe said.

Howe said the Keating years were crucial: “In the early 1990s you had a transition in the [Labor] leadership where the government is really responding to the issue of jobs and employment and One Nation and a range of policies that are about investment and more positive themes of stimulating employment.”

Without the WorkChoices bogeyman, it will be that positive sentiment that Mookhey and his community cyber-warriors will be looking to recapture this year. And as Labor knows, the effort will help them, even if the party’s industrial arm only manages to slow rather than staunch the bleeding in what is looming as an electoral bloodbath.

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