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Issue #1795      September 20, 2017

“Change the Rules, Change the System”

Politics in the Pub Perth

On September 6, more than 40 people came to the 43 Below venue in Perth for Politics in the Pub on the topic “Change the Rules, Change the System”. The panel of three union speakers had all attended the NextGen Conference in Sydney last June. At that conference, Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus launched the ACTU campaign, Change the Rules.

Photo: Eileen Whitehead

Launching the campaign McManus referenced the struggles and victories of the Australian union movement from the Eureka Stockade, 1946 Pilbara Aboriginal shearers’ strike, Wave Hill and the 1976 campaign to save Medicare. McManus also spoke of technology as a disruptor of people’s lives and of “the real disruptors which are the Australian union movement through their organising which has changed the rules and disrupted history.”

Speaking first, Unions WA secretary, Meredith Hammat, said the union movement must protect the conditions that workers have fought for over the last 100 years. Hammat reminded listeners about the IR system that was forged 100 years ago on the premise that a balance could be struck between the interests of employees and employers, recognising that employers had greater power in the relationship.

According to Hammat, the industrial relations system acted as a restriction on the power of employers, to allow the economic model we have in this country to deliver outcomes which can bring a decent life for workers and their families.

She questioned the validity of this today as inequality is at a 70-year high and only 40 percent of workers have permanent work while the rest are in insecure forms of work. Wages have flatlined in recent years which has worried not only workers but also the Reserve Bank governor who recently said workers should be crying out to their employers for a wage increase. Hammat noted that workplace bargaining had sold the idea to workers that they would share in any increased productivity with increases in wages.

This was no longer the case. There had been a big shift in our IR system that favours employers who have become more and more emboldened by the aggression shown towards workers of the Howard-Abbot-Turnbull governments. Employers and their lawyers are increasingly finding ways to rob workers of conditions and entitlements such as the decisions of the Fair Work Commission to strip Agreements and wages for Griffin Coal and Murdoch University workers.

For this reason we say these laws are broken. Hammat said it was up to us to save our wages and conditions: when the union movement is united and active it can win.

The second speaker was CPSU/PSU organiser Melanie Booth who gave an account of the NextGen conference where around 1,100 union workers including delegates and organisers came together. Booth considered it an honour to be part of the congress, which was stimulating and offered the opportunity to workshop many of the practicalities of the Change the Rules campaign. She outlined the interventions of a number of contributors to the conference who she personally found inspiring including Hassan Yussuff President of the Canadian Labour Congress, Dawn Modkins of Black Lives Matter, Paddy Crumlin from the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), among others.

Booth said the current rules have locked out a whole generation and created intergenerational inequality. The new rules make it more difficult for unions to organise in the workplace, as reflected in employers stripping back wages and conditions won under enterprise bargaining and moving employees back onto awards.

The third speaker was Western Australian Prison Officers’ Union industrial organiser Paul Ledingham, who highlighted the high levels of union density amongst prison workers. He then went through a recent case in the privatised prison system that illustrated in a very real way how employers can exploit the Fairwork Act to undermine conditions. The case involved a private company entering the prison system in WA that set out to get a Greenfields agreement.

This agreement stripped the rights enjoyed in the public system.

The presentations were followed by a lively and informative Q&A which lasted well past the scheduled completion time of the event.

Next article – Important Conference on Australian Peace and Independence

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