Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Workers uniting

A union meets to view the prognosis for its existence under the forthcoming Workers' Legislation. It is an odd union, a merger between journalists and theatricals - the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance. Like all the other unions in Australia, it is in for a hard time - with most of its conventional forms of negotiation and communication about to become illegal. The Howard Government has made the move of its dreams, to disempower 150 years of worker union strength and to give employers the ability to call the tune without argument.
The ACTU secretrary, Greg Combet, a quietly-spoken and restrained man, came to give support and advice to the union's Federal gathering in Sydney.
He spoke of the ethos of unions, of why they exist, which, of course, is to defend and support the working people. He spoke of the beliefs on which unions are founded - compassion at their core.
And he noted that this new legislation would be but a blip in the great scheme of history. For, indeed, reason and fairness must prevail - eventually. But not right now.
He noted the sweet irony of how the Government's $55million advertising campaign to promote its new Workplace Legislation had resulted in a one per cent fall in its approval rating.
But he warned that things were going to be dark, dark, dark. The Government has everything in place to give power to its forthcoming rules. Even the High Court is stacked now with people of the Prime Minister's mindset.
Unions' right of entry to workplaces now becomes perilous with constraints. It will take only one cavalier union official to lose rights of entry altogether, he warned. To put it bluntly, "union activity is being criminalised".
He called for union restraint - and opposition to be only in the form of a professional campaign by which the public, which is still remarkably unaware of what is happening, is informed of their immense vulnerabilities as workers.
Employers henceforth will be able to dictate the terms of employment, the rates of pay, the hours worked, the shifts worked. They will be able to dismiss at whim - with no recourse through "unfair dismissal", if the company is under 100 strong.
Young people will be signing workplace agreements without option, or at least option of which they know. Their careers will begin at a disadvantage. And, indeed, this is all about young people - for their future is written in this legislation.

Combet left to hold a press conference - and was still at it, cornered by a gaggle of cameramen and boom mikes in the hotel foyer, when the meeting broke for lunch.

Lively and diverse with its range of talents, the union delegates talked on into the afternoon - for a second day of discussions and deliberations. Sedition reared its ugly head. It is another of the Howard Government's forms of suppression - raised in the name of the War Against Terrorism. It seeks to censor written word and, well, any manner of things it may choose to define as inciteful - a union meeting, for example. Once such laws are in place, they may go as far as the whim of those in power.

It is a sad and difficult time to be in a union - but we must have fortitude because once the people clue up, they will seek change. And perhaps, in a perverse way, this appalling legislation will shock the country out of its years of apathy - the years which have allowed this Government to have its way for so long.

Until then, we shall maintain the rage.

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