“So, what are you going to do after the election, Joe?” called out a heckler.
“Oh, you’re confident are you?” replied the then Minister for Workplace Relations Joe Hockey. “I think I’ll still be a minister in the Government” he said.
The Northern Rivers Unionist Network was holding its “people’s picnic” outside the “bosses banquet” as Hockey visited Lismore in August 2007, attending a business lunch as a guest of the ultimately unsuccessful Nationals candidate for the Northern Rivers NSW seat of Page, Chris Gulaptis.
Hockey wasn’t alone in his doubting that the traditionally conservative, largely rural seat would fall to Labor. Included by some as being amongst the 16 government seats that needed to change hands, commentator and “quasi-local” Mungo McCallum “couldn’t see it: if [Labor] were depending on Page they were in deep trouble”.
The ACTU’s national advertising campaign against WorkChoices had touched a chord with the community, tapping into already held concerns about job and income security. The task of making these messages more real for people in their communities was up to local Your Rights at Work (YRAW) groups, 46 of which had formed in NSW. These included six in the seat of Page, each with a local volunteer as convenor or chair: in Lismore, Grafton, Ballina, Kyogle, the Lower Clarence and Casino. During 2007 these groups staffed 37 stalls at local markets, agricultural shows and events, which, along with many more spontaneous street stalls, collected over 8000 signatures on the petition demanding Kevin Rudd abolish WorkChoices. The YRAW committees letterboxed 67,000 leaflets and doorknocked 3,700 homes. These and numerous other stunts, workplace meetings and protests were organised over the course of 53 evening meetings of the groups held in bowling clubs and pubs in the 12 months prior to the election. And on election day, 237 volunteers handed out YRAW how to votes at 70 of the 78 polling booths in Page.
The eventual swing against the Nationals in Page was 7.83 per cent – 2.39 per cent larger than the overall swing against the Howard government, and larger than the 5.5 per cent swing required to elect Labor candidate Janelle Saffin to represent Page. Just before the election, Andrew West wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that if “Saffin rides to victory next Saturday, it will be on the back of a campaign by the grassroots Your Rights at Work group”!
An analysis of the results in the 25 seats targeted by the ACTU with full time campaign coordinators compared with the national swing attributed an additional swing of 1.3 – 2% as being the independent effect of the YRAW marginal seat campaigns.
Whatever the contribution of the local rights at work campaign, any impact it did have was a result of the way the groups autonomously organised activities that generated conversations among locals about WorkChoices. Each raffle ticket sold “to help the campaign against Howard’s IR laws”, each person asked to sign the petition, every person who helped out having never before done anything “political” generated a conversation, and these conversations helped solidify people’s views that these extreme laws and the Government that introduced them had to go.
A clear, easily articulated message of why the laws went too far was important as were the stories and anecdotes that illustrated how people were being affected.
In small towns with high unemployment, speaking publicly about employment conditions can have a real and lasting impact on future employment prospects, and this genuine fear mitigated against regions like Page producing the sort of high profile case studies that found their way into our living rooms via the ACTU TV commercials. For the same reasons however, the stories circulating the electorate about people being poorly treated at work were even more powerful.
Without them realising, some of the best campaigners for Rights at Work in the region were the minority of exploitative employers whose poor treatment of staff was now being attributed, at least in part, to the unfair WorkChoices laws, and by association, the Howard government. While many affected were understandably publicity shy, during 2007 there were numerous word of mouth, local stories that circulated the electorate.
Early in 2007 a senior lifeguard from Ballina, on being asked by a local newspaper what measures could be taken to improve safety after a spate of drownings on North Coast beaches, suggested that local councils might employ more full time lifeguards. For this he was sacked after 18 years service, having won awards for services to surf lifesaving.
Attendants at a Grafton service station were being paid $8.45 an hour to work on their own for an 8 hour shift between midnight and dawn any day of the week, while elsewhere blueberry pickers were being paid in blueberries, and workers at a local grocery chain were being told to sign their AWA that cut their pay, or resign.
A young woman was unfairly sacked from Harvey Norman in Lismore, and had no means of appealing her unfair dismissal. Despite it being a huge national retailer, her branch had fewer than 100 employees. And a 17 year-old apprentice chef was sacked from one of the big registered clubs in Tweed Heads while she was lying in hospital in an induced coma – her parents were informed of this by the manager when they advised him that their daughter couldn’t come in for a few days.
In Ballina an employee of a removals company was forced to sign a one page contract which purported to remove all rights, even that to be insured for workers compensation, other than a $19 flat hourly rate. The manager of an aged care organisation near Alstonville who had raised questions about its takeover by a larger mainstream provider received a letter in which the operative sentence concluded: “you are dismissed under the Federal Government’s WorkChoices legislation”.
A young woman was sacked from a big hotel in Ballina a week after it had opened for not being able to come in to work for one day due to unexpected child care commitments, “just like in the ad”, her father said.
A father of six left the awnings manufacturer where he worked after the AWA he was forced to sign cut take home pay by $150 per week, while a Lismore plumbing business called each of its 35 workers in one by one to sign their AWAs. And soon after the introduction of WorkChoices every security company in the Lismore area got together and drafted a common AWA which reduced take home pay by a third, and onto which each company put all of their patrol guards.
Regardless of whether the employer had actually explicitly used the new laws to remove conditions or sack staff, the examples showed people that the new laws made their jobs and incomes less secure, consistent with a survey reported by the Sunday Telegraph in December 2006 in which 41 per cent of respondents reported having been affected by the laws, either directly themselves or through someone they know. A visible campaign, steady activity and the conversations this generated kept these stories and the WorkChoices issue at the forefront of voters’ minds as they approached the November election. As for how this was maintained by the local groups, there were factors in common which determined success. And these are no different from what we know about growing union membership and activism in workplaces in everyday union work.
When the Grafton committee wanted to respond to the constant negative portrayal of unionists in Liberal and Nationals advertising and statements, they organised for 110 local unionists in YRAW gear to march together as a float in the Jacaranda Festival parade carrying signs which included “I’m a local nurse”; I’m a timber worker”; “I’m a teacher and a dad”; “Local and Union”. Activists organised an assembly point, painted signs for the participants, a barbeque celebration afterwards, and most importantly, personal contact between activists on the committee and their unions with colleagues, neighbours and friends to get the numbers there on the day. The high spirits of local workers and families who marched in the float and warm reception (with a dose of bemusement) from the locals gathered when they witnessed over 100 smiling and waving unionists walking through the National Party stronghold of Grafton at its biggest community event of the year provided some hope a fortnight before the election.
Not everything worked. For any particular event, if one person found that they were doing all the work it meant there wasn’t ownership by the group and the activity was almost certain to fail as a tactic. Similarly, if there wasn’t a strategy to contact people one-on-one about an activity and we relied on an email, poster and/or flyer, then no-one would turn up. To some extent, the way committees were established influenced their later effectiveness. Among the groups in NSW, some committees which had formal structures and affiliates and whose meetings followed a rigid agenda of officer’s reports often produced less action and involvement. Activity was strongest in towns where more informal groups had formed to which anyone wanting to help could turn up, and where the chairs of meetings facilitated discussion on what had happened since the last meeting, new ideas on what needed to be done next and assigning these specific tasks. These committees maintained their dynamism and activity. In Page, many wonderful volunteer activists (too numerous to mention), having become involved in these committees, spent countless hours organising and carrying out the highly effective campaign work of their YRAW group.
The success of the grass roots YRAW campaign during 2007 in seats like Page was a unique achievement for the many thousands of local unions members, retirees and community members who took part, but one which hopefully will be ongoing as the groups continue to meet and organise campaign activities around ongoing issues. Well into 2008 many activists who were involved are aware that the campaign for rights at work is far from over. The continuing challenge for YRAW groups, unions and local communities is to build on this unique mobilisation of people, most of whom had never before been politically active, to influence the agenda into the future, both inside and outside the context of a election campaign.
Paul Doughty is a Campaigns Officer at Unions NSW. He spent 2007 based in Lismore on a secondment to the ACTU as a Rights at Work Community Campaign Coordinator for the seat of Page. A version of this article appeared in the April 2008 edition of the Advocate, the journal of the National Tertiary Education Union.
- M. McCallum, Poll Dancing, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2007, p. 94.
- A. West, “People’s Front is in Full Swing”, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November 2007.
- B. Spies-Butcher and S. Wilson, “Election 2007: Did the Union Campaign Succeed?”, Australian Review of Public Affairs, February [online], accessed at www.australianreview.net/digest/2008/02/spies-butcher_ wilson.html on 19 February 2008.
- L. Silmalis, “IR Reforms Backlash”, Sunday Telegraph, 31 December 2006.