I am a union activist, currently working in the rail industry and I am a workplace delegate.
When the coalition took control of the senate, I knew immediately that this would mean trouble for working rights. I remembered the previous 1996 Industrial Relations legislation, which had the worst and most draconian elements of it removed by Labor, the minor parties and independents in the senate and thought we’re in for a rough time.
I immediately began thinking of the prospects of my children having worse working conditions than I did, of my children having a worse future than I did. It made me start to feel extremely angry about the Howard Governments inaction on climate change and the dismantling of public education from schools to universities and vocational education, the dividing of the community and the relative inaction on funding retirement needs of our ageing population.
Basically it was like a slap in the face which took me out of my political slumber and made me realise that we as a country were in trouble, and I had to do something about it!
So when the coalition announced workplace reform I was not surprised, but got right to work writing to my local member Jackie Kelly and asking about these changes. When the ACTU launched the web site I was involved immediately, I wrote a submission to the senate in relation to the bill and to the Prime Minister.
All these things of course had little or no impact, perhaps it made my local member feel a little uncomfortable, especially if others did this, but was not going to change any decisions at the ballot box.
The watershed moment for me was when my union, the RTBU, organised training for activists and delegates under the tutelage of Linda Carruthers. Linda educated us on what the laws were actually going to mean, all the conditions that we were going to lose possibly forever. She also got us to plan what we were going to do about it. Further she identified a number of delegates including myself as being passionate about the issue and organised for us to attend community training with the ACTU.
I attended the training with a fellow rail employee and as a result of the training we decided, as part of a broad community wide campaign, to run a campaign in our local area with people from our industry, we planned several events and started a calendar. We also organised to meet every month to plan and co-ordinate, encourage, celebrate and keep in touch.
We had a barbeque at my house and invited people we personally knew, as well as cold calling members on the phone. At the Barbeque we heard from union secretary Nick Lewocki who explained the importance of both the campaign and the idea of grassroots organising. We then sat down over lunch and organised for the next couple of hours. As a result people started ringing each other, talking to people in the workplace and the community and becoming active, we started building a network of contacts of people who were interested and could help.
Other unions and community members were doing the same, of particular note was the group of retirees who organised a number of community meetings and put in many hours of volunteering work.
This network could really do something, when there was a major public event on anywhere in the electorate, we could get some people there. We decided to test out the network by having an event, we did not use any mainstream advertising for the event, and we used one on one conversations, union notice boards and email networks.
The event was organised to launch a community action group “A Future for Our Kids”, and had as its centrepiece a call for action on providing decent working rights, social and capital infrastructure as well as addressing climate change. Bernie Banton was to launch the group and give, a speech.
The event was a huge success, it saw unions united and working together members and organisers from different unions talking to and serving one another lunch. We had around 1000 people show up (we don’t know exact numbers), and got very good press coverage in the local papers.
Our network began an active campaign of writing letters to the editor of local papers, writing to ministers and MPs, and we also began getting involved in the local community giving away orange bags and balloons and talking to people about the workplace laws. We also started collecting petitions.
As we went out to engage our local community, we began to hear stories about how people were sacked for having a sick day, sacked for being a union member, sacked for asking about their conditions, sacked for having cancer. We heard about people who had their pay and conditions cut, one person who was handed a piece of paper to sign whilst working at a bar, not realising it was an AWA cutting her take home pay by a significant amount. They would ask us to help them and we would help them to get in touch with their union. When we would hear of someone connected to our network, or someone we knew being impacted, we’d try to help by assisting to find employment or taking up a collection to assist with hard times.
The union movement was getting involved in the community and the community loved it. When we door-knocked as Rights at Work union members we got an overwhelmingly positive response. When we showed up at a festival or parade or community event people cheered or were eager to speak with us and get a bag. The people often thanked us, or wanted to help us, they even tried to give us money, and we always directed them to the web site.
Of course we had people who were badly behaved. I was abused, sworn at and followed down the street by a fellow wearing a Liberal tee shirt, but as it was a public area and I was giving out sunscreen to children, I simply pointed out that he was being badly behaved, and shouldn’t be swearing in front of children. He got a little embarrassed and left, I got applause.
Others were not so lucky. A number of people were assaulted, one had his camera broken, and others were falsely accused of being thugs, of throwing paint at members of the liberal party and generally of bad behaviour. Of course nothing could have been further from the truth. Our activists were mums and dads, grandparents, retired workers, nurses, ambulance officers, shop assistants, teachers, social workers, child care workers, volunteer rescue workers and other ordinary members of the community.
Our network gave us the ability to move quickly. We found that we were getting more people to Liberal party PR functions and media events than the Liberal party. The Liberals figured this out after a while and would not advertise anything they were doing. Even so, every time a minister or the Prime Minister appeared in our part of town, they ran into some of our people who made sure they knew that both they and their policies were not welcome.
In Penrith we were extremely active, appearing before inquiries including the TAFE futures inquiry and the NSW upper house inquiry into the impact of WorkChoices, events for all the major political parties, as well as organising our own events and inviting local politicians to share their policies.
Some of the highlights of the campaign for me were;
- The NSW state election – the day before the election I was travelling home from work during the morning peak, I looked across to the platform where the Penrith trains came in to Central station and saw approximately half of the people on the platform carrying a rights at work bag. The platform was a sea of orange. Peter Debnam lost the election largely on the issue of handing NSW IR to John Howard and job cuts, and the fact that we made sure people knew what he was doing.
- Jackie Kelly jumping ship, she obviously knew the game was up, and could not give us the satisfaction of voting her out of office, but it was still gratifying. She became noticeably absent in the electorate after our campaign got going.
- Collecting thousands of petitions, and talking to thousands of people at soccer and football matches, festivals, parades, street stalls, at Central station and at work.
- Working alongside wonderful people including Roger, Denise, Tim and Jim Hennesy, Wendy Wirth, Troy Fotheringham, Warren Pont, John Redfern, Jo McCallum, Albert Falzon, Linda Everingham and Bev Spearpoint to name a few.
- Seeing week after week for months on end multiple letters on IR issues by our friends in the Rights at Work Campaign in the local newspapers.
- Taking time off work to assist with the Rights at Work Campaign on the Central Coast, and seeing the Lindsay experience repeated.
- Meeting, working with and getting to know Bernie Banton, my life was richer for having experienced his passion and commitment.
- Meeting Maxine McKew, and working to collect petitions in the Bennelong electorate, and of course seeing Maxine beat John Howard.
- Watching NSW upper house libs squirm at the inquiry into the impact of WorkChoices, I was also disgusted by the lack of interest and empathy shown by them as many dreadful stories were relayed.
- Seeing the whole campaign go right under the national and state media radar. It was only commented on by one journalist on Channel 7 in the week before the election.
- The support that we received from union officials and secretaries and from Unions NSW.
- The Penrith Festival, we had a large group of people take part in the festival and we got a tremendous reception. People cheered when they saw the rights at work shirts in the parade.
Our campaign was successful not because of the mass rallies and events and the media campaign run by the ACTU (though these were important ingredients), it was successful because ordinary union members were educated about the laws and empowered to do something about them through engaging with their workmates and the people in their community.
In closing I would point out that this fight is not yet won, we sent the politicians of all persuasions a strong message that working rights are extremely important in this country and we will go after anyone who takes them away, however we still are waiting to get back some of the conditions that were lost through WorkChoices. We won’t wait forever!
Adrian Catt is a Rail, Tram and Bus Union Delegate and Activist.