Building a fighting shearer’s and rural workers’ union


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Militant talks with STEVE ROACH, the Secretary of the Shearer’s and Rural Workers’ Union.

The Shearers’ and Rural Workers’ Union (SRWU) was set up a few years ago after pissed-off members split from the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU). The SRWU is currently engaged in a number of battles which, as Steve explains below, are breaking new ground and testing the possibilities of using some aspects of the federal government’s Workplace Relations Act to actually assist workers in struggle.

Militant: Can you tell us why you’re attempting to get penalty rates put into the Pastoral Industry Award and why the SRWU has had to fight the combined efforts of the National Farmers Federation and the AWU for the right to represent shearers in the issue?

The Pastoral Industries Award currently has a prohibition on working overtime or weekends on shearing. For some years now, there’s been a practice of weekend work sneaking in and now some contractors are compelling people to work weekends.

The idea behind the penalty rates is to create a disincentive to the employers. It’s a bit of a race against time too because of the changes by the Howard government to the legislation. The new section 89A lists twenty allowable award matters which awards are to be stripped back to by June next year. While subsection (b) of that contains powers for the Commission to stipulate normal working hours, meal breaks and times in which they’re to be worked, there’s nothing that gives them the power to prohibit work outside ordinary hours.

The way we’ve run this case sets a bit of a precedent because no one’s tried it before. We’re not federally registered, but under section 33B, parties who may apply to vary an award are the organisations, the respondent employers, OR a person bound by the award. We argued that firstly our members are bound at the time they’re engaged to work, but the problem is the nature of ongoing jurisdiction because they’re itinerant – the job might last for a day, a week, whatever.

Secondly, members of the organisation, the AWU, are as a matter of law bound by the award so we got 135 members of the industry to sign an authority authorising us as agents for them in accordance with section 42 of the act. We then put the application in the name of one of them. The case is actually called ‘Robert Webb and Others’ – an application to vary regarding working hours and penalty rates’. It’s done under the new act but it could have been done under the old one too.

So we put the application in and the NFF wrote this particularly brain-dead letter off to the Commission saying it should just be struck out, dismissed etc. because, ‘They’re not registered, they can’t run a case’. But the reality of the situation is that we’re just saying that the individual worker has a right to make an application to vary their terms and conditions of employment – to change their award. And maybe it’s not such a bad thing that we do set a precedent – maybe a few union leaders who are too lazy or incompetent or both to negotiate decent conditions for their members, might feel a little bit more prodded into action if they feel that their own members might be able to vary the award.

The AWU didn’t even have an argument – they just supported the NFF’s case against us.

Anyway the decision that was handed down on 18th August was that we did have the right to run the case on behalf of some, but not all, of the blokes. We might appeal some sections of that decision, we’re not sure yet, but the main thing is that we can now run a case.

Militant: What would you say to this maybe being a double edged sword – for example if some boss picked on a weak worker to use them to do the same thing to undermine conditions?

Well yes, but that would have to be heard on its merits too and then the union would have to fight it and justify their position. Maybe it could act as a reeducation instrument.

The reality is this, penalty rates are not an instrument by which to get a defacto pay increase. They are not an instrument which can be bargained off or ought to be bargained off by lazy and incompetent union officials who don’t know how to get a pay increase for their members.

Militant: If you do get the penalty rates inserted in the award, what about enforcing it ? Will that still be a problem?

Well not really. Those blokes that are out there working seven days and so on, they might still work for the single rate, but it’ll only be a matter of time before some of them start kicking up when they have a falling out with the employer, some of them will then start hitting them up for backpay and stuff like that. You’ll find the employers will be saying ‘Well bugger this, I’m not working weekends’, it’s as simple as that. It’s not like the sheep can’t wait till Monday and if the shed’s managed properly, you shouldn’t have a mob left over on Monday.

Militant: What’s the discrimination case you’re currently running under the Victorian Equal Opportunities Act and how does it differ from those that you or other unions may have run in the past?

In Victoria the Kennett government introduced a change in the Equal Opportunities Act in 1994 or ’95. In a discrimination case you’ve got to establish first if there’s discrimination and the grounds for discrimination has to match the attributes of the Act. There’s been cases run by unions before where people have been discriminated against for their industrial activity but the High Court ruled that industrial activity was different to political activity which had been the attribute in the federal Act and a number of the state Acts.

The Kennett government introduced industrial activity into the attributes of the Victorian Act and I’m pretty sure that the purpose of that was to hammer unions if they persecuted scabs etc. That was the intention, but we’re using that section of the Act to have a go at Campbells because in our view they’ve been victimising one of our members – our rep at the site. It’s Campbell Mushrooms, but it’s owned by Campbells Soups – the big American multinational. They suspended her without pay and we’re fighting that and seeking compensation and lost wages and an order that that activity cease.

It’s a fairly important case in that it sets another precedent and if we can win that it’ll be a bonus for the union movement to be able to say, not only can we prosecute you under the Federal Act which carries a pissy little $500 fine at maximum, but we can take you and hit you up for compensation for the worker under this Act.

Maybe that attribute needs to be put into the Federal legislation?

Militant: The term Australian Workplace Agreement or AWA is usually associated with attempts at union busting. What’s all this about you trying to get an AWA for some of your members?

We’ve picked up a number of mines in western NSW – mainly disaffected AWU members. It was never our intention to go into the mines when we first set up, but a lot of ex-shearers work in the mines.

Anyway, in the CSA mine we’ve got pretty well 100% membership – the AWU still have one person and the CFMEU have got the miner drivers which we’re not interested in getting into a demarc over. Anyway CSA were outside of the time of their operating agreement – they were on the state system – and we’ve been waiting and waiting to talk to them about a new agreement. They started making funny noises about how the AWU was registered and we weren’t. It was my feeling that firstly they didn’t want us in the joint so they were working with the AWU and secondly that they were trying to stall off any formalisation of the agreement because it would give them the option of playing games with industrial relations and pushing individual contracts.

So last week after discussing the situation with a barrister from Sydney here, we drafted a number of authorities and had all the blokes sign them, authorising us as the bargaining agent and put a claim on for a collective AWA. Because the AWAs were designed as individual contracts, people think that’s what their only purpose is, but they can also be used as a collective agreement. The section of the Act dealing with them compels the employer to recognise the bargaining agent, which implies ‘meaningful negotiation’ and provides protected industrial action can occur in relation to an AWA. So to us, it seemed to be the best option.

We’re giving them til the end of August to ‘meaningfully’ negotiate, to see some progress and if we don’t, we’re taking industrial action. I also made it clear to the company that if we get one whiff of them promoting the AWU over us, then I’m going to use that section of the Act with relation to coercion on the bargaining agent.

Militant: Is there a danger that if this AWA gets up, at the end of the contract period, the company could then pursue these members for new individual AWAs?

As long as we’re doing our job they won’t. The reality of any situation is this: if a union isn’t doing its job, it’s gonna happen anyway.

We don’t support a lot of the changes to the Federal Act that encourage individual contracts and that sort of stuff. We gave evidence at the Senate enquiry in relation to it along with a lot of other unions. But we’ve got to accept that there have been changes and have a look at them and see what we implement that’s going to be beneficial to the worker and see how we can steer clear of the dangerous stuff. In my view it doesn’t matter what law you’ve got in place, if workers want to stick together, they’ll stick together and that comes down to whether the union’s doing its job or not.

Militant: What’s your general opinion on the state of the union movement in Australia today?

One of the most appalling things I find in relation to the union movement at the moment is the lack of education amongst the rank and file and that’s not the fault of the rank and file. That’s the fault of the people who were given custodianship of the organisation to ensure that the next generation coming up through the ranks had some understanding of what their forebears had gone through to get them what they’ve got.

There’s a leaderless decay going on and I think there’s going to be a huge social division start to open up.

My personal view of job security is this. When I was seventeen I was a shop steward in a factory in Melbourne and I heard Barry Jones speak about productivity since the introduction of the 40 hour week in 1947. He said then – and this was in 1980 – that production per worker had trebled since 1947, and it’s probably quadrupled since then. Yet if you look at the Bureau of Statistics records, here we are now working an average of 41 hours per week!

In my view, in order to soak up a bit of the unemployment, maybe the union movement should start looking at a 32 hour week – a four day working week. If we could achieve that, it would have a net effect on unemployment. You hear all this bullshit about things not being in the public interest because it’s going to cost the boss more money. Well I think it’s high time the union movement as a collective started saying ‘Well it is in the public interest to cost the boss more money – then the dividends aren’t going out of the country, they’re in the pockets of workers who are going to spend them and keep the economy choofing along.’ They tried this shit about cutting wages back in the 1930s and it just accelerated the depression, it didn’t act to stop it.

I had a guy say to me the other night, ‘I’m not a militant’, and I said ‘Yeah matey, most of the time I’m not either but sometimes you have to be, sometimes there’s a need to be, just to get what you’re entitled to.’

Originally published in the September 1997 edition of The Militant, the predecessor of The Socialist.

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