Community unions: part of a successful union campaign recipe down under
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The TUC delegation to Australia met on Monday with UnionsNSW Secretary Mark Lennon and Adam Kerslake who briefed us on the way unions Had changed over the last decade from traditional insider bargainers with the New South Wales government into community campaigners.
Under the successive blows of a federal government committed to smashing unions through the mis-named Work Choices legislation, and then the replacement of a 16-year state Labor government by a National Liberal landslide, Unions NSW has reached out. Work Choices was replaced by Fair Work Australia after the 2007 election, but the campaign against the NSW Government’s cuts and privatisation programme is only just getting under way.
With 600,000 trade union members, 20% of the NSW workforce, unions have sought alliances with community groups, especially service users, for example through Sydney Citizens (which the unions helped found) and local town groups called Community Unions. The Your Rights at Work campaign was, Mark told us, “aggressively focus-grouped” with every word chosen because it resonated publicly, rather than just with activists. Individual workers’ stories were the main campaign tools, even though the aim of the Work Choices legislation was to undermine collective bargaining and union recognition. The unions didn’t play the right’s game, and won support from union members, churches, service users and Greens as well as Labor.
And now that Labor is out of power at state level and facing a fight for re-election federally, those tactics are being put to similar use in the Better Services for a Better State campaign, with its five objectives, which politicians are asked to pledge support for:
* invest in services;
* look after public assets;
* plan long-term;
* back our workers; and
* govern for the common good.
UnionsNSW ran a hugely successful campaign against Work Choices and, as well as ticking all the boxes for excitement and popularity, it secured its objective: higher than average swings to Labor in marginal seats, and a Government committed to reform industrial relations. They did it by pooling union resources (with a massive $8 a member levy for the campaign), reaching out to members and focusing on the effect of reduced union capacity, rather than union strength per se. Here’s hoping their new campaign will be just as successful!