Dear Kevin: 'Unions want a real opposition'

July 13, 2007

The following is abridged from a letter sent by Dean Mighell, Victorian secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, to ALP leader Kevin Rudd following Mighell's forced resignation from the party on May 30.

Dear Kevin,

Watching your overreaction to comments made by NSW Labor Council secretary John Robertson at a private meeting, I'm left wondering whether you really understand the harsh reality of industrial relations.

What is so odd about a union leader promising a push to win changes to an industrial relations policy under a Rudd Labor government? Yet, instead of greeting Robertson's colourful comments with a smile, you resort to pious bullying while accusing union leaders of being bullies.

My resignation followed the publication [by the Daily Telegraph] of comments made in November last year at a private mass meeting of Electrical Trades Union members. I recounted the union's recent history of bargaining outcomes and skited about outmanoeuvring employers in negotiations way back in 1993. I made some disparaging comments about officers of John Howard's Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) taskforce.

The day these comments were published you sought my immediate resignation. Reluctantly, I resigned because I did not wish to see the media and the federal government engage in a beat-up that detracted from the community's focus on Work Choices.

I made it clear that in coercing my resignation you were making a mistake. First, you submitted to a government-engineered scare campaign, allowing the policy focus on Work Choices to be derailed. Secondly, you established a standard of behaviour that very few people, whether in boardrooms, union meetings or political life, can meet: swearing and boasting to colleagues about outmanoeuvring another in a negotiation is now a hanging offence.

The decision you took is now coming home to roost in the form of a government-sponsored anti-union scare campaign that focuses on outmoded images of "union bosses". The only thing missing is a few pictures of communists hiding under beds.

Instead of falling for Howard's trick, you should be reminding Australians of the good things trade unions and their members do every day. Trade unions represent nearly 2 million people who make an enormous contribution to this country.

Work Choices destroys job security, enshrines non-negotiable Australian Workplace Agreements that have cut remuneration for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable employees, and overwhelms employers, unions and employees in a suffocating mass of red tape.

When you spoke passionately about how Work Choices was devastating family life and redistributing power from the weak to the strong, the polls went with you. If it weren't for the narrowing in policy difference between the parties, the ALP's lead in the polls would be even greater.

A recent ABC Four Corners report exposed 18,000 employees working on identical AWAs in a workplace culture that has systematically stripped them of their humanity. Even their toilet breaks are monitored. The report suggested that such a culture contributed to the suicides of two well-regarded employees.

What is the ALP's position? Neither I nor the Australian people have a clue.

Once again, as an election looms, we are looking at an opposition that chokes and lapses into defeatist navel-gazing at the first sign of controversy.

Instead of falling for Howard's tired and discredited wedge politics, Labor should trust the people. Look at how the people have scorned Howard's invasion of Indigenous communities as an election stunt. Look at how they've rejected Work Choices in one opinion poll after another.

Australians want a real opposition leader, not a pale imitation of Howard.

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