The struggle for a strong union

March 11, 1998

Green Left Weekly's RUSSELL PICKERING spoke to STEVE ROACH, secretary of the Shearers and Rural Workers Union, about the struggle to get rural workers covered by a union which will defend their interests.

Question: How did the SRWU get coverage at the Cobar copper mine?

We have about 120 members on site, the CFMEU have about half a dozen, the ETU have three and the Australian Workers Union have one unfinancial member.

The blokes weren't happy with the service, or lack of it, provided by the AWU. They were trying to negotiate a new agreement and getting no support from the AWU leadership. It's probably similar to what's going on in a lot of workplaces.

We had a few shearers in town signed up and I got to know a few of the miners. We went out and addressed a meeting, gave them a month to think about it and signed them up last June.

Question: What has happened to the workers' union consciousness since then?

The AWU had coverage for 33 years, but now union consciousness has risen markedly. Even a lot of staff at the mine have said they will take a ticket if and when they return to work.

Some people, mostly from the AWU, said, "you need a bigger union, like us". Well, we've done pretty well without them. It doesn't matter how big the organisation is; it's the integrity of the people leading it, in combination with the determination of the members to stick together and resolve their problems that count.

Question: What about workers in other mines, for example Rio Tinto's Peak gold mine?

People are seeing what happens when you do push together and that will have an effect on others' thinking. Peak mine was AWU and it was de-unionised. Even though workers rang them and rang them, they couldn't get the union out there. De-unionisation had a real help along with that union.

Question: What is your relationship with other unions like?

The AWU leadership has been telling a few porky pies about us over the last four years and it would be nice to see officials from other unions at least trying to clarify anything they hear with myself before jumping to conclusions. We've just tried to look after our members in a way that any union should.

Question: Are you affiliated to any political party?

We're not affiliated to any party and some people in the [ALP] machine in NSW have been very unkind in their description of us.

I'm sure if a political group was doing the right thing by workers, the union members would recognise it and support it.

But given our size ... the first step is to get into the trades and labour councils and have a greater voice through them.

We've tried with the Victorian council for the last four years but, while we get a lot of sympathy from people there, they have political difficulties because of the AWU and right-wing unions supporting it.

They should be rethinking their position. Union membership is declining and that's happening because people no longer feel they have a voice through their organisation.

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