Tas Unionist: ‘Unions must fight on social issues’

Kevin Harkins, new secretary of Unions Tasmania. Photo: KevinHarkins/Facebook

In October, Kevin Harkins, a member of the Labor Left, won the ballot to become the new secretary of Unions Tasmania. Harkins was an electrician and then an organiser with the Electrical Trades Union in Victoria, before becoming ETU Tasmanian secretary in 2000. He spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Linda Seaborn.

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The recent Unions Tasmania election was the first contested ballot in years. Can you tell me about that?

It’s very healthy for the organisation to go through that democratic process and it was good to see people get involved. The vote was close — not everyone loves me, yet. But I hope they'll learn to!
Roz Madsen, who was elected president, and I have a good working relationship. She is the convenor of the [Unions Tasmania] women’s committee and a hard worker.

You’ve said you’d like to see the unions more involved in social issues. What did you mean by that?

I think the conservatives have driven a wedge between the unions and the community, and we need to get involved in broader community issues and bring the unions and the community back together again.

On several occasions you’ve publicly called for an onshore detention centre for refugees in Tasmania. Why?

I don’t think asylum seekers should be locked up. [But] I get it that not everyone in the community agrees with me. So I think we can approach this from another angle and look at the jobs that would be created by having all these extra people here. Houses would have to be built, services would have to be provided — even more food and clothing would have to be supplied.

I think the federal government would be very happy to fund it if the state government were willing to approach them. We could have an arrangement where, for each house built for an asylum seeker family, we could also build a house for Housing Tasmania, [for] the use of the Tasmanian community.

The asylum seeker transition centre could be a place where, while they are waiting for their applications to be assessed, the asylum seekers are free to come and go during the day, and the centre is only closed at night. During the day they could go out, including to work if they wanted to, and the community could come in as well.

What about climate change?

My old union, the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union (CEPU) in Tasmania has a campaign calling for basic electricity for a household to be quarantined from exorbitant cost rises. But excessive electricity use — well, consumers can pay market prices for that. This would encourage people to reduce their electricity use.

The CEPU campaign also calls for programs to install solar hot water and electricity-generating panels on all public housing, and a fair, gross feed-in tariff so that people who generate more electricity than they use can benefit from it.

The campaign also calls for a review of the cheap electricity provided to bulk power users. They have to substantiate that subsidy by jobs and an economic contribution, or pay market prices. The income that would generate could fund installing the solar panels.

You were called before the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) in 2007. What happened?

It was a joke. Because I worked in Victoria as well, I had the pleasure of appearing before [the ABCC] three times. I think even the commissioner thought it was a joke in the end.

What do you think about the campaign to abolish the ABCC?

I really don’t understand why the Labor Party doesn’t abolish it straight away. I think the Labor Party needs to take a stand for labour values.

What about the charges the ABCC has brought against South Australian construction worker Ark Tribe?
Of course, they have to drop the charges against him. It is a disgrace to treat any worker in such a way. It’s even more disappointing that the ALP continues to support this behaviour.