Former Geelong Trades Hall Council (GTHC) secretary Tim Gooden reflects on his experiences as a socialist trade union leader and discusses what he could bring to parliament if elected as the Victorian Socialists candidate for the Western Region in the November 24 state elections.
On October 23, I marched down Melbourne’s Swanston Street in one of the biggest workers’ rallies this country has seen in years.
Workers were loudly chanting for a pay rise and to dump laws that stop unions from fighting for better and safer working conditions.
I’ve been part of similar workers’ rallies for my entire working life and I know that workers can only win their demands if they unite and fight back. So it was great to see so much unity.
I have to admit, though, that it worried me when I saw Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews leading the rally.
I certainly do not want to see a Liberal government elected in November, but Labor has not been the greatest of friends to workers over the past 30 odd years.
Frankly, our current deteriorating working conditions are thanks to successive Labor governments — at state and federal level — passing, or not revoking, many anti-worker laws.
Who can forget former Labor MP Kevin Rudd’s Work Choices “lite” (the Fair Work Act) that even Coalition PM Tony Abbott didn’t see the need to overturn?
I believe that the union movement must remain independent of the major parties.
That is what I learnt as GTHC secretary.
Due to the fact that I was not involved in Labor’s interminable faction fights, no disputes led or organised by me were ever held to ransom over a Labor Party deal.
I left the Labor Party in 1995 and became a socialist. When I was elected to GTHC in 2005, it was well known that I was a Socialist Alliance member, a militant Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union shop steward and a person who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
The first major campaign we got involved in was the Your Rights at Work campaign.
I remember going to delegates meeting in May 2005 and getting Martin Kingham (then-CFMEU state secretary) to second a motion calling on the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to coordinate nationwide rallies — which ultimately happened
The Geelong Trades Hall Council (GTHC) organised three rallies, the last one peaking at 10,000 workers — possibly the biggest workers’ rally ever in Geelong.
Workers knew they had to get out and fight, and they were excited about ripping up Work Choices and holding any incoming Labor government to account.
It wasn’t until the slogan “Your Rights at Work – Worth Fighting For” became “Worth Voting For” that many of us realised that the campaign had been turned into a giant pro-Labor election stunt.
From that moment on, I always felt that we’d lost a great opportunity to push the workers’ movement forward.
Prior to Rudd’s election in 2007, workers were so riled up in Geelong that we were able to hold various rallies against the John Howard government, not just against Work Choices but over issues such as Australia’ involvement in the Iraq War. We even blocked him from coming into Geelong once.
I also began to realise that we needed to do more to provide logistical and political support for GTHC’s 33 affiliated trade unions.
I was the first Trades Hall secretary in Victoria to buy a ute, picket line kits, a PA, tents and a barbeque van. We needed a ute to use as a portable stage and get everything to protests and picket lines.
We are an activist Trades Hall.
That’s why, when one young worker came up to complain that her fish and chip shop employer had paid her whole wage in five cent pieces, we were ready to react.
Her boss was trying to teach her a lesson after she’d complained that she wasn’t being paid award wages.
So I got dozens of workers to protest outside the shop and pay for their fish and chips in five cent pieces. He never treated a worker like that again.
GTHC became famous for setting up instant picket lines.
When a worker in a private aged care centre was owed $30,000, I wrote a letter demanding that she be paid. In return, we received a 7-page intimidation letter from the company’s lawyers demanding to know what authority GTHC had.
I rang the lawyer and said that technically, under the industrial laws, we had about as much authority as he had — almost none. The difference was that I could organise a very large, noisy rally outside their workplace, which was opposite an elite private school.
The next day, the worker was paid the $30,000.
This how I would see my role if I was elected to parliament — as someone who helps build fight backs and gets working-class people to have a go.
Yarra councillor Steve Jolly and Moreland councillor Sue Bolton — who are running on the Victorian Socialists North Metro ticket — are already doing this in their local areas.
Of course, it’s not just about industrial politics.
As GTHC secretary, I helped initiate and convene the Combined Refugee Action Group in 2013.
The idea originally came from Socialist Alliance comrades because the region desperately needed a united campaign to fight against the shameful laws coming from Coalition and Labor governments.
Rudd’s “PNG solution” had just been announced and dozens of Tamil refugees came to us for help. In response, GTHC, together with churches, refugee activists and CFMEU shop stewards rallied to find food and warm clothing to help them see the winter out.
That committee is still going and I’m still a co-convener.
I also believe the work that the GTHC did in setting up the Geelong Women’s Unionist Network was really important.
The committee was originally convened through GTHC to get International Women’s Day breakfasts going. Now it holds annual conferences of 70-80 women unionists, and helps build the confidence and ability of women to play leading roles in the struggle.
This was all achieved through the work of socialist, Labor and independent activists, coordinated under the auspices of a fighting Trades Hall.
It’s these experiences and my active membership of an organised socialist party that I think equips me to take on the new challenges of parliament.
If elected, Jolly and I would be a new breed of activist parliamentarians.
Our money and resources would go into building campaign groups that can take on the injustices of this system.
It’s not a career for us. It’s about fighting back, building working class confidence and taking a stand.
[To get in touch with the Victorian Socialists Western Region campaign contact Sarah Hathway on 0438 673 333]