By Catherine Brown
PERTH — "Equity, Equality and Participation" was the theme of the inaugural Trades and Labor Council annual conference. Held days, February 15-16, the conference was a new and welcome concept for a union movement lacking any real debate.
The opening addresses, as is the wont on such occasions, were presented by high officialdom, here in the form of Premier Carmen Lawrence and ACTU president Martin Ferguson.
Many delegates were left wondering why they had failed to notice that Western Australia had actually taken great strides towards becoming a workers' paradise under the Lawrence government. And as for the description by Ferguson of the ACTU as a body that was winning better pay and conditions for workers — who wouldn't have thought that they were dreaming?
Not wishing to spoil the premier's charade, the official respondent, TLC secretary Clive Brown, said nothing to contradict the very honourable person.
What would have been the point in raising such unpleasantries as the government's attempt to introduce a no-strike clause into power industry awards? Why rake over last year's horror budget or air misgivings over this year's? Better to say that the trade union movement has concentrated too much attention on the negative aspects of the Labor government (surely a contradiction in terms?) and not enough on the advantages!
Black humour over, guest speaker and visiting US unionist Marc Earls addressed the conference. Earls, president of the Services Employees International Union local 6, recounted how his union had stepped outside the system to fight a militant campaign, without negotiations (Ferguson shifted uncomfortably), and won a number of victories (who invited this guy?).
Over the two days, delegates discussed a number of policy issues. This is a healthy development in itself. The WA TLC has recently moved from fortnightly to monthly meetings, thereby restricting debate at a time of crisis in the union movement.
Hotly debated was the economic and industry policy. During debate, this policy was strengthened by an amendment from the floor which called on the TLC to "take all steps necessary to oppose exploration, mining and other development in National Parks and areas with World Heritage listing".
Despite TLC assistant secretary Rob Meecham asserting that the council did not have the resources to take an active role in pursuing this policy, the meeting overwhelmingly decided that it should do so.
Later Meecham told the West Australian, "It's the affiliated unions that have got a fight on their hands. They are the ones who adopted this policy and so they will now have to work out what it is they are going to do and how they are going to operate that particular policy."
These comments indicate what the TLC leadership plans to do with adopted policies with which it disagrees: Nothing.
Nevertheless, many delegates are hopeful that the increased discussion around issues will continue beyond the conference. There is a crying need to challenge the false consensus and the conservativism born of the demoralisation so apparent in the trade union movement today.
Catherine Brown is a delegate to the WA TLC from the Australian Railways Union.