'Workers First is not about to disappear'

May 20, 1998


'Workers First is not about to disappear'

FRANK FAIRLEY joined the metalworkers' union in the early 1980s while employed at Containers Packaging in West Footscray. Unhappy with the union's inactivity at the workplace, Fairley and other workers challenged and won shop steward positions. Fairley was full-time convener at Containers Packaging for 11 years, until elected an organiser for the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU). He is now a candidate for Victorian state secretary of the AMWU for the Workers First team. He spoke to Green Left Weekly's CHRIS SPINDLER.

Fairley explained that Workers First election campaign at first concentrated on the incumbent leadership's lack of consultation with the membership. "Even though lip service was paid to consultation, the union is run by a little clique which ignores the wishes of the membership."

During the campaign,"award stripping" came to the fore. "Last year, the union had a campaign of rallies, marches and stop-work meetings to warn the employers of what we'd do if they dared to touch our award. The next thing we know, the award has been negotiated."

The leaders agreed to give up "the right to have a shop steward on the job, the right of access for union reps and also things like hot water and washing facilities. There is confusion over whether penalty rates remain", Fairley said.

Workers First believes penalty rates have been removed, while the "leadership have since changed their story and now say they have not gone".

Fairley said that while some union shops will be able to defend some of these conditions, in non-union shops they will be lost. "In the long run that will have an effect on us, because if non-unionised employers cut their costs, that will then put the pressure on our members."

Fairley pointed out that before enterprise bargaining, strong shops won conditions that flowed through the award to all other shops. That has been eroded.

In a number of Victorian shop stewards' meetings to discuss the new award, Workers First motions and amendments calling for a serious campaign against the stripping of the award won, "but the national vote for a campaign will probably go down because there are not Workers First groups in other states".

The response among metalworkers to Workers First's challenge, Fairley told Green Left Weekly, has been "brilliant".

"As many as 300 workers at Hawker de Havilland attended a workplace meeting with Craig Johnston [Workers First's candidate for assistant secretary] while just five turned up to a meeting with incumbent John Corsetti. We have had similar experiences at Ford in Geelong and other workplaces.

"Rank and file members took time off work, took unpaid leave, and have gone out to talk to members and leaflet workplaces across the state. There have been 10,000 plus phone calls and 2000 visits just in the western region alone."

Workers First has also won strong support from other sections of the AMWU, including amongst printers and vehicle builders. "We've said we are an amalgamated union, and we have to work together better. That means not taking each other over."

Fairley said that the "biggest problem" has been the influence of the ALP. "Because of various factions of the ALP active in our union, that has caused disruption and arguments. Hopefully, that will go away. We are not anti-ALP. We see it as the only viable alternative [to the Liberals] at the moment. We support the right of members who are in the ALP to do their thing."

Worker First is standing for three state positions. "If we all win, then the balance of forces changes dramatically. Win or lose, Workers First is not about to disappear. There are elections later this year for organisers' positions", Fairley said.

The struggle of the Maritime Union has "galvanised union activists", Fairley observed. "It has made working-class people more aware of what the federal government's industrial relation laws mean. It has brought the union movement a bit closer together."

Fairley added that the trade unions must take on Reith's Workplace Relations Act "like we did the penal powers [after the jailing of Clarrie O'Shea in 1969]. I don't see any difference between the two. If we are going to start to worry about fines and being locked up, then we'll be done before we start. We have to take them on and defend our members."

Fairley pointed out that when Labor was in power, it did not repeal sections 45D and 45E of the Trade Practices Act. "I haven't heard Labor give any guarantees that they will reverse the Workplace Relations Act when they get back in ... The difference is that one government will enforce those laws a lot harder than the other. We've fought these laws in the past, and we'll just have to continue to do that."

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