Australia: Unite, casual workers’ conference

Unions urged to take up concerns of casual workers.

About 80 mainly young casual workers attended the Unite Casual Workers’ Conference in Melbourne¹s Trades Hall earlier this month. After a VJ performance (video and reggae music) on casualisation, the Conference was opened by Lynn Beaton, a left wing academic concentrating on the rise of casualisation. She showed with facts and figures that casualisation is a massive growing feature of Australia’s workplace relations, especially effecting women.

Lynn put the rise of casualisation in a political context. Since the collapse of the post-war economic boom a neo-liberal assault has been waged on workers’ wages and conditions. This process was sped up after the collapse of the Stalinist block, with capitalism no longer having to put its best foot forward in the face of an alternative (albeit Stalinist alternative). The shift to the Right in the ALP and tops of some unions has allowed bosses’ attacks including a big push for casual work to succeed. The fight against the unchecked growth of casualisation can¹t be separated from the struggle to change society.

Casual workers Anthony Alder and Simone Torelli spoke from the heart telling the audience of the stress and insecurity of casual work and the brutal behaviour of many bosses who feel cocky in the absence of unions and a stable workforce.

Police the bosses!

Conference then broke up into three sessions. The CFMEU’s Pat Preston took a session on health and safety and casual workers. Attendees said this was one of the best sessions. They discussed the proposed changes to the OHS Act in Victoria to include casual workers and the fear factor that makes many casual and labour hire workers keep their mouths shut over health and safety breaches. All agreed the policing of health and safety laws were as important as the laws themselves.

Women get it worse

Dr Liz Connor and Dr Marty Grace took the session on women and casualisation. Liz in particular highlighted the special and extra pressures on working mothers made worse by the cuts to child care, the marginal tax rate, and unsympathetic employers to name just a few. Her unique presentation captured the attention of delegates.

The Executive Director of Job Watch, Zana Bytheway, took a session that included a report on the Westco T-shirt controversy. She played a key role in defending and representing those workers in the days prior to the Conference.

Unions must take it seriously

After lunch, the session on unions and casual workers proved very popular. Media Alliance State Secretary Pat O’Donnell, Young Unionists Network Matt Wilson, and NSW NUW Marisa Bernardi explained how unions had to take up the challenge of casualisation. Marisa in particular gave concrete examples of how her militant union limited the use of casuals and protected those who remain. La Trobe Uni academic Joo-Cheong Tham and Wage Line’s Naomi Bleeser explained the different forms of workplace agreements and awards effecting casual workers. Joo-Cheong argued for a limitation on the use of casual workers and pointed out the regulatory gap in Australia’s industrial laws that allow bosses to use casuals in an unchecked way in many industries. The session on what the political parties have to say about casualisation heard three Federal Senators – ALP¹s Gavin Marshall, Green’s Kerrie Nettle, and the Democrat’s Lyn Allison. All opposed the rise in casualisation and Gavin explained how the union he used to co-lead (Victoria¹s ETU) had an excellent record on limiting the use of casuals in their industry.

Politicians on the back foot

From the floor, delegates wanted to know how long it would take for an ALP government to implement its new casualisation policy and how they hoped to police it in industries with low rates of unionisation. Others questioned the anti-union record of the Democrats in voting with the Howard government to implement the Workplace Relations Act in 1996.

The Conference was closed by Unite’s Stephen Jolly who once again gave a taste of what it is like to live your life as a long term casual worker. He said it was utopian to fight casualisation without also fighting the system that breeds it. He moved the three point plan. 20 new people signed up to get involved with Unite during the day and one delegate (from Channel 31) said it was so well organised that “you people should go into event management”.

Unite’s 3 point plan

1 Encourage trade unions to be more proactive in organising and taking up the concerns of casual workers in their industries. We lobby Victorian Trades Hall Council to establish an ongoing Action Committee on Casual Workers made up of representatives of unions with casuals in their industries, plus organisations like Unite, Young Unionists Network and Job Watch

2 Unite co-ordinates a solidarity network via its email lists, telephone tree, mailing list, etc to support (financially, politically and industrially) casual workers when they move into struggle

3 Unite works to make casualisation an election issue this year, this being co-ordinated at Unite’s monthly meetings

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April 2004