Fight for the right to organise online!

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The Accord era is well and truly over. Bosses now try to crush rather than co-opt as the preferred method to neutralise effective union delegates. The ability to organise during work hours, hold workplace union meetings and even the right of union organisers to enter a workplace is being severely squeezed, thanks to the efforts of Minister for Industrial Relations, Peter Reith. A rabid anti-union ideologue, he understands that collectivity is the whole point of unionism and anything which chips away at the ability of delegates to organise is a boost for the bosses.

The latest battle between unionists and employers is over the use of workplace electronic mail systems for organising. In NSW, the Labor Council has recognised the significance of this issue and is campaigning to win guarantees of privacy for workers’ e-mail messages and the right to use employer e-mail systems to disseminate union information.

NSW Industrial Relations Minister, Jeff Shaw, has given “in-principle support to the right of unions to access employer e-mail systems for legitimate union organising.” The key question is: who will decide what is “legitimate” union business? The courts? The government? The employer? The union officials? Or will union members decide what is “legitimate”?

For example, management at Centrelink allows CPSU delegates to distribute information via the e-mail system. There is just one small proviso. Messages cannot be of a political nature, nor can they promote industrial action in Centrelink or any other workplace!

Last April, Maria Gencarelli, an Australian Services Union delegate at Ansett, won a precedent-setting unfair dismissal case in the Federal Court. Gencarelli was sacked after using the Ansett e-mail system to distribute a union bulletin to members during enterprise bargaining negotiations. Ansett policy states that the e-mail system can only be used for “the purpose of performing authorised lawful business activities.” The outcome in Gencarelli’s case entrenches the principle that the use of employer e-mail systems during enterprise bargaining periods is part of the business of the employer and is therefore “legitimate.”

Maria’s win is a good start which must be built upon. It is vital that unionists win the right to unrestricted e-mail access for any union business. Limiting access to so-called “legitimate” purposes will shut out the many defiant voices which must be heard to revitalise the union movement.

The entire union movement benefits by mounting a strong defence when a unionist is harassed for e-mail organising. It is especially important to challenge the short-sighted views of conservative union officials by defending militant unionists who challenge the incumbents’ views.  A key goal is to entrench the right to use employer e-mail systems for union business into industrial agreements. This must include a clause preventing employers from having any role in defining what is union business. Ultimately the way to defend our right to organise electronically is the same way we win any rights on the job. Solidarity and strong collective action can render even the most restrictive company policy inoperable and make our union delegates invincible.

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