Worker Worms Are Turning: Watch Out Reith!

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Worm Number One: Revolt at Blackburn. Someone loves good unionists! On a cold winter’s morning, she sent a gleam of sun to light up the hundreds who turned out to the picket at Blackburn High School. By 9.30, when the speeches and cheers were over for the day, back came the dark clouds.

Why did these teachers strike? They walked out for a week-and-a-half because their school council, without consulting the school community, decided to become one of Kennett’s “Schools of the Third Millennium.”

Blackburn will become another school where the principal would have right to hire and fire teachers and negotiate their salaries. One more CEO who can hire favourites, fire troublemakers and collect performance pay for their “efficiency!”

It is billed as a “self-governing” school. But the way this decision was reached shows how little community and teachers are likely to be part of the “government.”

This is how it happened. Last year, parents received a photocopy of the government brochure about self-governing schools. Twelve responded – all negatively.

On March 16, with no other warning and in an item hidden on the agenda under “correspondence,” the outgoing council introduced and passed the motion to join the program. During elections for the incoming council, there had been no mention of this proposal. At no time was there any genuine consultation with parents, students or staff.

There were plenty of great speakers at the picket, who explained why self-governance, Kennett-style, must be opposed. Leigh Hubbard from Trades Hall said this was the first step toward privatising state schools. John Higgins brought support from the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). John Kirner, who has made a welcome return to grassroots activism since her stint as Premier, pointed out that these schools are not self-governing but self-funding. Schools in poor areas will remain under-funded. The president of the Independent Teachers Union argued that this proposal aims to turn school against school, parent against parent, teacher against teacher.

But the depth of support for unionists, parents and students at Blackburn High shows that Education Minister Gude has failed to mislead most people. It’s true that a handful of unemployed teachers, themselves casualties of the system, were manipulated to work as strike breakers and left to struggle with a few resentful students. But the real education was happening outside the school gate, where 40 courageous and clear-sighted Australian Education Union members, including the school’s seven fixed-term contract teachers, inspired outpourings of solidarity.

And it’s not only the teachers. Two ex-students spoke to me. “The school was great when we were there last year. I want to make sure it doesn’t change for the worse,” said Jennie. Her friend Marion made the wider point: “The public system needs to be preserved so that good education is available to everyone in the community.”

This industrial action put the issue of self-governing schools squarely on the public agenda. Inspired by the teachers, the parents at Blackburn High are continuing the campaign to overturn the school council decision. The action by unionists at the school has spurred unionists at other schools, including Sandringham Secondary College, to take strong action to prevent the privatisation of their school.

I hope Joan Kirner is right! She said: “When I saw the news of the Blackburn strike, I was thrilled. I thought the revolution has begun.”

Worm Number Two: The Thorne in NMIT’s side. This worm has been turning for over two years. It’s the unionists at Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE (NMIT) who have refused to accept the retrenchment of union branch president Alison Thorne or the management’s disingenuous claim that her sacking had nothing to do with her unionism.

The No More Intimidation of Teacher (NMIT) Unionists Campaign Committee has fought an unrelenting campaign to let the world know what has been happening at the institute.

When TAFE teachers moved from being employed by the Education Department to being employed by institute councils, they were moved a long mile down the road that the Blackburn teachers are so wisely refusing to travel. Teachers at NMIT have certainly seen the “hiring of favourites and firing of troublemakers,” and they have no doubt that Alison was seen by management as one of the troublemakers.

But it’s a sign of these times that Alison and her supporters didn’t go away. A persistent, grassroots public campaign has built solid, informed support. Financial as well as political solidarity has flooded in to assist Alison’s case at the Anti-Discrimination Panel of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Appeals Tribunal (VCAT), where she alleged discrimination on the grounds of industrial activity.

If her complaint succeeds, it will set an important precedent for all unionists, because she is arguing her case based on inference. This means that other explanations must be considered. But if no other reasonable explanation can be given, then it is possible to infer discrimination based on a combination of facts, none of which prove discrimination on their own.

Unionists were thrilled by the victory of Mario Kobza, of the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers’ Union, who won the first case claiming discrimination on the grounds of membership of a union. His employers had been silly enough to say openly that’s why they were sacking him. Alison’s victory would take this win even further.

But if she doesn’t win in court, she will still have triumphed by forcing the management of NMIT to account for their actions. If the court lets them off the hook, the court of public opinion won’t!

Worm Number Three: Outworkers On The Move! An inspiring aspect of the post-Accord renaissance in industrial struggle is the role played by workers previously marginalised and unorganised.

For years, the union movement’s priority was blue-collar male workers, seen by many movement theorists and activists as the real workers with the real social power. Outworkers in the clothing industry were written off by these types as impossible to organise and a lost cause.

The Fair Wear campaign, which like the NMIT campaign, combines both union and community activists, has turned that attitude on its head. The brilliant Shops of Shame campaign very publicly exposes the retail chains which profit indirectly from sweatshop conditions of outworkers. Fair Wear spotlights the retailers’ responsibility for the exploitation of women and migrant workers in the fashion industry. The pressure of public exposure has led many shops to sign a code guaranteeing fair dealing with outworkers. The video Twenty Pieces, produced by the Fair Wear campaign, gives voice to outworkers and demonstrates both the impact of exploitation and effective forms of resistance.

Worm Number Four: Call centres get unionised. The ACTU labels call centres as “white collar sweatshops.” Governments are counting on this mushrooming industry to boost the job rate in areas with high unemployment, such as regional Australia. But call centres provide an even better bonus than lowering unemployment for an anti-worker government. Most are not unionised, and there is no Award. There’s no one to monitor the pay, the anti-social working hours, the stressful levels of supervision and the lack of career paths. There is no one to protect these workers from exploitation as gross as that experienced by outworkers in the textile industry.

Sally McManus is a union organiser with the Australian Services Union (ASU). Her job is to analyse the problem and organise change.

The union has launched a pro-active campaign to organise the industry. It has been conducting a survey of stress and other employment issues in the major non-union call centres in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong. They hand these surveys to workers outside the workplace because, as Sally explains, “under the law, you need to have members to get inside.” Too bad about the workers’ right to be informed!

The response has been encouraging. So has the creative use of email and the internet. Most workers are online at home, Sally explains, so “we create our networks around mailing lists, discuss issues and have virtual meetings. This gets around the fact that people are working 24 hours and we can’t physically meet with them.”

The union can claim some victories. Sally says: “There was one call centre in Wollongong, where there was an issue of pay and understaffing. The workers contacted the ASU, because they read about [the union] in the media. We helped them get organised. Organising means getting workers to talk to each other and understanding their bargaining power and stand up for themselves. When the workers started looking organised, the bosses freaked and gave them the pay rise they were after – to avoid any ‘trouble.’”

Worms can become boa constrictors! Workers everywhere are under pressure to work harder for fewer rewards. And without collective action and optimistic leadership, it is easy for people to feel powerless. How often have you heard someone remark, “It’s awful, but what can I do?”

This demoralised attitude reminds me of the reaction of people caught in a storm: hunch your shoulders, pull your coat around you (if you have one) and wait for the sun to come out again. Employers, government and the media encourage this response, because it inhibits action.

Last year, unionists were inspired by the MUA and the effectiveness of its organising. The victory – and imperfect as it was, it was a victory – came about because the whole community was prepared to become involved in their struggle, embracing it as their own. The MUA could not have survived alone.

The workers at Blackburn High School, in call centres and those active in the NMIT Unionists and Fair Wear campaigns are not straight, white male, traditionally organised blue-collar workers. They are women workers, recent migrants and the most vulnerable members of the working class. And, as the day-to-day struggle for survival intensifies, these workers with little to lose may prove to be the strongest.

The teachers are fighting, using their existing union organisations, to defend the rights that are being taken from them. The outworkers and the call centre workers are fighting to unionise and gain basic conditions they have never had.

All of them are using creative and innovative means to carry on an effective struggle. All of them have recognised the need to involve the whole community in their struggle. And, as with the MUA, the whole community is recognising that they, too, have a stake in these struggles.

We are in new period – a period with many reasons for optimism:

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