Trans-Tasman Union Beat: Workers organising in Australia & Aotearoa

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Making history!

Early childhood educators, who are members of the United Voice union, made history on 7 September, Equal Pay Day: they walked off the job, closing many childcare centres. They’ve been organising for pay justice for several years through the Big Steps campaign. Up to now, they’ve held weekend rallies, but this was their first stopwork action ever.

Ninety-five percent of the workforce is women—many women of colour and immigrants—and they are woefully underpaid, earning just $20 per hour. Their pay is half the average Australian wage. Male workers with similar qualifications—a Certificate 3 or Diploma—earn double. Women’s work is undervalued, because women’s domestic labour is unpaid.

Workers rallied in Melbourne’s north and southeast with the full support of parents, who picked their kids up early and cheered the unionists as they walked off the job. Speaking at one of the rallies, Jess Walsh, the Victorian secretary of United Voice, told workers that they follow in the footsteps of teachers and nurses, who took strike action to lift their pay decades ago.

Support the Big Steps campaign at

Fed up and fighting back

Members of the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) in the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) have announced a week of strike action, commencing 26 September. Coinciding with school holidays, the action will impact on airports across the country. The move to escalate the long-running battle came after a poll of CPSU delegates resulted in a decisive vote for stronger action.

Like the majority of public servants, these workers have not had a pay increase for more than three years. But under the government’s anti-worker bargaining framework, workers can only get a maximum of 2% a year—with no back pay—and only if they agree to moving a generation of hard-won working conditions out of their agreements into unenforceable management policy.

For workers in DIBP, the situation is even worse. Two departments—Customs and Immigration— were forcibly merged in 2015. They had different working conditions and pay scales. Management wants to impose the worst from each agreement onto the workforce by gradually eroding entitlements as workers change roles.

There’s a great deal at stake, and CPSU members can’t afford to lose. The CPSU National Executive has been engaged in what it calls a “strategic” campaign. However, many members question a strategy that they’ve had no real say in.

Decisively rejecting bad agreements by voting “no,” accompanied by energetic workplace campaigning, has been a winner. But actual industrial action to force changes to the bargaining framework has been patchy, with workers in different agencies stopping at different times. Suspending any industrial action for months during the federal election—to focus on campaigning in marginal seats—was a disaster. The return to industrial action is welcome. But action during a joint strike of the majority of federal public service workplaces on 9 September—just the second since the battle began—was limited to token actions outside the offices of government members of parliament.

Here’s a winning combination that’s urgently needed: union democracy through mass meetings and industrial action involving the entire federal public service—together with harnassing mass public support. The week of action by DIBP workers needs to be used to galvanise the community to back public servants. Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, who is running the government’s union-busting agenda, is an anti-worker ideologue. It will take a mobilised working class to beat her.

Government to blame for #CensusFail

Social media went wild, with the hashtag #CensusFail trending for days after the August 9 census spectacularly imploded and most Australians were unable to log onto the website.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull tried to pin the blame on public servants at the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). We don’t think so!

A Senate inquiry investigating the failure is due to report on 24 November. The CPSU is making the voice of workers at the ABS heard, with a detailed submission based on the insights of those in the know. It makes compelling reading.

In 2015, the government and ABS management considered cancelling the census, due to its cost. The uncertainty caused months of delay and lost planning time on top of a relentless push for savings. The decision to retain personal information, resulting in huge privacy concerns, was a cost-cutting measure deemed “critical to driving efficiency.” This false economy also drove the move to the online e-census.

CPSU members describe drastic IT under-skilling, resulting in an over-reliance on contractors and consultants. As one member explained: “The IT problems at ABS are crippling. We experience constant and ongoing technical problems with all our systems, both those externally and internally facing. This severely affects our ability to do our work in a timely way and with high quality. There is also a severe lack of training for all staff, both permanent and contract.”

Like all agencies, the ABS has suffered decades of cuts, arising from relentless “efficiency dividends.” Since the 2010-11 budget there have been $94.7 million in cuts, the majority over the last three years. The result is massive job cuts, with 700 fewer staff in the ABS since the last census. The average staffing level for the entire department this financial is just 2,830. Additionally, permanent staff are being replaced by casuals, and union members report lower standards as work pressures intensify.

The high profile of the 2016 census debacle provides a graphic illustration of what happens when crucial expertise is outsourced and the public service is financially strangled, year after year. There is more to come —with a 2.5%, 2% and 1.5% to be cut over the next three years. The relentless cutting and the demonising of public sector workers has to be defeated!

Putting the public back in public transport

The Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU) has launched a campaign to bring Melbourne’s rail network back into public hands.

The government is engaged in rail franchise negotiations for the next seven-year contract, and the current franchisee, Metro Trains Melbourne (Metro), has a well-deserved reputation for poor service delivery and maintenance. Metro replaced the previous operator, Connex—itself no model of excellence—in 2009. Things rapidly went from bad to worse.

Metro management set about creating a bullying culture, treating its highly expert workforce with complete contempt and using the threat of dismissal to silence dissent. It claims bonuses for on-time running by routinely skipping stops. A recently leaked report revealed more than 5,800 unrepaired maintenance faults across the network deemed as “fixed,” simply by deleting them from the database!

When the Kennett government privatised Melbourne trains and trams in 1999, taxpayers were guaranteed savings and users were promised that the “more efficient” private sector would deliver improved services. The result has been anything but, with franchisees claiming massive public subsidies and pocketing big profits. Private operators are now paid nearly twice the amount, in real terms, to run the system than the Public Transport Corporation did when the system was privatised. For example, Metro gets a taxpayer subsidy of over $1 billion annually, last year creaming off $57 million in profit.

The RTBU is urging rank-and-file members to get actively involved in the re-nationalisation campaign. An appeal by the union for public support would be popular, as this campaign is in the interests of Victorian taxpayers and passengers as well as rail workers.

Support grows for sacked maintenance workers

Outsourcing is one of the favoured tools of 21st century bosses. Market competition forces companies to increase productivity to stay in business. To make a profit, they need to increase the hours worked, crack the whip to make workers produce more in the same time or find a way to lower wages—often all three together.

This is what’s happening at Melbourne’s iconic Carlton and United Breweries (CUB).

In 2009, CUB sacked its maintenance workforce, re-engaging them through a labour hire company. The workers lost some conditions but stood strong to negotiate a reasonable agreement with the outsourced company. But in June this year, CUB brought in a new contractor which already had an enterprise agreement in place, signed by a handful of casual workers in Perth. The 55 maintenance employees—highly skilled technicians belonging to the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Electrical Trades Union—were sacked. The new contractor was happy to offer them jobs, but there was a catch: their pay would be 65% less and most of their hard won conditions eliminated.

The offer was “take it or leave it.” It was a no brainer—the workers rejected the deal and decided to fight, setting up a protest outside the CUB factory in Abbottsford. The protest camp is a magnet for support. There are regular solidarity rallies, and recently the CUB employees inside the brewery walked off the job for three hours.

These unionists have not yet been offered their jobs back on the previous terms and conditions. However, CUB is paying a price for its stance. The union movement is mobilising a massive campaign, and CUB products are the off the menu at all social functions hosted by class conscious workers. On 8 September, more than 15,000 people marched through Melbourne, bringing the city to a standstill and chanting “CUB Shame, Shame, Shame!” and “CUB, not for me!” The rally demanded reinstatement of the workers and an enquiry into the use of labour hire.

Support this fight. Don’t buy CUB products, and spread the word. Visit the protest site in Abbottsford. Sign the petition to send a message to the company. Make a donation to support the sacked workers. For more information go to:

Struggle against “zero hours” contracts

In New Zealand, the struggle against insecure employment and unstable working hours continues. In March this year, Parliament passed the Employment Standards Legislation Act, which sought to prevent “zero hours” employment contracts. Zero hours contracts do not give employees any guaranteed hours of work but require that employees are available to work when called upon. These contracts often prevent workers from taking on another job and allow bosses to cancel shifts at short notice. The new legislation requires that employment contracts specify a minimum number of hours of work as well as the times and days of the week the work needs to be performed. If there is variability in shift times, this information must be stated in the contract, and if workers need to remain on-call, there needs to be some compensation for times when they are not called to work or if shifts are cancelled.

This legislation is far from a gift from benevolent politicians. It was only introduced to Parliament after a hard struggle by unions in workplaces, especially in the fast food industry. The Unite Union has long been organising workers to resist zero hours contracts. In April and May last year, Unite pushed employers to agree to end zero hours contracts at the fast food giants KFC, Carl’s Jr, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and McDonalds. Finally, in August 2015, the government introduced the new legislation, which was initially very vague. Unions and their supporters followed through with a campaign to send in thousands of submissions requesting modifications. The government agreed to some changes after admitting it had received “a strong backlash from some, who claimed that, rather than eliminate zero hour provisions, the bill had entrenched them.”

Even the revised legislation has its limits. For example, it doesn’t address the insecure hours of workers who are employed through “temping” agencies. Workers also need to remember that employers are adept at exploiting loopholes in legislation in order to avoid improvements to pay and conditions, as happened with the introduction of equal pay for women. Employers can apply informal pressure, or simply rely on the pressure exerted by high unemployment, to keep workers on-call for free.

In September this year, Statistics NZ revealed that almost 10% of employees don’t have a written contract. This figure rises to 17.4% for part-timers and to over 30% for casual employees. Yet a written contract is required by law. The industries where this problem is worse are agriculture, forestry and fishing, which are also the most dangerous. Unions and experienced workers need particularly to reach out to young people to inform them of their employment rights and defend them against unfair and dangerous employment.

Lifting the lid on Sistema’s containers

NZ-based manufactured goods have increasingly become a rare sight as industrial production has moved overseas. One exception to this trend over the past 30 years has been Sistema Plastics, which has maintained and expanded its Auckland factory. Sistema’s clip-top food containers have been an export success story, and NZ shoppers have been happy to buy products with quality and affordability, while also supporting local jobs.

The Sistema story has not, however, been so happy for the firm’s workers. In September, a number of former workers came forward to speak of the tough conditions at the Sistema plant. Many have to work 60 hours a week and are perpetually tired and sore. Some rely on pain medication to keep going. Many are only on the minimum wage.

Sistema relies heavily on migrant workers; one former Sistema worker from India says that he found the Sistema factory tougher than Indian factories.

NZ’s largest manufacturing union, the E Tu Union, is accusing Sistema of running an anti-union shop. Only 26 of Sistema’s 700 factory workers are union members.

Sadly, the story of the Sistema factory became public at the same time the Labour Party and conservative union leaders were running a shameful public campaign of scapegoating migrants for the unemployment problem. But migrants are not to blame for unemployment. That is the fault of a system of private ownership and production for profit, in which firms compete to squeeze more and more labour out of each worker. Private owners decide what to produce, how to produce it and where to produce it. Working people have no say in economic planning, whether they are migrants or locally-born.

In NZ, a manufacturer like Sistema can only succeed by super-exploiting its workforce. Restricting immigration would not change this. The best way for locals to defend jobs and conditions is to reach out to migrants, and unite and unionise to achieve the better pay and conditions for all working people.

NZ teachers unite to fight bulk funding

On 20 September, 99% of NZ secondary, primary and pre-school teachers voted at stop-work meetings to oppose the government’s proposal to bulk fund schools.

Under bulk funding, teachers and staff are not paid by the Ministry of Education, but instead by the principals and management boards of individual schools, which are each given a bulk sum to manage. Early childhood centres are already bulk funded. Some schools were also bulk funded in the 1990s, but the policy was reversed in 2000. Under bulk funding, principals are encouraged to be “entrepreneurial” in managing schools and to compete by squeezing teacher salaries.

20 Setember 2016: 1,300 teacher unionists pack the Dunedin Town Hall for a stopwork meeting.

Experience shows that bulk funding leads to reductions in the breadth of subjects offered, reductions in qualified teachers and larger classes. Bulk funding is accompanied by cuts or freezes to school budgets, with the decline in quality blamed by governments on individual “failed schools.”

This time around, the government is re-branding bulk funding as “global funding.” But teachers are not so easily fooled. Early childhood and primary school teachers in the New Zealand Education Institute (NZEI) are campaigning jointly with the secondary school teachers in the Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA) to oppose “global funding.”

Joint stopwork meetings have been held by the NZEI and PPTA in town halls throughout the length of the country. The unions are also campaigning against cuts to special education.

NZEI and PPTA are two of the largest unions in NZ, and they have the most uniform coverage across the country. Closer co-operation between the unions is a welcome development. At the rank-and-file level, teachers need to build solidarity by making horizontal links with union branches in neighbouring schools and early childhood centres, as well as students, parents and community supporters.

Trans-Tasman union beat is compiled by Alison Thorne in Australia and Alex Cole in New Zealand. Got a story for us about struggles happening in your workplace or industry? Contact or

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