Interview by Diane Hague with Michael Easson, Secretary, NSW Labor Council on October 31, 1991 about the NSW Industrial Relations Bill, published in Education: journal of the N.S.W. Public School Teachers Federation, Vol. 72, No. 18, November 11, 1991, pp. 10-11.
Michael, how successful do you think the campaign against the legislation has been so far?
I think the Labor Council and the unions have been very successful in dramatising to the public the significance of the Industrial Relations Bill. It is the most important legislation ever presented to the NSW Parliament. More importantly, however, has been the reaction of ordinary trade union members. Those members have been keen to see their unions take industrial action, many members have written to the independent MPs, local members and to the cross benches of the Legislative Council. The participation of workers in this campaign has been critical and that was well reflected in the day of industrial action on October 23 where a majority of trade union members in NSW did take industrial action on the day. So, it was a very successful general strike. I think it was – though we had a lot of attacks on us by the media. Still that was to be expected. It was particularly noticeable in the newspapers run by Mr Murdoch, such as the Daily Telegraph Mirror and the fierce criticism on some of the radio stations in Sydney of the position we adopted. But there was strong support by trade union members, amongst the wider public a bewilderment about the issues but, nonetheless, a suspicion about the premier’s motives. What has been very frustrating about the debate is that none of the print media ever published a detailed analysis of what the Bill would do. The government wasn’t interested in an informed debate, it simply mouthed slogans about enterprise bargaining and voluntary unionism. So, we have had some difficulties in conveying information to our members. I think we had the greatest success where unions were well organised and able to have meetings with their members, with officers and to disseminate information. I think union journals, as the alternative media, have been really important in this campaign. One certainly gets the feeling that the editors of the major newspapers have made up their minds; they simply are not prepared to talk about issues like the draconian penalties and so on. It certainly has been amazing how this matter has been handled in the media.
There were two editorials in the Daily Telegraph Mirror over the last month which stated falsely that if 65% of employees want to have a closed shop there is a closed shop and that is provided for in the Bill. Well, it isn’t in the Bill at all and it’s one of the many points that is being peddled as truth that is not remotely right.
What about the Labor Council campaign of informing the wider community? I note we have support from major church organisations, but has there been support from other community organisations?
Interestingly enough, many union members have handed out leaflets at local railway stations and went into shopping centres handing out balloons saying ‘No to Greiner’s Industrial Coup’ so there has been a lot of community involvement by unions for the first time in a systematic way. That was an important part of the campaign. Among wider community organisations we’ve had strong support from church groups, NSW Bar Association and even some employer organisations opposing the bill. It was interesting, for example, that the Country Meat Employers’ Association leaders spoke out publicly and that’s the sort of opposition we haven’t heard before. We tried also to involve major community personalities and, accordingly, Angry Anderson was featured in some of our advertisements. I did something here that I have never done before which was to write a letter addressed ‘Dear Angry’ thanking A. Anderson for his support in the campaign.
Well, despite all this opposition the Bill went through the Parliament on Wednesday October 30 at 12.45 am.
So, what does the labour movement do now?
We’re serious about taking the matter to the International Labour Organisaton (ILO). The ILO did make some comment earlier this year about the lack of a secure legal basis for the right to strike in Australia. We think we can prove there are breaches to ILO Rules 87 and 98. They relate to freedom of association and fair bargaining practices. Should we be able to prove those points in the ILO, then we would seek that the Federal government legislate to oust the offending provisions in the NSW legislation, and then have the matter determined in the High Court. That may take time, but we are serious and will pursue this. Secondly, the other way to overturn this Bill is to make it an issue in the next State election. Therefore, should Labor win, we would want a Labor government to repeal the Bill. Mr Carr has given that undertaking. taking. However, I don’t think it would be appropriate to copy the old Act and say this will be Labor’s agenda. There does need to be reform in the industrial relations arena. Should there be a by-election in The Entrance electorate, then the labour movement can instantly say that Mr Greiner’s majority was tainted. He only achieved the passage of the bill through the lower house by the support of a member who wasn’t validly elected.
Thirdly, the community education campaign must continue. We have run advertisements on this issue to heighten awareness in the community and amongst trade union activists about this issue, so crook employers are on notice that we will not lay down and die now that this Bill will become law.
Yes, it’s a very politically unstable situation, at the moment. Obviously, we should keep up the pressure.
Is the Federal government going to support this appeal to the ILO? And can the Labor Council appeal direct to the ILO or does it need to seek the support of the ACTU and the Federal government?
The ACTU together with the Labor Council would lodge the appeal. What would then happen is that the Federal government would have to put its own views to the ILO. We also want the NSW government to put its own views to the ILO in the interests of fair play.
Hasn’t the Federal government been moving on right to strike legislation and to repeal the secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act?
The government does wish to pursue reform in this area. I have spoken to Senator Peter Cook (Federal Minister for Industrial Relations) several times about the NSW Bill and I have every confidence in his determination and ability to work closely with the Labor Council to see that the Bill is challenged wherever we can. And of course, Federal unions ought to be concerned, because if the Liberal/National government gets away with it in NSW then the Liberals will have it high on their agenda if they get into government federally.
What’s been the support nationally?
The ACTU Congress unanimously supported the NSW labour movement’s opposition to the Bill and supported the appeal to the ILO. Many unions across Australia have written to the Labor Council supporting our stance on the Bill. Another positive outcome in NSW has been that unions across the political spectrum have been working closely on the campaign. I think there is a great awareness that we sink or swim together and there’s a greater spirit of co-operation and trust in the wider trade union movement as a result.
So, a sinking of political differences against the common enemy?
Did the NZ trade union movement appeal their legislation to the ILO?
In some ways this Bill is worse that the NZ legislation. Incidentally, the NZ Council of Trade Unions did write to me and express their solidarity with the action we were taking. They have referred to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions a challenge to the ILO. We are getting legal opinions on how best to mount the ILO challenge. We want to move very fast and it is probably easier to pursue it under Australian law given the Franklin Dam precedent. This means the Federal government can determine that it has the constitutional power by signing an international treaty.
So, you say you want this appeal to move fast. How fast is fast?
Ironically it depends on the Greiner government. If the bill were to become law in the next few weeks, then we could go to the ILO and seek to have the matter heard in November in a preliminary hearing and to have a date set for late February or March next year. But if the government decides to withhold consent to the Bill, then we can’t take to the ILO a document which isn’t yet law. We have to have the Governor’s signature on the bill to make it law. Once this occurs then we can take it up immediately.
But surely there wouldn’t be any reason they would want to hold it up?
They might want to avoid the November conference of the ILO and therefore force us into waiting till next year.
You said you thought the bill was worse than the NZ legislation. Could you expand on that?
The worst thing about the NZ bill is that it doesn’t recognise unions at all, and it also allows individuals to work out their own agreements with the employer. But it does recognise the rights of individuals to collectively nominate bargaining agents so a group of individuals could nominate a union or a solicitor to represent their interests in negotiations. The NSW Bill makes it possible for individual agreements or agreements excluding unions but there are no provisions requiring an employer to recognise a union for the purposes of negotiation. So, an employer could say look I’ve got a job available and sure I’m prepared to negotiate with the individuals concerned but I don’t want to have anything to do with the union whatever the individuals might think.
There are no provisions in the Bill that would make that action unlawful and that is what makes the legislation monstrously unfair. In that sense, it is much worse than the NZ Legislation. Every kind of industrial action in this Bill is regarded as unlawful that’s how pathological this bill is. It is wrong in Australia that workers are subject to this battery of penalties.
I am someone who believes that you do need to have sanctions in industrial law but the whole approach of the Greiner government is penalties and smashing unions. There is no right under this bill for workers to take any action at all to defend their wages and conditions. It’s the law of the jungle.
Coming back to the possibility of an early State election what’s the latest on The Entrance dispute?
Mr Justice Slattery is expected to rule on that very shortly but even if it is a favourable result, I don’t believe we can take anything for granted and there needs to be a major campaign to win that seat back from the Liberals. There is also no guarantee that should Labor win that seat that the Independents would vote in favour of Labor forming a minority government. But I believe that should Mr Justice Slattery rule in favour of a by-election, then there will be an early State election.
Should there be a State election we should bear in mind what seats Labor needs to win to form government and there aren’t many Blue Mountains, Maitland, The Entrance are critical seats for Labor to win; and even if Labor wins all of those it would be a minority government with only 49 seats in the Lower House should the Independents agree. So, the labour movement needs to work closely and carefully on this matter.
You said that Labor has pledged to repeal the Industrial Relations legislation should it come to office. Is the Labor Party consulting with the Labor Council on the shape of the new legislation?
The Labor Party has agreed to set up a cross-factional committee to draw up new legislation.
Finally, Michael, is there anything you would like to say to members of the Federation about the campaign?
I’d like to thank teachers for supporting the campaign it’s not easy in a period of economic recession, particularly with a government like the one we have in Macquarie Street, to take industrial action. I’d like to thank teachers for the sacrifice they made on behalf of their fellow workers. That’s what the union movement is all about helping one another and teachers have always been strong in that area and were strong in supporting the campaign leading up to the general strike and on the day.
This was one of many approaches by the Labor Council and I to explain to unionists across the spectrum the issues associated with industrial relations “reform” in the early 1990s.