When she spoke last month at the National Press Club, the new ACTU President Ged Kearney outlined an ambitious plan for the national union movement. It calls for a broadening of our membership, our agenda and our capacity to campaign.
The speech outlines a vision for unions – where unions not only extend industrial protections for workers but embrace a broader political and social agenda that includes job security, infrastructure that makes communities work and responds to the ageing workforce.
The big question that meets this ambitious vision is how? How can unions successfully move a broad based social and economic vision this century?
To achieve this vision, the strategy will require unions to work in coalition with other community-based organisations. It cannot be done by unions alone. Unions will need to build powerful and successful coalitions run locally, across cities, states and the nation.
Last century, the union movement relied on a close relationship with the ALP and a large membership base to deliver reforms such as Medicare and Superannuation. Alongside this, unions won workplace and social reforms through community-based campaigns – like the famous urban environmental Green Bans run by the NSW Builders Laborers Federation and resident action groups.
But times have changed.
Unions do not have as many choices about the strategies they can use to influence public debate. When unions were strong, Left and Right unions were able to debate the merits of working inside the ALP structures or working with community organisations.
Today, with membership levels half that of the 1970s and an economy that has globalised, unions struggle to have their voices heard. The Labor Party rarely initiates worker-friendly workplace reforms without pressure from below– after all the Fair Work Act was a legacy of the three year Your Rights at Work campaign.
Internal union campaigns used to reach the majority of the population when unions represented 50% of workers. At 19%, shifting community opinion requires a broader strategy.
A broad-based community strategy is vital over the next three years given our precarious minority government. Community support from across our cities and regions will be required to build a worker-friendly legislative agenda.
And usefully there is widely held support from community organisations and unions for many of the issues that Kearney outlined.
Community-based organisations are also concerned by a poor transport and infrastructure, the ageing population and job insecurity.
But to be powerful and successful, community campaigns need to be run by a network of community partners – not just by unions acting alone. As Kearney notes, politics these days is too much a product of single voices and single interests. Unions too need to acknowledge that they are often perceived in public debate as acting for their vested interests. At one level, this is nothing to be ashamed of, if it wasn’t for unions who would campaign for the wages and conditions of workers?
But, when it comes to political advocacy, unions need to be able to articulate their own interests as part of the common good – as a sword of justice that defends public interest as well as their own needs. And the only way to do this is to work in strong, reciprocal coalitions with other community-based organisations.
The NSW Teachers Federation knew this when they decided to build a Public Education Inquiry (Vinson Inquiry) to develop a new agenda for education in NSW between 2001 and 2003. They invited the Federation of Parents & Citizens to work with them because they knew that to be independent the inquiry needed to include more voices than just teachers. It was a recipe for success with the coalition winning a $250 million reduction in class sizes after eighteen months of campaigning.
The same goes for the agenda setting campaigns that the ACTU hopes to pioneer.
There are other lessons from the successes of the NSW public education coalition. Working with community partners does not mean working with hundreds of other organisations and building large, long letterhead coalitions around issues. The public education coalition ran the Vinson Inquiry with just two organisations. Less is often more. Strategic, tight, mutually interested coalitions are more powerful for winning long-term social change than loose groupings of large numbers of organisations that can only agree on lowest common denominator reforms.
Finally, strong coalitions are also about working at multiple scales. We can’t win new infrastructure or job security from Canberra without building strong city-based and town-based community campaigns. These local campaigns need to capture the interest of local members of parliament and state governments.
Unions know this well – the Your Rights at Work campaign was multi-scaled – organised through dozens of local Rights at Work committees around the country as well as through union meetings. It was in these local committees that union members were able to participate and help shape the campaign and feel a part of that broader agenda.
Imagine if the union member survey that the ACTU is initiating led to the formation of local campaign groups that were able to support winning new worker-friendly reforms. But, effective multi-scaled campaigns aren’t easy – there always needs to be give and take between the local, city, state and national. But it is vital if a genuinely powerful movement is to be built.
Kearney is right, unions need a broader agenda and need to grow and sharpen their campaign capacity to do it. The key strategy that brings these three elements together is strong and powerful coalitions between the union movement and community organisations.
Amanda Tattersall is Deputy Assistant Secretary at Unions NSW and author of Power in Coalition published by Allen & Unwin, available now in bookstores.