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Tricks of my trade

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Page context: Home > Transport International Magazine > Issue 26 January 2007 > Tricks of my trade


Greg Harvey, lead national organiser for the Australian Rail Tram and Bus Industry Union, and Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Organiser of the Year in 2006 shares the secrets of his success

I started work in the freight rail industry in 1993, shunting and inspecting trains in the freight yard and operating lifting machinery such as cranes and forklifts. In the first couple of years I was approached a number of times by fellow union members and asked if I would be the local workplace delegate. Each time I declined the offer thinking I had too much going on in my life already. Then one day something didn’t go my way at work and I was pretty angry with management. I thought this would be an opportunity for me to get back at management and so I accepted.

Initially I had no idea what I was supposed to do, and so I just bumbled and bluffed my way through it. I started to realise I was getting the things the members wanted, with ridiculous ease. The one time management dug their heels in I led the members on a 24 hour wildcat strike. It was the first time many of the guys working for that company had ever been involved in any union activity in their lives. We got almost everything we wanted from that point on. Our workplace became one of the most militant in the company, which had depots in every mainland state of Australia. We had no less than 10 managers in eight years as the company tried everything to suppress us.

After about five or six years I received a call one day asking if I would be interested in filling a position in the RTBU which had become vacant. Up until this time I had only ever met one official of the RTBU, and that was the guy who used to come to our workplace. I had never had any desire to work for a union. I had no political aspirations whatsoever. I had neither knowledge nor interest in political matters. However following a meeting RTBU union officials in 2001, the next thing I knew I was a paid, full-time union official sitting at a desk in the RTBU national office with the title of assistant national secretary – rail operations division.

Gaining confidence

It was a huge learning curve for me. Once again I found myself in a situation where I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I’d had no union training whatsoever at that stage. I had not come up through the ranks as was normally the case within our union. I suddenly found myself confronting not only workplace issues but also internal political issues within the union. Once again I reverted to bumbling and bluffing my way through. The more I did, the more confident I became. The more confident I became, the more adventurous I was. I am now lead organiser for the union, and I love my job. I love the cut and thrust of arguing with employers to improve the wages and conditions of workers.

"The real key to the success of this campaign was the involvement of the workplace delegates in every decision that was made. Rank and file delegates were present at every negotiation meeting"

I love the interaction with the members. I love knowing that I can help make a difference to either a single worker or masses of workers. I could never see myself wanting to do anything else.

I find it incredible that I was ever asked if I wanted to take on a role where I had to argue with people I didn’t particularly like and who had ideologies and principles I don’t like, and they wanted to pay me for doing it. I still have days where I feel way out of my depth. On those days I take the advice once given to me by a union official who was on the verge of retirement. That advice was, “Bite off more than you can chew, and chew like mad!” It works for me.

Campaigning success

We have been running a campaign against the largest freight rail operator in Australia, Pacific National, to get a new collective agreement. Pacific National was a joint venture between Patrick Corporation (the company involved in the infamous Australian Waterfront dispute in 1998) and the multi-national TOLL Holdings. Earlier this year TOLL Holdings completed a hostile takeover of Patrick Corporation.

Commencing in March 2005, this campaign has been running for 19 long months and there have been many battles along the way. After many months of fruitless negotiations the members decided to exercise their right to take industrial action in July 2005 (this was before the new Howard legislation). The company did everything they could to prevent the action, including two successful and one unsuccessful Federal Court injunctions. The members held firm in their support and were eventually able to take industrial action in August, 2005.

The company also put out a non-union collective agreement for employees to vote on, which the RTBU campaigned strongly against, and it subsequently went down in the face of a massive 87 per cent No vote.

We not only held the support of the members for the length of the campaign, but we also increased our membership by some 70 members across the country. Not a bad result when you consider the 95 per cent plus density we already had in this company.

In addition to the increase in membership, this campaign spawned a number of other positives for our union. We have increased and strengthened our delegate and activist structures across the company, we have better communication strategies in place and the solidarity between members in different locations and different grades has never been stronger.

The real key to the success of this campaign was the involvement of the workplace delegates in every decision that was made. Rank and file delegates were present at every negotiation meeting. Those delegates who were not part of the negotiation team were kept involved through telephone hook ups, workplace meetings or web chat-sites.

The end result of this campaign is that we have secured three-year union collective agreements with wage increases totalling 18 per cent over three and a half years (back-dated to 30 October, 2005). And we have maintained most of the conditions of employment that were under attack from the company in the beginning. We did have to make some concessions, but they were concessions the rank and file endorsed.

One of the most important tricks, I have found, and sometimes one of the most difficult, is communication and involvement with members. In this age of technology it is becoming easier and easier to communicate directly with members. This is so vital in a big campaign because it gives the rank and file members a sense of involvement and ultimately ownership of the outcomes. The same thing applies whether the campaign is industrial, political or otherwise.

Organising in a hostile environment

Unions are facing tough times in Australia as John Howard and his anti-union band of neo-liberal “yes” people continue to attack the conditions of workers. We have to bunker down to some extent, but only to re-evaluate our strategies. Keeping our heads down and waiting for it to all go away will result in annihilation. We also have to know when to attack, on our terms.

The union movement in Australia has almost turned full circle. More than 100 years ago we were in almost the same situation we find ourselves in now. Back then we not only survived the concerted attacks of the conservatives, but we grew stronger and stronger. I have no doubt we will survive and grow again, but we need to heed the lessons of history.

There is a need for creative thinking. For example, if the employer won’t let us onto the worksite to meet with our members, we simply need to find another way to meet and/or communicate with them. Whether that means through the use of technology or meeting them outside the gate, then so be it. Part of my role as an organiser is to work hard to get the members of our union to understand that the Howard conservative government has to go.

I do take some solace from the fact that other countries such as the UK and New Zealand have been through what we in Australia are about to go through, and came out the other side. As an organiser working in this environment, the cliché about working smarter not harder couldn’t be more apt. The more this government and its legislation attempts to prevent us from doing what we need to do as a union, the more we will find more creative ways of achieving our goals.

The real effects of the Howard government’s anti-union, anti-collective reforms have not yet surfaced to any great extent in the industries covered by the RTBU. There is as much uncertainty amongst the employers as there is amongst the workers. However there is no doubt that as the employers learn more about what they are able to do under the new legislation, there will be a percentage of them who will attempt to use it to their advantage.

We have to be ready for that. And we have to make sure we have our plans in place well before we find ourselves at that point.



Section home:
Issue 26 January 2007

Other pages for Issue 26 January 2007:
Comment: gender barriers | Representing the unrecongnised | Breaking point | Winning for all | Future secured for German railways | Taking the strain | Big push for rights | Border dialogues | Waiting and hoping | Reflections on women in trade unions | Working life

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