In this interview with Workers Online’s Peter Lewis, ACTU Secretary Greg Combet talks about Ansett, the federal election, union education,

Firstly on Ansett, you’ve obviously been copping a bit of heat in recent days. Do you have any regrets on the way you ran that campaign?

Well I haven’t copped any heat from anyone in the Unions nor from the Ansett workforce and I think that’s because the ACTU and the Unions stood up for people’s jobs and they fought to get Ansett going again and tried to save thousands of jobs.

The Unions could not have done any more and the staff could not have done any more to try and save those jobs and get Ansett going and I think people understand that well. The feedback I’ve had from Ansett workers has been tremendously positive and very supporting.

Notwithstanding the disappointment of Tesna pulling out, I haven’t felt any heat. There has been some criticism from conservative media commentators that you’d expect, but other than that, I’ve got no regrets about what we did. We are proud to fight for jobs.

Are you convinced that the outcome would not have been better if you’d allowed the original administrators to just wind up the company?

Oh, there’s no doubt about that. The last administrators put some viable businesses on the ground. Some of the Ansett businesses were profitable and yet they were grounded and that destroyed the value. It was very clear at that time that we would struggle to get the entitlements paid to the employees and we wanted to develop a strategy with the administrators to get the thing going, restore value, save jobs and by restoring value get entitlements paid.

We took commercial advice on these matters at that time and we don’t regret any of those decisions that were taken. Where we stand now, four or five months down the track is that we have some degree of confidence (which is no guarantee) that we can get people away with their entitlements paid once the asset realisation process has been completed.

You really got right into the nitty gritty in terms of the whole process of the Ansett collapse and potential rescue. What does that say about the kind of role that Unions take in this more volatile economy? Is it a new model for the way unions will handle this sort of situation in the future?

I think it is an important indicator. Putting aside the disappointment of Tesna’s withdrawal, I think it’s inevitable that the Unions will play active roles in insolvency processes. The voluntary administration procedure under the Corporations Law had only been there for seven or eight years and we’re still learning – as some of the commercial world is. The unions are a little bit behind of course, but we’re catching up quick and if we’re going to meet targets of saving jobs by saving companies and seeing employees entitlements met, Unions will have to be very active in the insolvency process and use the Corporations Law. I’m not engaging in any revisionism about the level of activism we had in the sense of insolvency. It’s been a very important experience, we’ve learnt a lot from it and we’ve learnt more than anything that we must be actively in there, engaged in it, to get the outcome for the people we represent. If we walk away from it, it’s to leave the whole thing to the banks and the commercial operators who’ll do nothing but look after their own interests and those interests do not coincide with the interest of workers. The Unions have to be actively in there representing employees.

How did the election result from late last year change your agenda for the ACTU over the current year?

It hasn’t substantially changed our agenda because the key thing for Unions is still to continue upon the process of organisational change. Rebuilding the Union, looking for where the Union can grow, improving our workplace activism, building delegates and it is through that mechanism that Unions will achieve better living standards, better health and safety in the workplace, better outcomes for the people who we represent and also in the broader community. So that our program we’ve set a couple of years ago in that regard and we’ve had a five to ten year horizon as you well know, we’re going to press on with it, those objectives are fundamental no matter who’s in government.

We’ve had a debate here today at the Executive where I’ve tried to give a little bit more focus and urgency again, but there very important. If Unions (as we do) continue to collectively aim towards improving living standards for working families in this country, the Unions have to be well organised and strong.

And we’re going to keep on that. The election result does have a significant influence though in many other aspects of our activities and not the least of which is going to be fighting off another conservative agenda to wind back employee rights, removing employee protections. We’re geared up for that and we’ve won those battles before. I’m sure we can win them again. Obviously that influences our program, but the fundamentals I don’t think change.

So what’s your big positive agenda item for the next three year period?

On the organisational front, I want to get up a trust that we’ve set up called the UNION EDUCATION FOUNDATION and when it’s established we undertook at the ACTU last year to put $1 million into that this year and I’ll see what I can do next year. We’re currently seeking other sources of funding as well. And I would like this year, to really get into place, a sustainable delegates and activists education program. That’s one of the key organisational imperatives we have and that’s going to take some time.

On the rights of employees and paying conditions, wages are still very important for us. We’ve been hammering away at that for some time. The debate about inequality and the capacity of low-income households to make ends meet is broadened and that’s something we’ve tried to drive. Because it’s clear that not only do you need decent minimum pay increases stronger than what we’ve been achieving, we’re going to fight on to get better, but you also need measures through the tax transfer system to improve payments to low income workers and low income households to make a substantial difference on inequality. That’s going to be a continuing single issue.

Superannuation is going to be important. We are now heading towards having a Union debate about how we do get contributions up to 15%, which is universally recognised for people to have decent retirement incomes that’s going to be needed, we have been increasingly concentrating on that.

We are going to running further work family cases over the course of the next couple of years. We’re doing the basic work at the moment to have a look at the Carer’s Leave Entitlements a case for extending unpaid Parental Leave. Information is coming in that a lot of women would prefer to have a longer time off to spend with their child, a whole range of issues around a working family that are very important. We are bringing to a conclusion our reasonable hours test case, and assuming we make progress in that area, that’s only the start of making a difference on working hours.

What will then be required is for Unions and employees in workplaces to use the rights that we’re trying to create in the award system to make a practical difference in the arrangement of their working hours to family commitments, to have better rostering arrangements, shorter overall working hours, heal the health and safety problems driven by obsessive hours, that’s another important policy agenda.

There’s also the issue of casual employee rights, this year I hope with the LHMU, will be able to launch an application to give casual workers in the hospitality industry the option of permanent employment after a minimum period of employment as a casual. Job security question is very important, we have two million casual workers in the economy, our union membership amongst casuals is growing.

So we have a very clear view about the key objectives that we have over the next couple of years, they are some of the principle ones.

You had a paper put up to the executive on asylum seekers, where do you see those sort of issues intersecting with industrial?

Unions have always played as part of their industrial role a political role. And Unions are highly political organisations, that’s self evident and very important. We have a view about the wider society and we articulate that view, part of that is how you improve living standards, part of it is also standing up for people’s rights. That’s what Unions do. We don’t just stand up for people’s rights here, we stand up for people’s rights internationally. Refugees and asylum seekers issues are very important social and political issues in this country and so, we’ve been adopting as has the NSW Labor Council in a very progressive and constructive way and in taking on the argument.

You can not allow conservative governments as they have done for the last hundred odd years in their different forms, to continue to appeal to prejudice and intolerance in order to try and win power. And that’s what we saw in last November’s election. I fundamentally believe that John Howard won that election by exploiting intolerance and prejudice in the community and manipulating it. We now see of course that lies have been told and all the rest of it, none of that surprises me, it’s what I assumed to be the case at the time. Now Unions have got a role to go out, as leaders of the community, and argue these issues out and ensure that intolerance and prejudice is debated, the issues at the core of it are debated, and to try and turn people’s opinions around and take the fight on.

Even when they’re members don’t necessarily agree with them?

Yeah of course. You can’t be a follower all the time, you’ve got to lead, that’s our responsibility. You’ve got to lead in this society, you’ve got to lead community debate, sometimes that’s not a popular opinion. Unions at one time we’re involved in the “White Australia” Policy, as part of the wider Labor movement. Well ultimately, that was genocide and it didn’t happen by magic, but it was debated through and argued out and people believed it was wrong and it was genocide.

The immigration program in this country has presented a tremendous challenge to Unions, there was concern about jobs, there was concern about non-Anglo Saxon immigration programs. Those issues didn’t change overnight, people who have got an understanding of Labor history, know that leaders took on those debates, they argued them out with their membership and in the broader community. Justice prevails in these arguments because right is on the side of opposing prejudice and intolerance and it’s a similar situation now.

It is a disgrace that John Howard appeals to these things in order to win political power. The Labor movement has an obligation and responsibility to argue the alternative just position as we have done in many times in recent years.

This week we finally got state to state or coast to coast Labor government to State level, how as an ACTU leader do you see that being used to promote workers’ rights?

Well it’s a tremendous opportunity for the Labor Party to coalesce around a number of key policy issues. Industrial Relations strategy and policy and legislative programs, one obvious area of key interest to us. But there are many others like health and education policies. It is a great opportunity for the Labor Party to coalesce around the fact that they are in power in every state and territory along with the Federal Parliamentary leadership and develop a program for this country. To go out and argue it and set out the values that people stand for. Beneath that there’s very practical things that can be done and we seen a historical shift yesterday for example in Rio Tinto’s position in deciding now that they are going to abandon individual contracts in Western Australia and move to Federal collective agreements. This is a major development. In part, the company is attributing it to the fact that, the WA Labor government is bringing in new legislation, it’s legislation the Unions aren’t entirely happy with either I might add, because it’s got individual contracts in it but clearly Rio Tinto believe that there is new legislation coming in in Western Australia. It’s forcing them into the Federal system but not onto AWA’s. They’ve decided that the cleanest most efficient mechanism for dealing with their industrial relations is a collective agreement. It’s practical things like that that are important that can make a difference. I could go through another hundred issues, but there are plenty of them.

Do you think it cuts down the ability of the Federal Government to influence poor worker issues having the State Government?

It naturally puts limits on it, important limits on it. And it also illustrates why you’ve got to be cautious about talking about a unitary national system. Who on earth would do that with Howard and Abbott at the helm? And when you’ve got Labor governments in each state and territory and you’ve got systems there that are better for working people that provide better rights, it’s a salutory lesson the dangers of going down that path. I think it’s an important counter-point to Howard, but the Labor movement needs to use this opportunity sensibly and prioritise key issues to take advantage of it.

Finally, the whole series review is going on within the Federal ALP, what’s your message to Canberra?

The Labor movement is very important, it must be seen in a historical context and Unions and the Labor Party are key components of the Labor movement. The Union relationship in Labor is very very important for working families in this country and any debate about that has got to be approached sensibly and with some maturity. We need to cherish the importance of that relationship over a long time in this country. Having said that we’re not standing on history or being conservative about the future. I think that the quality of the relationship at the end of the day is going to be judged upon the quality of our policy and our policy proposals. That’s how I’d like it to be judged, I don’t want it to be judged on arcane debates about voting rules or getting caught up in some factional nonsense that tends to preoccupy some people’s time. The Union movement needs to have good, clear, quality policy priorities and that’s what the relationship with the Federal level and in terms of the State levels has got to be based on in the future.