With major projects in many states, the ETU sets its long-term sights 'up until 2050 and longer'.
The Electrical Trades Union engineering industry delegates and organisers headed to Perth recently for a conference opened by none other than the West Australian Premier himself.
With close to 70 union officials in the room, Premier Mark McGowan welcomed the delegation before taking straight-forward questions about infrastructure spending and industrial manslaughter.
“It’s not often politicians will stand in a room and have open season for questioning from the crowd,” said Matt Murphy, National Industrial Coordinator for the ETU.
“But McGowan stood there with his defence issues spokesman, MLA Paul Papalia, to listen to the honest concerns that many of our members have.
“And it was great to see ETU officers able to convey that feedback frankly and honestly to politicians who not only listened but appeared to take on the genuine concerns.”
One crucial point of focus for the conference was the Future Frigates and Submarines building programme, a multi-billion-dollar, multi-generational project that will provide high-skilled jobs in WA and South Australia throughout the coming decades.
At a time when apprentice numbers are down and the Federal Liberal Government has gutted more than $3 billion from TAFE and state governments are flagging campuses for closure, unions are the only ones concerned with how the projects will be managed and staffed over the long term.
The ETU is one member of the Australian Shipbuilders Federation of Unions, an alliance including the AMWU, the AWU and Professionals Australia, which represents engineers. Combined, these unions have more than 1.2 million members and, unlike too many state and federal parties of both stripes, they are focused on the future.
“Shipbuilding needs unions,” Murphy said. “Because we have the longevity and planning that’s focused on decades and generations – not election cycles.
“If we are to design, build and maintain these naval vessels then we need a plan that encompasses the workers in the shipyards and the students in the TAFEs.
“Not just for now but up until 2050 and longer.”
A strong union movement in an alliance that works together toward the same goal, Murphy said, would provide strong jobs and opportunities for future workers. Strong shipbuilding unions would also strengthen Australia’s maritime and defence security.
“For this, we need to see unions on the same course. Take France’s CGT union,” he said, referring to union conglomerate whose members build the French navy’s vessels with the Naval Group, the same company contracted to build Australia’s subs.
“They can get together and push for real change and take serious action,” he said with a quiet cheer for French unionist farmers that come together and dump excrement on highways.
“That’s a good thing,” he said.
Also out of Europe was honoured guest of the conference Paddy Kavanagh, General Secretary of Ireland’s Connect Trades Union.
Kavanagh spoke to members about the strengths and weaknesses of the European apprentice system that has been crafted over many centuries.
“In Germany there are hundreds of apprenticeship options for almost any job,” he said.
“This gives people from working class areas a chance to enter professions that might seem out of reach.
“But it can be used to undercut existing qualifications by splitting apprenticeships up into smaller roles,” with a warning about how business in Europe have tried to split up skilled qualifications into shorter training periods.
To help young people understand the role unions play in peoples’ everyday lives, Kavanagh said Irish unionists have recently been allowed to educate high school students as part of their “Civil and Social” classes where they learn about labour history and its role in the economy.
“These classes now include unions speaking to kids after years of businesses being able to enter the classroom to sell their message alone,” he said.
Like kids in an Emerald Isle school, there are things Australian unions can learn from our comrades in Europe.
ETU National Secretary Allen Hicks also addressed the conference about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which the ALP recently endorsed in caucus despite most of its MPs being opposed to it.
“Labor should have come out against this,” Hicks said.
“They could have said that while we’re not opposed to free and fair-trade agreements, these provisions are not written for the benefit of the Australian people.”
In response to the ALP’s move in Canberra, the WA branch passed a resolution at its State Council to deny ALP candidates who support the deal funding.
“We will not be spending any of our members money in electing any ALP sitting politician, or candidate, who supports the anti-worker TPP proposal,” said ETU WA Secretary Peter Carter.
The main sticking points of the agreement are the removal of labour-market testing for eight signatory nations (allowing bosses to bring foreign workers without checking if there are locals to do the work first), lax skills assessments for the foreign workers, and the Investor State Dispute Settlements (which will allow foreign companies to sue Australian governments if law changes harm their potential profits).
“We’re shocked the ALP would support this awful anti-worker trade pact that contradicts the party’s policies,” Carter said.
“They are going to have to fight very hard to withdraw from the agreement and abolish these provisions if they want our support again.
“I really can’t fathom why these Labor MPs did not consult with unions and the people they are supposed to represent before siding with the conservatives on this.”
The bi-partisan support ensures the TPP will likely become law in Australia, but the ETU and the union movement will continue to fight it to the end, no matter who is in government.