Workers not “raw resources”, Jesuit tells WorkChoices protesters
September 24, 2007
Jesuit Fr Peter Norden has told an anti-WorkChoices union rally in Melbourne that workers cannot be treated as “just another economic commodity”. The Herald-Sun reports that Fr Norden said such treatment “presents a barrier to starting a family”. “With little bargaining power, you’re forced to accept positions with lesser conditions,” he said. “How can a bloke be expected to support a family, to contribute to society, or to plan for the future?”
For three years, from 2005 to 2008, Luke has been working for Brosnan Youth Services, one of a number of programs run by Jesuit Social Services (JSS) in Melbourne, Australia. Founded 30 years ago, “Brosnan Youth Services focuses on young people aged 17-25 years who have difficultly reintegrating into the community after their sentences have been completed: those with the least support and hope.” During his tenure, Luke has worked exclusively with young men and women exiting prison, assisting them in their efforts to overcome various forms of social exclusion. He has a long history of involvement in numerous other groups dedicated to bringing about positive social change, both in Australia and overseas.
Within a year of his employment, with the aid and assistance of the Australian Services Union (ASU), Luke began a campaign to unionise his workplace. Within a short space of time, Luke was able to transform his workplace from one in which there was almost no union representation to almost 100% coverage. In addition, Luke single-handedly overhauled the Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) conditions at JSS. This effort began in 2006, and involved a WorkSafe dispute over a residential property JSS provided for exiting prisoners. This successful effort at addressing breaches of health and safety regulations not only provided better conditions for residential workers, but also the large number of young men who sought accommodation at the property.
Since then, and as a consequence of his earlier success, Luke has also succeeded in having OH&S delegates elected at all other JSS workplaces in Melbourne, and for management to allow these representatives to receive the appropriate training.
As a result of his activity, in 2008 Luke was awarded the ASU national OH&S delegate of the year award.
In early October 2008, Luke was notified that, as a result of the awarding of new Victorian Government contracts to JSS, he would have to re-apply for his job. Luke then did so.
During the period in which the interview process for his job was taking place, an OH&S issue arose at Brosnan, and in his capacity as the OH&S rep for the Brunswick office, Luke organised a meeting of staff affected by the issue; he also took notes at this meeting, and then drafted and sent a letter on behalf of staff, informing management of their responsibilities under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004.
This letter lead to a series of heated emails from the current Program Director of the Brosnan Centre, Amanda Watkinson.
Watkinson, who had only recently been appointed to the position as manager, had prior to that point been removed from a position at RMIT University partly as a result of strange behavior exhibited toward staff in the program which she taught. The strange behavior extended to the dumping of unmarked assessments into an office rubbish bin which was discovered by cleaners and reported to management.
In this correspondence that followed, Watkinson disputed the legitimacy of Luke’s roles as the duly elected OH&S delegate and his role as the duly elected union delegate. Upon receiving this correspondence, Luke requested a meeting with her.
At this meeting, held on Friday October 3rd, Luke was confronted by a barrage of abuse. In addition, Watkinson stated that JSS had sought legal advice, and that a) its advice was that the OH&S meeting Luke organised was considered to be illegal industrial action and that b) JSS was considering notifying the Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) of this allegedly illegal activity.
Luke understood this to mean that, should such a notification be made, he would have to appear before it; Luke also understood that Watkinson was suggesting that here he would be compelled to name those who attended the OH&S meeting.
This is something which Luke has refused to do. (Under the Workplace Relations Act, the consequences for failing to answer any question put to workers summonsed to attend is a term of six-months imprisonment.)
Watkinson also threatened Luke with other provisions of the Act if he failed to inform staff who had attended the meeting in question that as a result of their attendance they would be docked four hours pay. (Luke had made it clear that the meeting was related solely to OH&S.)
This is something which Luke also flatly refused to do.
Unknown to the delegate and other workers on site at the time of sending the letter–and something that has only very recently been made known to CFSC through an email from a now-former employee of JSS–Watkinson had employed the services of a family member in the construction of the office space. Leaving aside the fact that this was a rather dubious appointment for a publicly funded CSO to make, according to the email we received from a former staff member, the appointment was the single contributing factor to a worker narrowly avoiding serious head and neck injury due to shelving collapsing on top of the worker’s head (thus vindicating the delegate and workers’ concerns regarding OH&S; see the Crikey article below for further elaboration).
Shortly after his meeting with Watkinson, Luke was informed that he must submit to a second interview for his job. Following this second interview, he was again pressured to inform workers that their pay would be docked for attending a union meeting, and again threatened with the use of WorkChoices legislation.
On Friday, October 17th, Luke received his new contract. This contract stated, in part, that as a condition of his continued employment, he must agree to enrol in a course of study (a tertiary degree in human services) and to show evidence within a six-month period of this occurring, or face the termination of his contract within a five-day period. Luke was not afforded an opportunity to object to the new conditions in his contract, and immediately contacted the ASU concerning this matter. He wrote the ASU on the Tuesday following (October 21st) and received a reply on November 5th.
In the period between his receiving his new contract and his obtaining advice from the ASU, on Wednesday October 22nd, Luke spoke with the Business Support Director at JSS.
During this conversation, Luke raised a number of objections to the contract, and informed the Director that he wished to seek legal advice. His right to seek this advice was noted by the Director.
On the following day – a day he spent outside his office – Luke was sent an email informing him that he had until the end of business Friday to sign his contract. Luke read this email on Friday morning, but due to work pressures had no opportunity to object to this demand. On the same day, Luke submitted a formal complaint to the head office of JSS concerning Watkinson’s hostile behaviour.
After a cursory investigation – one in which only Watkinson and one other member of management were interviewed – Luke arranged a meeting for Thursday November 6th to discuss the complaint he had submitted and the new clause which had been added to his previous contract.
On Wednesday November 5th, Luke received several letters. One, dated November 5th, informed him that the investigation had been completed, and that the allegations he had made – which included the threats of notification to the IRC – were found to be unsubstantiated. Another letter, dated October 24th, informed him that his offer of re-employment under a new contract was being rescinded. The final letter, dated November 5th, stated that he was being dismissed immediately from his position.
Timing is everything.
Laborem exercens, Ioannes Paulus PP. II, 1981 09 14
All these rights, together with the need for the workers themselves to secure them, give rise to yet another right: the right of association, that is to form associations for the purpose of defending the vital interests of those employed in the various professions. These associations are called labour or trade unions. The vital interests of the workers are to a certain extent common for all of them; at the same time however each type of work, each profession, has its own specific character which should find a particular reflection in these organizations…
Catholic social teaching does not hold that unions are no more than a reflection of the “class” structure of society and that they are a mouthpiece for a class struggle which inevitably governs social life. They are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions. However, this struggle should be seen as a normal endeavour “for” the just good: in the present case, for the good which corresponds to the needs and merits of working people associated by profession; but it is not a struggle “against” others. Even if in controversial questions the struggle takes on a character of opposition towards others, this is because it aims at the good of social justice, not for the sake of “struggle” or in order to eliminate the opponent. It is characteristic of work that it first and foremost unites people. In this consists its social power: the power to build a community. In the final analysis, both those who work and those who manage the means of production or who own them must in some way be united in this community. In the light of this fundamental structure of all work-in the light of the fact that, in the final analysis, labour and capital are indispensable components of the process of production in any social system-it is clear that, even if it is because of their work needs that people unite to secure their rights, their union remains a constructive factor of social order and solidarity, and it is impossible to ignore it…