February 14, 2005

ILR Hosts Labor Leaders

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British and Australian labor leaders gathered Saturday for an informal discussion about the status of labor unions in their respective countries. The talk, held in the ILR Conference Center, was co-sponsored by the Office of Labor Education Research, the Cornell Organization for Labor Action and the Student Coalition Advocating Labor Education.

Paul Nowak, the national organizer for the United Kingdom’s Trades Union Congress, spoke on the current situation of labor unions in Britain. British union membership has decreased significantly from the past while unions in 1979 had more than 12.5 million members, they now have only 6.5 million. This drop is due largely to the passage of anti-trade legislation, high unemployment rates, changes in the economy and shifts in the nature of jobs, as well as internal problems within unions, said Nowak.

“Unions didn’t respond to changes in the economy, because they had thought that waiting for labor-friendly governments would be OK,” he said.

A self-described optimist, Nowak said that he has more confidence about the future of unions than he did in the past. Union membership has begun to steady with a rate of about 20,000 new members a year, as Nowak has focused on organizing and getting members active through a project he calls “New Unionism.”

Speaking on the challenges that British unions face, Nowak said unions should focus their energy on increasing membership within the private sector to avoid becoming solely “a public sector interest group.”

The slow pace of growth in union membership is another significant problem for unions, Nowak said, as are limited resources.

Nowak said he is hopeful about the future of British labor unions, as the union-friendly Labour Party prime minister Tony Blair is widely expected to win a third term in May.

However, Nowak emphasized that unions cannot rely solely on their government to increase membership, but must organize themselves.

“We need to work on what we do and not get bogged down in the minutia of what Blair does or doesn’t do,” he said.

Natalie Bradbury, organizer for Australia’s Health Services Union, and Darryl Watkins assistant secretary for the Flight Attendant’s Association of Australia, criticized the Australian government for weakening the unions’ “award system,” which ensures minimum wage and working conditions for employees. Although Australia’s largely pro-union Labor Party controlled the government from the 1980s to 1996, the country’s current government has initiated regressive union laws.

Bradbury and Watkins said the most important political issues in Australia affecting union members are the possibility of corporate collapse in which employees are left without entitlements, as well as the government’s attack on Medicare, Australia’s universal health care system. Australia’s unions also hope to establish a living minimum wage, a plan they have worked on for years.

“Our goals are on organizing and developing our training institutions,” Watkins said. “We want to reinvigorate the movement and involve more young people to increase union density,” he said.

Members of Cornell’s student labor groups also discussed their current projects. COLA member Elliot Singer ’08 said the organization is working on a labor newspaper to be released in March. They are also trying to convince Cornell to remove Cintas uniform company from campus, as the company has a history of discriminating against women. COLA member Dana Ford said, “There is no standard that schools have for companies. We have gotten the administration to create a committee. No other school has a purchasing policy, so we are very excited.”

Archived article by Olivia Oran
Sun Staff Writer