When Unions NSW Secretary John Robertson downplayed the traditional use of strike action as an industrial weapon in favour of a more modern and stylish public relations campaign, he was reflecting the profound change in attitude of the Australian union movement.
He was speaking on 1 July to an estimated 100,000 people throughout NSW via a SKY Channel broadcast meeting called by Unions NSW to oppose the Federal Government’s proposed changes to industrial relations legislation.
‘We need to shift public opinion and drive a wedge between the people and this arrogant government’s attack on worker’s rights,’ Robertson stated before an enthusiastic Sydney Town Hall audience, eschewing the use of disruptive industrial action in favour of a public relations campaign to raise community awareness.
Thanks to Alan Moir at the Sydney Morning Herald
‘At one point in our history the answer to this question would have been simple – ‘Let’s strike!’ And if that didn’t work – another strike, and another! Unfortunately the answers to this campaign are not as simple. We need to use our heads, work strategically to mobilise the community so that it is too politically dangerous for the government to push through the whole of its agenda. And if they defy the will of the people, we need to hold them accountable.’
This change in emphasis is the result of an extensive study conducted by the union movement involving the use of community focus groups according to Phil Davey, Media Officer for Unions NSW.
‘According to our research, the average œJoe Public – once informed of the effect the proposed legislative changes will have on both them and their families – becomes very alarmed,’ said Mr Davey. ‘We therefore believe the campaign will be won or lost in the field of public opinion and prefer to concentrate our resources into a public awareness campaign of TV and radio advertisements rather than risk alienating public opinion through strike action.’
Marketing skills were first used in the 1998 waterfront dispute when the ACTU used a media campaign to attempt to win over public opinion to the side of the dock workers. This time the unions’ slick advertising campaign highlights the effects that the Government’s proposed changes to IR legislation will have on working families. Playing on the public’s fears over job security, the adverts emphasise the Government’s proposal to eliminate unfair dismissal laws for all businesses employing less than a hundred staff.
Though described as ‘savage misrepresentation’ by the Prime Minister, the union’s œmedia friendly strategy has been, initially at least, highly successful. Proof of this success is reflected in a recent AC Nielson poll, published in the Sydney Morning Herald after the initial phase of the advertising campaign, which found that sixty per cent of respondents indicated their opposition to the Government’s proposed industrial relations changes. In a further blow to the Government, Prime Minister Howard’s approval rating fell by ten per cent, the biggest fall ever recorded against Mr Howard since he was elected Prime Minister in 1996.
Caught flat footed by the advertising blitz, Workplace Relations Minister Kevin Andrews initially expressed little concern over the campaign. ‘Remember this is a long-distance race; it is not a sprint,’ he said to reporters. ‘We are looking at six months before we get the legislation through Parliament and a time of implementation. Anyone who charges off into a sprint is not going to get to the end of the race.’ Nevertheless, the Government responded by bringing forward a $20 million taxpayer-funded advertising campaign to counter what it calls the unions ‘deceitful scare tactics.’
However, according to Phil Davey, the unions are also aiming to build momentum over an extended period. ‘We are hopeful the campaign will continue to build over a three to five year period and our challenge is to keep these issues before the public during this time,’ said Mr Davey.
With individual Senators such as Queensland National Senator-elect Barnaby Joyce already expressing misgivings over sections of the IR package, the crucial test of the success of the union’s strategy will not be in the opinion polls but whether voter’s discomfort with the proposed IR changes translates to enough electoral pressure being put on nervous backbenchers, particularly new Senators, to vote against the proposed changes. With the changes to the legislation expected to be introduced into Parliament at the end of September or early October, the Government’s knife-edge Senate majority of one is looking increasingly fragile in the wake of the unions’ increasingly sophisticated marketing strategy.
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