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Research: Unions’ role in revitalising regions

A THREE year project is exploring how unions can help reinvigorate regions like the North West Coast.

Originally from Burnie and someone who’s had an active union role, the research perfectly suits Dr Ruth Barton.

“I’ve always seen unions as a way people can actively improve their working lives, and by doing this they can improve society as well,” Dr Barton said. “Workers should be able to determine their own future to some degree in the workplace. It shouldn’t just be about being told what to do but also has a voice in the workplace and is treated as someone with respect.”

Her union involvement first started with the PSU at Telecom, where she also became a National Delegate for Tasmania. Dr Barton’s activism continued, working as an Organiser for CPSU SPSF Victoria as well as APESMA. Now she’s active on the NTEU branch committee and national council in her current workplace at RMIT. As well as these union roles, Dr Barton’s research also focuses on unions and the benefits they bring, not only to workplaces but to communities.

The current three year research project looks at unions and regional regeneration focusing on North-West Tasmania, which has suffered a number of well document hits to employment over a number of years.

“We’ve been doing quite a lot of field work, interviewing people on the North-West Coast, Organisers and officials and some people on councils and in the business community,” she said.

“When you have an area that de-industrialises, like the North-West Coast, often the companies there are owned by multinationals, so it can impact on a region. For example, McCain, where the business decision was made in Canada that the Smithton vegetable processing plant no longer fit into its global operations.

“Another example is APPM at Burnie, which at one stage employed 3500 workers: its Burnie based management then moved to Melbourne before it was owned by a global mining company. So management of companies like these becomes more distant from the communities. Traditionally businesses like these were also highly unionised, so you also see organised labour move out of those regions. This means you often end up with jobs that are casualised, low paid in workplaces that aren’t unionised, rather than decent jobs that are unionised, skilled and have career paths.

“There used to be trades and labour councils in Burnie and Devonport from the 1930s to 1990s, and these groups were quite active in the role they played in the community. They were very well integrated, with links with local councils. So our research is looking at in areas such as this how can unions help in this revitalisation”.

“A community can direct its economic future. However, if the community isn’t organised, for example labour doesn’t have a voice through trade unions, then how can communities have a voice in the region’s future?”

Dr Barton said this often meant a small group of people, generally business people, ended up directing the region rather than the people who lived and worked there.

She’s working with RMIT Professor Peter Fairbrother and other research fellows on the three-year project, which is only in early days, currently in its sixth month.

“Underpinning the research is the belief that people aren’t just objects of production to be acted upon but have beliefs and values that can change their workplace and society.”

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