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Hard labour for a trailblazer

By Brad Norington, Sydney Morning Herald,
Wednesday 5 January 2000

Timing is everything, as Jennie George discovered when she became boss of a union movement in decline, writes Brad Norington.

AS MOST successful politicians know, timing is crucial in the ascent to power - and in its exercise. For most of her career as a union official, Jennie George was blessed with good timing.

She was the ambitious young woman best placed to take charge when the tide ran in favour of NSW teachers electing their first woman union leader in the 1980s.

George brought to the job her enthusiasm and charm. But her union was also in the doldrums, crying out for someone, of either gender, to offer inspiration.

Then along came Terry Metherell, the eccentric, extremely unpopular minister for education. He was a gift, the ultimate bogyman, the answer to George's prayers, as she attempted to generate public sympathy for her union's campaign against the Greiner Government plan to radically change the State's school system.

Timing once again was on George's side when she made her run to become the first woman ACTU president in the 1990s.

The consensus of male union elders was that the next ACTU president should be female, but another woman, Anna Booth, was the favoured choice of the man with the power to make it happen - the ACTU secretary, Bill Kelty. Booth, however, decided to change direction and quit the union movement.

Just as George, too, toyed with leaving, fate intervened. The incumbent ACTU president, Martin Ferguson, changed his mind about staying when a prime seat in Federal Parliament became available. Suddenly an opening was created for George, well-positioned by Kelty, to take Ferguson's place.

That is when George's luck deserted her. She became the ACTU president at the wrong time of the political cycle, when Labor was thrown out of office after 13 years. She had the misfortune of being the Carmen Lawrence and Joan Kirner of union history - the woman to whom the boys turned when things went bad.

George announced her resignation last month in a low-key setting and left by a back door. It could be a metaphor for her four years in the ACTU presidency, which began with promise but petered out.

For her loyal union supporters, for her network of women friends, for many low paid women (and men) who needed a voice, George will remain an icon, a champion of the cause of unionism and of basic human decency.

But a cool-headed assessment of her presidency has to be that George does not leave a great legacy behind her, apart from having been the first woman to hold the position.

The ultimate failure of George's ACTU presidency is not her fault - her chief problem was poor timing because her fortunes were linked to those of the trade union movement.

Her predecessors, Simon Crean and Martin Ferguson, had to cope with a decline in union membership - but the slide had reached crisis proportions by the time George took office and it became clear none of the remedies Kelty had put in place were working.

At least Crean and Ferguson had the luxury of a friendly Federal Labor government in office throughout their presidencies. George officially took office in March 1996, just as the Coalition came to power with an extremely hostile attitude towards unions. It was a shocking adjustment for George and the entire ACTU crew as government patronage - in the form of access to ministers and funding of union projects - suddenly ceased. Legislation was quickly enacted to remove union rights that had been taken for granted. George's role, as the ACTU's official spokesperson, became that of perpetual opposition for a union movement reluctant to lose hard-won gains.

George was never a person of ideas; her strength was always that of an articulate campaigner, a talent that Kelty, as the ACTU's brains trust and most influential figure, believed she could bring to the job in adverse circumstances. Nevertheless, she often sounded too harsh, repeatedly cast as a reactive, unyielding figure, defending old-fashioned values.

ACTU initiatives promoted by George fell flat. The ACTU's living wage for the low paid fell far short of its objective. A plan to put union shopfronts in shopping centres never happened. Neither did a plan to set up a people's airline with cheap fares for unionists. A plan to offer cut-price associate union membership to workers faint-hearted about full membership was forgotten. So was a commitment to increase total net union membership by 200,000 by mid-1997.

Boosting union membership was always the primary task of George as ACTU president. It was certainly beyond the capacity of any single human being to turn the tide. But George made several efforts at putting a gloss on the real picture with public declarations, based on anecdotal evidence from union leaders at the conference table, that the decline had bottomed out. When official statistics kept showing the contrary, she finally stopped talk of target numbers. Job security became her new catchcry.

The low point for George was undoubtedly the anti-government protest rally in Canberra, wrecked when rioters stormed Parliament House. George's presidency never fully recovered. While she could not be held personally responsible for thuggish behaviour, she was handed a dud brief, arguing from a morally weak union position. She was not assisted by Kelty, who set the union tone from the start by labelling the Canberra protest a most successful rally, without full knowledge of the facts. He then disappeared from sight, leaving her in the firing line.

When industrial warfare erupted on the waterfront in 1998, it was a fillip to George that sacked unionists were able to walk through the gates and reclaim their jobs - even though almost half lost them in the final settlement. George gave a lot of media interviews and rousing speeches to lift the spirits of the union troops - but she never commanded the battle. Kelty gave this job to his protege, Greg Combet, as an unofficial test of Combet's acumen. It was confirmation, if one were needed, that the ACTU president, contrary to the days when Bob Hawke ruled the roost, was a frontperson only. A large part of the reason for the ACTU president's declining profile compared with the past is related to the loss of union influence since Labor's 1996 electoral defeat. But over the last year of George's presidency, her profile appears to have slipped almost deliberately. She continued campaigning - but there was the overwhelming sense of an ACTU leadership winding down, fading away.

Over the years George has said that she is not a token woman, which reveals her hypersensitivity to, among other things, any suggestion that she has not worked hard. Undeniably George has worked hard for what she believes and deserves recognition - but even she would not shy away from the notion that she has represented the wider interests of women by going as far as she has up the union ladder. In the end, this is her greatest contribution as ACTU president. She is a symbol who has paved the way for others.

When her anointed successor, Sharan Burrow, reflects on how she became only the second woman in history to lead Australia's union movement, she may consider what it was like, in 1983, when George joined the all-male ACTU executive. In Bill Kelty's words, It's much harder when you are 'one-out', fighting alone as she was.