Luke Hilakari became the Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council (VTHC) in late 2014. He has spoken at the 2015 Workers’ Memorial ceremony and in February 2016 he launched a new campaign focussing on occupational health and safety (OHS).
Hilakari, as this Fairfax article points out, is comparatively young for such a position and comes from an untraditional industrial relations path. He has an enthusiasm for change and activism that resonates with the young who seem to enjoy their ideology with movement, rather than ideology with desk thumping and picket-line abuse.
Although Dr Paul Sutton, the OHS Lead Organiser for VTHC, is leading the OHS Network campaign, Hilakari provided the most information on the campaign that he says is a major focus for the trade union movement in 2016.
Hilakari said that union representatives will be visiting every high school in Victoria to talk about how union membership can help workers and promised that OHS will be a part of that discussion. This is not the same as having an OHS-based campaign but…….
The importance of an online presence for the OHS Network, principally a Facebook page, was emphasised by Hilakari and the OHS Unit has a full-time social media organiser. However online activism has the capacity to become slacktivism very quickly and in some ways the OHS Network may be an attempt to add value to the online campaign rather than using an online campaign to reinforce community support.
Online campaigns are attractive to lobbyists because of the low overheads (Hilakari emphasised that Facebook is “free”) and the, supposedly, broad reach. But beyond a simple number this reach, as with any advertising campaign, is almost impossible to quantify.
In some ways online OHS campaigns support awareness rather than action as action is something undertaken at the work site. A set of numbers (followers or Likes) implies influence but slacktivism is a major threat to such claims.
Hilakari tried to explain that one part of the OHS Network is to establish links between health and safety representatives (HSRs) across different worksites and different unions. This is an understandable approach if workplaces are homogenous but establishing the network across worksites operated by different companies with different industrial relations structures or organisational cultures, has some major barriers.
The 74 Per Cent
One interesting difference in Hilakari’s speech was the use of Safe Work Australia data that has been a favourite of this blog. He used the data in the graph on the right to argue that employers have a level of influence well beyond the safety costs they pay and to reinforce the need for equal ratios of tripartite consultation. Hilakari proposed a hypothetical safety meeting discussion where an HSR would say
“… this safety stuff only hurts you guys 5%, but we’re the 74.”
Attractive rhetoric but fundamentally flawed. The data identifies that 74% of the economic costs of workplace incidents is borne by the worker but worker is not the same as union member, as recent Australian statistics have shown.
Just as importantly is why 32% of the economic costs shifted from the Community to the worker between 2001 and 2009? A stronger argument from this data may have been about the growth in precarious work contracts.
The Safety Army
Hilakari intends the OHS Network to apply the practices of the “We are Union” campaign specifically on OHS. He said that
“… we want to do our own campaign this year just around safety. We want to build this OHS safety army. That’s our core KPI for the year. That’s the only thing we really want to nail because when we build that army we can win campaigns.”
The OHS Network launch invitation had a broad distribution and attracted a variety of people, many who were not HSRs or union organisers. And yet Hilakari assumed that all the audience were union activists. This was a stumble by Hilakari but one that weakened the launch message. The OHS Network seemed to be intended to build on the work and presence of HSRs by attracting less active unionists and members of the public who are concerned about workplace safety. The only participation available to non-HSRs was to Like a Facebook page. This was not enough.
Hilakari stated that the OHS Network needs to be a social movement. The most effective social movements have included a broad range of society built around a core of committed activists. The trade union movement needs to realise that there are thousands of Victorians who are passionate advocates for workplace safety but who may not be supportive of trade unions or are suspicious of them. Revelations of corruption from the Trade Union Royal Commission have bitten deep into Victorians’ perceptions of the trade union movement.
There is no doubt that the trade union members at the launch of the OHS Network were committed to worker safety but, if the network has any hope of becoming the social movement that Hilakari wants, the trade unions need to convince ordinary Victorians that the campaign is all about safety and not about a hidden trade union agenda.