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How would the ACTU with Jennie George as President deal with a Howard Government? -

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ANDREW OLLE: First tonight, the rise and rise of Jennie George. While Labor's factions were brawling over the Federal seat of Batman, Ms George has been quietly waiting in the wings. With Martin Ferguson finally set to move into Parliament, her election as the first woman President of the ACTU now seems a formality. But these are tough times for the union movement and, after a relatively cosy relationship with Federal Labor, how would the ACTU deal with a Howard Government? Jennie George spoke about the job ahead for the first time today. Here's Sarah Henderson.

SARAH HENDERSON: It's been gruelling few weeks for Jennie George. Poised to seize the union movement's top prize, there's been a flood of invitations to workplaces around the country. The high profile trade unionist is reluctantly stepping into the limelight.

JENNIE GEORGE: Well, I have some sense of awe about it. It's an enormous responsibility. I wouldn't take it on lightly. But I do believe that with my experience, now, for over 20 years in the union movement, I am well positioned to give it a go, and I think I'd be letting down a lot of people if I now walked away from what is seen, I suppose, as the top job in the union movement, particularly women, I think.

SARAH HENDERSON: But without a challenger in sight, it was always going to be a smooth transition from ACTU Assistant Secretary, a job she's held since 1991.

BILL KELTY: She's just simply the best. She's got the passion; she's got the ideas; she's got the ideals. She's a fighter for working people. She's the best candidate. She'll win unopposed.

SARAH HENDERSON: But Jennie George will need a lot more than the support of union heavyweights like Bill Kelty to succeed as the first woman President of the ACTU. In partnership with Kelty it's an awesome task: how to reverse what's become a serious crisis of confidence in the Australian union movement. Around the country, the number of trade union members has fallen dramatically. In 1976 more than half the workforce belonged to a union. By 1992 that figure had fallen to 40 per cent, and within the space of two years just 35 per cent of workers are now union members.

GERRY GRIFFIN: In the private sector, we're now down to 26 per cent unionisation rate. For a country that traditionally regarded itself as being highly unionised, to have just one in four workers in the private sector, the growth area of the economy, in the union movement is quite disastrous. So, clearly the major challenge is to initially halt that decline and then, perhaps, reverse it if possible.

SARAH HENDERSON: With a recruitment target of 200,000 new members by 1997, it's a daunting prospect, but challenges are nothing new to Jennie George. The daughter of Russian migrants who came to Australia after the Second World War, she joined the Eureka Youth League in the mid-60s, a group of young activists linked with the Communist Party. It was there she met her husband, Paddy George. They were married for 12 years. He died of cancer in 1980.

CATHY BLOCH: Paddy was one of the best human beings I know, or knew. He was kind. He was very good humoured, and he was politically astute. He was just a really good person to be with. And I think he had a very big influence on Jennie. He drew her into Left politics in terms of moratorium activity against the Vietnam war and trade union activity.

SARAH HENDERSON: Through the league, Jennie befriended Cathy Bloch. Cathy discovered in Jennie a determined and rebellious woman, and no more so than on this October day in 1968 when US President, Lyndon Johnson, joined New South Wales Premier Robert Askin in a parade through the streets of Sydney.

CATHY BLOCH: And as the car with LBJ and Robert Askin swept around the corner, these young women ran onto the road and more or less threw themselves in front of the car. Sir Robert Askin was well known for having said, 'Ride over the bastards.' So, Jennie George was one of the bastards that Sir Robert Askin wanted to ride over.

SARAH HENDERSON: But Jennie George has been riding over her male counterparts and opponents ever since. She joined the New South Wales Teachers' Federation in the early '70s and with the rise of feminism become an avid campaigner for the rights of women. She gradually rose through the union ranks and in 1979 was elected general secretary. Her biggest battle: teacher cut backs by the former New South Wales Liberal Education Minister, Terry Metherall.

JENNIE GEORGE: What keeps me going is I think justice is on my side and sometimes when I've been up against really hard challenges, particularly the one with Terry Metherall, I can remember saying at the Domain rally, in effect, that 'you'll get your day one day, Terry, because you've actually done the wrong thing and you've lied to teachers, and you've lied to parents.'

SARAH HENDERSON: There have been setbacks along the way, most notably her attempt to move to Federal politics. Although she won third spot on the ALP's Victorian Senate ticket, Jennie George withdrew, after not getting the support she'd been promised.

GREG SWORD: Politics is different than the union movement. You know, in politics no one gives you anything unless you first demonstrate that you can take it. The trade union movement is more about teams and people working together. Politics is far more individual. She may or may not have understood that.

SARAH HENDERSON: With the move away from a centralised wage fixing system to enterprise bargaining, George has worked to improve the wages and conditions of women, especially in the areas of maternity and family leave. Yet there's early evidence the gap between men and women's wages is widening.

GERRY GRIFFIN: The losers are going to be in those industries that are not as strategically important. The workers don't have much power, much industrial muscle. If you look at where those industries actually are, they tend to be dominated by females.

JENNIE GEORGE: But if there is evidence that emerges after a period of time that the system is acting to the disadvantage of women you can be sure I'll be saying something about it. I haven't spent all my life trying to make things better for women to have a system in place which is acting to their disadvantage.

SARAH HENDERSON: But Jennie George's first priority is to keep Paul Keating in and John Howard out.

JENNIE GEORGE: It is the greatest farce of all time: John Howard, who is setting out to woo the battler. John Howard is the same person who constantly opposes even paltry $8 safety net increases going to the lowest paid workers.

GERRY GRIFFIN: I think if you look at how she operates, and particularly at the last election, she was very good among the heartland of Labor. She was very good with the migrant women, the people out in the factories and I think that she will be clearly targeted during the next election at those particular groups of people.

SARAH HENDERSON: While Jennie George believes Paul Keating can win the next election, she also accepts she could be dealing with Prime Minister Howard.

JENNIE GEORGE: Mr Howard will find that the union movement, if it's going to be seen by him as very marginal to the economic development of this nation, we'll say, 'Well, if you want to treat us like that, we have no accord, so, we'll walk away from any understandings that we have currently with government.' And that has to be to the detriment of business and to the nation, generally. If he wants to treat us as a force that's irrelevant in this society, well I think he'll rue the day that he felt that way.

ANDREW OLLE: Sarah Henderson with that portrait of the heir apparent as the union boss of Australia.