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A Jolly socialist in Yarra Council

Stephen Jolly has an engaging face, a warm smile and a touch of accent in his voice; characteristics that prompt many people to describe him as charismatic. The first socialist elected to a municipal council in Melbourne since the Second World War, he's not your average councillor. Born in London in 1962, after his pregnant, teenage mother fled morally moribund Ireland, he was cared for by his by grandmother. Years later he would discover that the woman he knew as his sister was in fact his real mother.

Upon his return to Dublin he lived in a public housing estate until 1977, when he moved to Cape Town and was reunited with his natural mother. After completing university in apartheid-torn South Africa he moved back to Dublin, where he joined the Labor Party faction, the Militant Tendency, which eventually took the name Socialist Party. Whether it was the Dublin tenements, where many a working-class rebel was nurtured, that fired his soul, he's not quite sure. For whatever reason, there was always an injustice to fight.

Working underground against Zimbabwe's Mugabe regime in 1983, before it was fashionable, was only natural to the Irishman. It was around this time that he married his first wife. After that marriage ended, he married Lynda Memery, a community education officer with Gamblers Help, with whom he has two children.

After Zimbabwe, politics took Jolly to China, where, in 1989, he spoke to 500,000 people at the launch of an independent trade union movement. Three days later he watched in disbelief as the Red Army mowed down demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

From the massive, exotic landscape of Tiananmen Square to the back sheets of Richmond and the 1993 fight to save the local secondary college, there has always been one more battleground. Arrested at a Save Albert Park rally and prominent in the anti-Hanson rallies of 1997-98, he has still found time to campaign for heroin reform, organise S11 rallies and travel to Woomera, at Easter 2002, to support incarcerated refugees. A steward with the CFMEU (Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union), Stephen Jolly was elected to the Yarra City Council in November 2004. However, at age 43, it seems the journey has just begun.

In between battles, Electrical Trades Union News caught up with Councillor Stephen Jolly for a yarn.

ETU News: For those who don't understand, why did your mother have to leave Dublin when she was pregnant?

Stephen: The Catholic Church ran Ireland, just as the mullahs run Iran today. To escape abuse, or if they got pregnant, women had to run or get work in the laundries of the labour camps run by the nuns. There were no resources or support services, and abortion, divorce and contraception was illegal.

ETU News: There'd be a few people in authority who'd say you're a firebrand. Is it true, and what are you like away from the political battles?

Stephen: I am serious and hardworking and make no apologies. The Packers, Murdochs and Grollos are also serious about what they do — that's why they're successful. We need more people with passion in the workers' movement and less of those people who enter the movement as a career move. Away from politics I am mad about sport, especially soccer, supporting Manchester United and the Republic of Ireland team. I train the soccer teams at my kids' primary school. My wife (who works fulltime) and I like to get out together and have a beer and decent meal when we get a chance.

ETU News: Are there any political figures, past and present in Australia, from whom you take inspiration?

Stephen: In my day-to-day work, John Cummins, the president of my union, the CFMEU, has been a great influence and inspiration for me. He is a natural workers' leader. Ted Bull, whom I was lucky enough to meet a few times before he died, was another. Ted managed to link his socialist politics in a practical way to the trade union movement; a task that some have failed to do properly in the past.

ETU News: You've been at the forefront of a battle to protect workers' rights in Yarra. Can you tell us what you're doing?

Stephen: A left-wing council has to set an example. In July I managed to get the ALP and Green councillors to offer enterprise bargaining agreements and not Australian Workplace Agreements to directly employed council staff. In October a joint effort from myself as SP councillor, the Communication Workers Union and ETU, Union Solidarity, Yarra workers and residents forced the ALP and Greens to join us in going one step further. We got up a vote to only give council contracts to companies with collective agreements. At the same meeting we voted to support council workers who wanted to attend the November 15 rally against Howard's industrial laws and to put banners outside our three Town Halls (Collingwood, Richmond and Fitzroy) opposing Howard's industrial relations changes.

ETU News: If ETU members want to follow your lead where they live, what should they do?

Stephen: Get on to your local councillors and ask them to move a similar motion to what we did, at their next Council meeting. ALP councillors in particular should be asked to do the right thing — their party gets millions of dollars every election from unions. As one member put it to me: "unions are the ATM of the ALP". In return, they should be supporting workers' rights: if we can spread the Yarra motion statewide we can protect tens of thousands of workers from AWAs.

ETU News: What do think about the way Mark Latham has savaged the ALP?

Stephen: When thieves fall out they often lag on each other and a bit of the real story comes out. This is what has happened with Latham's book. On the one hand, he is hypocritical, as he quite happily ran this house of shit when he thought he'd win the federal election. On the other hand, every criticism he made of the ALP and its leading members is true. Not a single ALP politician threatened to sue Latham, which shows he was telling the truth. The cynicism of ALP politicians, including some union leaders, is brutally exposed in this book, and therefore I recommend it to ETU members.

Dubbed one of the most left-wing councils in Australia, Yarra City Council had its mettle tested at its October 11 council meeting. Supported by workers, residents and trade unions (most notably the ETU), Socialist Party councillor Stephen Jolly put forward a resolution aimed at protecting workers employed by council contractors from Howard's attacks. ETU members and staff attended the meeting and their attendance clearly helped get the resolution over the line. Stephen offered this view of the background to the night:

The unanimous passing of our resolution on October 11 was a great example of what can be achieved when the community, workers and the progressive labour movement work together.

In August, SP won a vote at Yarra Council that will protect the conditions of directly employed council staff, including a pledge to offer them only collective agreements. We then began moving to extend this protection to workers employed by businesses that hold council contracts. We moved a resolution in October sthat, included these key clauses:


(a) Council policy, including policy guiding secure contractors, be guided by the above principles (also quoted below):

(III) Council believes the uneven power balance between an individual worker and employer means that Australian Workplace Agreements often lead to reductions in wages and conditions, and is consequently opposed to any attempts, including by the federal government, to impose Australian Workplace Agreements on workers.

(IV) Council is committed to doing everything in its legal power to promote secure employment and reasonable wages and conditions, including ensuring that all contractors used by the City of Yarra provide for enterprise bargaining agreements for their workers.

In the weeks preceding the meeting the ALP and Greens seemed to freeze in their tracks. Their choice was to take a stand and face the backlash of business and the right wing of their own parties or vote against and be exposed. We knew that on this issue a glorious defeat wasn't an acceptable outcome. We needed a result that would provide some concrete protection for workers. The only way to ensure this was to make sure that voices representing workers' interests were heard loud and clear. We began to organise.

Unions, including the Electrical Trades Union and the Communication Workers Union, wrote letters to Yarra's nine councillors encouraging them to vote for the motion. Yarra's community networks were also engaged. We told the Green and Labor parties that we were open to discussing any suggestions to improve or make clearer our motion, but we would not allow it to be gutted.

It was only in the 24 hours before the meeting that, facing a packed council chamber and public humiliation, these councillors started to offer attematives to the SP resolution. The Green councillors (under pressure from their party, which understood the political price they would pay statewide if they shafted workers by voting against the resolution) proposed some changes to the resolution that we could live with and didn't substantially weaken it.

The ALP had a separate resolution full of motherhood statements but without the action component of our resolution. They were confident that theirs would get up instead, telling the Melbourne Times in advance that they would win the vote. This made for interesting reading when that paper came out the day after the vote!

On the night the tension was high when the agenda item came up at about 8.30pm. ALP Mayor Kay Meadows would have kept workers waiting longer if I hadn't pressured her to move the agenda item to an earlier spot. After a brief officers report the mayor asked for questions or amendments. Despite the fact that my resolution had been ready for one month she tried to call her party colleague, Paul D'Agastino, in first to move their weak alternative.

I challenged the decision and called for a suspension of standing orders to allow people in the public gallery to speak. Workers and trade unionists, including Phil Cleary on behalf of the ETU, spoke brilliantly of the low wages faced by those working for contractors and of the new industrial relations regime of terror Howard is introducing. They all called for councillors to take a stand and vote for "the Jolly motion".

By the time standing orders were resumed, Meadows had buckled under the pressure and allowed my amendment to go first. I allowed D'Agastino's motion to be added to mine and on that basis the vote was 9-0, leading to a spontaneous outbreak of applause from the gallery.

A division, called by the Greens, resulting in the following: FOR: Cr Barbara, Cr D'Agostino, Cr Farrar, Cr Fristacky, Cr Jolly, Cr Maltzahn, Cr Meadows, Cr Morton and Cr Sekhon AGAINST: Nil.

The motion was declared carried.

Developments atYarra should remind all ETU members that community action against AWAs is possible. Although it is illegal for councils to outlaw AWAs, it is within their power to take a stand based on principles of justice and the rights of workers. If the federal government is going to cajole employers into dragooning workers into AWAs, it's time to tell councils we want them to express a different view of the world. After all, it's our rates that pay the bills.

From ETU News, December 2005.
Socialist Party

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