Trade Unions, current politics, and my being old-fashioned

15 Jun

So much of the rhetoric on the Howard side of politics focuses on demons called union bosses, while the transparent fact is that the Howard side of politics — and indeed much of the Labor Party for that matter — is much more in synch with what we might call bosses’ unions, though they always prefer terms like “council”, “chamber” or “association”.

For purposes of definition, I will copy the opening of the Wikipedia article on the subject:

A trade union or labor union is “a continuous association of wage-earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment.”

Over the last three hundred years, trade unions have developed into a number of forms, influenced by differing political and economic regimes. The immediate objectives and activities of trade unions vary, but may include:

* Provision of benefits to members: Early trade unions, like Friendly Societies, often provided a range of benefits to insure members against unemployment, ill health, old age and funeral expenses. In many developed countries, these functions have been assumed by the state; however, the provision of professional training, legal advice and representation for members is still an important benefit of trade union membership.
* Collective bargaining: Where trade unions are able to operate openly and are recognised by employers, they may negotiate with employers over wages and working conditions.
* Industrial action: Trade unions may organize strikes or resistance to lockouts in furtherance of particular goals.
* Political activity: Trade unions may promote legislation favorable to the interests of their members or workers as a whole. To this end they may pursue campaigns, undertake lobbying, or financially support individual candidates or parties (such as the Labour Party in Britain) for public office.

From the Australian perspective, the union movement has grown up with a distinctively Australian tradition, much of it the inheritance of that “mateship” concept which the Liberals have done their best to appropriate. It has also been very much in the British mould; indeed English, Welsh, Irish and Scottish accents are not uncommon in the ranks of union leaders here. The American experience in this area is largely irrelevant to Australia, or a terrible warning of what we have until recently avoided but now seem only too eager to embrace.

Unions have had a troubling side. They have quite often overreached. They have not always been willing to look beyond often very narrow sectional interests. Some unions, but not nearly as many as their opponents suggest, have been either corrupt or criminal. Finally, while admitting that this has only worked out this way because most union members are happy to let some other willing person be the drudge and work-horse, there have been cases where Communists and other assorted Marxists have run the agenda. I am a trade unionist, a member of the NSW Teachers’ Federation. I am a non-Marxist. In other words, I think Marxism as such is a “grand narrative” of epic proportions which is interesting but ultimately flawed — a virtual religion that comes complete with sects, fundamentalists, and crazed millennialists, not to mention holy texts, as I saw when I attended a Communist study cell at one time. I am not however an anti-Marxist. I do not believe that raising The Economy above Society is a good move. I do not believe that capitalism is virtuous. I think Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” was probably the most pernicious statement a British Prime Minister ever made. I do not believe that America is paradise. I do not believe that all Marxist analysis is wrong. I do believe that much anti-Marxism has been hysterical, but I also believe that no Marxist can point to any place in the world where Marxism has ever actually worked, and unfortunately one can point to too many places where it has been a total disaster in the long run. It’s not good enough to shrug those off as not really having been Marxist, as those who supported Stalin, Pol Pot, the Shining Path, or Chairman Mao generally believed at the time that they were. I do find much common ground with thoughtful ex-communists like Eric Aarons.

Given all that, I want to make two claims.

1. The decline in trade union membership may well be partly the fault of the unions, but it is more the result of deliberate strangulation on the part of the government, and of course of changing conditions — not all of them to be welcomed — in the workplace. I do not rejoice at the decline in unionism. I do not fear the links between unionism and the Labor Party.

2. We really need to remind ourselves what unions have achieved. Naturally, the ACTU is happy to tell you that. I suggest you download those PDFs and read them. Yes, they are propaganda — that is, they are making a case. No, they are not objective, but neither is the Howard government — far from it! The fact is that the record presented in terms of work safety, conditions, and so on is a good one, and most of what is in those ACTU documents is actually true. Without unions working people really are very naked indeed, and profit eventually, even when benign, is not commonly willing to sacrifice itself when push comes to shove. It is unwise to rely on government or semi-government agencies, such as those currently being invented, to give the same scrutiny to workers’ interests that a union has traditionally done.

It is interesting to read Jim Belshaw’s take on this. On September 24, 2006 Jim wrote:

…My experience as a management consultant has been that things are most talked about when the opposite is in fact happening. Thus the management literature was dominated by the importance of people and the need to improve people management at just the time when process re-engineering and downsizing were at their peak. The focus shifted to the importance of the customer at just the time that firms were introducing new centralised sales systems, cutting face to face customer support, turning customers to numbers. The current focus on the importance of brands and branding coincides with the greatest period of brand destruction in history…

The last two decades have been been a period of massive restructuring in both public and private sectors.

At organisational level, anybody who has been involved in restructuring knows that restructuring begins with pain, upfront costs. These include not just cash out costs, but also losses in efficiency and in in-house memory…

In [school] history I had already learned about the development of the Union Movement including things such as the 1888 London Match Girls strike as well as the Australian industrial troubles in the 1880s and 1890s. Now when I looked at the basic textbook for the ordinary course written by Cyril Renwick it included sections on the ACTU, Arbitration Commission, tariffs, political parties etc.

In those days manners had not been coarsened, an issue I will return to. Electors were still that or voters, not the contemptuously dismissive term punters, while national figures were still called Mr (there were some Mrs and Misses as well) rather than just their last, sometimes first, name. I may have been a strong Country party supporter and opposed to Labor, but I accepted that the broad Labor Movement was an integral part of the process, that I should learn about it, that its leaders should be accorded the respect due to their positions.

The overall Deakinite social contract that still existed in 1962 was already in decline, although that was not apparent at the time…

I joined the Commonwealth Public Service as an Administrative Trainee in 1967 before moving to the Commonwealth Treasury at the start of 68 and then to the Department of Industry and Commerce as a second division officer in 1980, so by the time of the first Hawke Government I had worked at increasing levels of seniority under five Prime Ministers: Holt (briefly), Gorton, McMahon, Whitlam and Fraser.

I and many others found the first Hawke Government a refreshing change, breaking from the bounds set by the past. It was also well organised for a new Government, especially in comparison with the previous Whitlam Labor administration.

I also strongly supported Bob Hawke’s strong emphasis on the creation of national consensus as a device for bringing about reform. To me, the consensus approach fitted with modern management theory in establishing a process allowing stakeholders to agree on reform and development targets, not (as critics argued) a process for getting to the lowest common denominator.

… My traditional political affiliations to the Country Party, now National Party, were well known, including the fact that I had run for pre-selection. So you had the somewhat unusual position of a known National Party supporter insisting to the Minister and his office that the union movement be consulted on certain issues, going to the ACTU Head Office in Melbourne to brief ACTU working parties, or of delivering sessions to rank and file union groups on policy through the Trade Union Training Authority.

And, I must say, I found the union movement very much on the side of the angels when it came to reform within the constraints set by their own structures. Mind you, it had its nerve wracking moments. I still remember Colin Cooper threatening to call a national strike of the telecom unions after a briefing from me to a union group on the need for change in the telecoms sector!

Looking back, the wheels started to come off in 1986…

Given the great relevance of Britain to Australia in this area, do read the sample first chapter of Trade Unions and the State: The Construction of Industrial Relations Institutions in Britain, 1890-2000 by Chris Howell (Princeton 2005). It is very fine, very instructive.

Think twice before buying the demonisation of trade unions; unions, on the other hand, have had to reject many of their old assumptions, attitudes and practices. That is a delicate balancing act for Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, who know many on the Left will either not understand or hate what may have to be done, some of which will look like betrayal. However, surely one of the greatest betrayals Australians could inflict on themselves is to be sucked into the government’s utterly ideological anti-union rhetoric.

Perhaps the days when people fell into blast furnaces will come again, if we are not careful — and it used to happen in my father’s lifetime. That is, of course, if Australia still has blast furnaces. But there are issues like mine safety, building workers’ conditions, acceptable hours, and so much more, that are up for grabs in the brave new world.

See also a 2001 Four Corners: Going Backwards — the working poor. Next Monday Four Corners investigates conditions in the battery-hen environment of the call centre.

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Posted by on June 15, 2007 in Aussie interest, Current affairs, Jim Belshaw, Kevin Rudd, News and Current Affairs, Politics



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