Modern Times: Together We Bargain, Alone We Beg

The union movement in Australia has been diminished through accusations of improper behaviour – militant action that has broken the law. But is the union movement more lawless than the businesses is corrupt?

There are times, as a writer, you read something that captures your thoughts so perfectly that you regret that the words did not come from your own pen; a passage profound yet simple, which grasps precisely what you wish to communicate. As I reflected upon the position of the trade union movement in Australian society, I happened upon such a passage. “Efficiency is not what this is all about,” wrote Donald Brook during the waterfront dispute in 1998. “It is about turning labourers into a cheap, compliant, disposable resource; a resource that is as readily available and expendable as the environment. All that stands in the way of this rationally utopian vision is the union.” Certainly, a critic ill-disposed to unionism would dismiss these as the words of a militant. But in four swift moves, Brook parried his opponent’s predictable attack, before countering with a critique of the accepted orthodoxy. He then coupled the industrial and cultural left in a common struggle, and finished by stating his belief that the union movement was central to the struggle. Each point made was significant in its own right. Too often, our public discourse around industrial relations has been dominated by words such as ‘efficiency’. These words are persuasive because everyone agrees that greater efficiency or productivity are good things – but they should not be considered the only objectives of a balanced industrial relations policy. Another language is required, which uses words such as ‘security’ and ‘wellbeing’ – words which describe a better society rather than merely a stronger economy – as frequently as economistic terms such as ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’. The first point of resistance is to address our discursive failings. A workforce that is considered a cheap, compliant and disposable resource comes at the cost of the security and well-being of workers. But it also exaggerates the distance between workers and their masters, disrupting the harmony that exists in a democratic society of equals. Evidence suggests a strong, inverse relationship between union membership and equality. Andrew Leigh has demonstrated this link in Battlers and Billionaires: the Story of Inequality in Australia, published in 2013. In Australia as in many (but not all) western societies, the more union membership declines, the greater the inequality. When everything exists to serve the interests of the economy, workers are not the only resource considered expendable. Asylum seekers are expendable. The environment is expendable. Animals are expendable. Greed, cruelty and recklessness are all permissible so long as they increase profits and deliver a strong economic return. Unionists, environmentalists and animal welfare advocates are each fighting a common enemy: the belief that all resources, human or otherwise, are expendable and exist to serve business interests alone. The industrial and cultural left should unite behind a common discourse, informed by shared values. Some commentators argue that unions, which have declining memberships, exert a disproportionate in fluence on Australian politics. As strong evidence suggests that inequality has grown as union membership has declined, we should perhaps first address the declining membership. Indeed, in societies famous for their harmony and equality, unions exert far greater in fluence. In Sweden, the ‘Rehn-Meidner’ model, in place since the 1950s, ensures that unions have a strong role in policy formation. Unions and businesses in Japan participate each year in the ‘Spring Struggle’, which de fines wage settings for the coming year. The union movement in Australia has been diminished through accusations of improper behaviour – militant action that has broken the law. But is the union movement more lawless than the businesses is corrupt? Both are unacceptable, one no more than the other. There is ample opportunity for unions to promote the interests of its members without resorting to lawless behaviour, but there is a clear tendency to exaggerate the scope and frequency of illegal behaviour. The diminished position of trade unions in western democracies, when compared to their popularity and relevance in earlier periods, has left a vacuum in our public discourse. If equality, security and wellbeing remain objectives to which we aspire, this must be reversed. @AndrewHunter__