Once again, Australian trade unions are under siege from the forces of an ever-desperate conservatism seeking to scare the population into believing that any number of reds are hiding under any amount beds in order to steal the peoples’ money for their own nefarious ends.
Conservative Prime Minister ‘Honest’ John Howard, of the Liberal Party of Australia, claims to represent a new age of industrial relations when he is really plunging us back to standards comparable with those of pre-World War One; The Australian Labor Party’s Kevin ‘That Nice Mr’ Rudd, on the other hand, says that workers must be represented fairly by their respective union bodies in order for a mature, progressive society to move forward in a serious and meaningful fashion, and if this means tearing up Australian Workplace Agreements, so be it. Howard says we must go forward into the past – Rudd says we must go back to the future.
The unelection campaign is hotting up down here in a sunburnt country as Honest John ramps up the rhetoric against That Nice Mr. Rudd. Industrial Relations (IR) has become the latest blood-soaked battlefield as Labor promise to wind back some of the more onerous provisions of a satirically titled ‘WorkPlace Relations Legislation Amendment (More Jobs! Better Pay)’ that no one voted for. The notion that his cunning plan to roll the rights of Australian workers back to those in place at Federation might be usurped has the honest one fair sputtering on his ’45 Lafitte in indignation, but luckily the plucky PM has the business lobby to hold his hand and make the appropriate noises.
Leading the charge is such altruistic and civic-minded concerns as Rio Tinto, BHP/Biliton and that tireless advocate of workers’ rights, The Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA). They are shrieking to the highest heavens that the ‘WorkChoices’ legislation and Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs) are the only things propping up Australia’s mining boom and without them the entire world mineral market will collapse, bringing a pestilence and blight upon the land and nothing to do with India and China becoming the planet’s one-stop services and manufacturing shops.
AWAs are individual contracts that employees must voluntarily sign with their employers. The theory – and Elroy just loves conservative political theory – is that employees and employers will come together mano-a-mano, on that good ol’ level playing field so beloved of free marketeers without those big, bad boogey-man union nasty-pasties getting their two cents worth, strike a deal that makes both parties want to plant a sloppy WorkChoice smooch on one another and pledge everlasting individual agreement adoration.
Both parties are then supposed to trip merrily back though the sweet-smelling meadows of industrial contract law to their workstations various and harvest the blossoms and blooms of a deregulated labour market, bosses rueful about the concessions that wily Afghan refugee screwed out of him and said refugee safe in the knowledge that she has fully protected her rights despite the fact that she speaks only Farsi.
As Honest John will waste absolutely no time in telling you, the greatest impediment to peace, goodwill and an IR environment so harmonious as to render doves redundant are those utter, utter beasts the unions. Unions are, as we all know, the scourge of all mankind, venal and corrupt axis’s of evil that prey on the pay of those dispensing honest sweat and fair dinkum toil to feather their own nests and drink their members’ blood in orgies of satanic delirium. Obviously, workers’ interests are best protected by those bodies that have a vested interest in them, like the Australian Chamber of Commerce.
The problem for unions is that they have doomed themselves to irrelevance by dint of their success. 100-odd years ago, unions were an absolute necessity for workers as they fought tooth and nail for rights that are now taken for granted, and therein lies the rub. People now do not realise that the rights they enjoy are because of the unions, and so resent paying their dues, but the price of liberty is eternal vigilance I tells ya!
Honest John Howard’s idea of progress is to take us back to time which is now before living memory which is being painted as being nice, different, unusual. Some workers’ have been duped into thinking that the capitalist classes just live to make their employees’ life worthwhile, ignoring that without union intervention they too could be working for one to five dollars a day like their third-world comrades.
Some people have made an analogy between unions and business, that unions are ‘labour corporations’ selling man-hours on a level playing field with employers, but the owners of t’ means o’ production, lad, have always had and will always have the upper hand, unless workers stay strong. The Liberal Party whine that it should all be ‘Fair And Balanced™’ but it can’t be. Capital has the power. The only bulwark the worker has against this is the union. Is that fair? Probably not. But capitalism isn’t fair, the system isn’t fair, and as capital has no morality per se, business will only fight fair when they are forced to.
Business has been hollering ‘We’ll all be ‘rooned’ since slavery was abolished (another feat not due to the largesse of corporate interests), and it just wants to be happy and safe in the knowledge that they can hire and fire at will, and drive down wages to wherever makes the most profits for their poor widdle put-upon shareholders, the people who are, after all, the backbone of society and the only ones to which the corporation must be responsible. Investors must have certainty! The workforce can just blunder on from day to week wondering where the next mortgage payment is coming from, but INVESTORS MUST HAVE CERTAINTY!!!
However, free market ideologues that quote Friedman are as much Utopian nutters as any commie they may care to mention. If workers are not represented by a single entity then they will be picked off and exploited. Divide and rule. Elroy has a friend (Yes! Apparently it’s true!) whose employer was bought out recently, and as result the workers there were ‘moved’ into the new corporate structure, which meant that their contracts were torn up and AWAs were put in place. They were all called in to ‘negotiate’ individually, in a process known in the real world as ‘sign or resign’. Not ‘re-sign; resign.’
They were told not to discuss the content of their contracts with anyone. Elroy’s pal stated that she could not sign the AWA due to an unconscionable clause and, in spite of corporate directives, discussed it far and wide. All the workers in her department refused to sign and the company backed down. Fortunately they were skilled workers and so had something to bargain with. God help them if they had been Sudanese cleaners.
Unions are a necessary evil; without them we’d all be buggered because business cannot be trusted to be reasonable and they have proved this time and time again. If they did behave properly the unions would not be, or would ever have been, required. But the nature of capitalism requires that enterprises do all to they can to maximise profits. That means increasing productivity and reducing input costs by any method available, and labour costs are part of that equation. Why do companies relocate overseas? To reduce labour costs.
Monetarist policy demands that a certain percentage of the labour force, between 5%-15%, is unemployed at any one time. Of course, the victims of this system are blamed for their predicament, but it must be that way to keep labour at each other’s throats and a free kick for capital. Some bright spark from the ANZ admitted this the other day when he said that jobs had been scarce over the past thirty years, blowing apart the lie that the work was out there but the unemployed just couldn’t be bothered looking for it.
So having conned us then as now, how’s it looking now that a labour shortage maybe on the horizon and labour might have some bargaining power? The goalposts are moved in order to help business some more. Conservatives love to scream from the rooftops that the country is being held hostage to the unions’ demands, but is it?
Yes. It is being held to ransom by unions, by staunch, militant unions whose tentacles reach far up into the echelons of power. The government are in the pockets of these unions; politicians argue their case for them and the government uncritically do all in their power to mollify these institutions. Their wishes are the government’s commands. There can be no doubt that they legislate on the unions’ behalf; the Australian Chamber of Commerce and similar organizations are in the box seat of power and they don’t feel much like moving.
They are the correct analogy for workers’ unions. As business colludes, so does labour, and business does collude; anyone that thinks that they are constantly fretting about ‘competition’ is also waiting for the Tooth Fairy to show up.
If Labor is in the pocket of the ACTU, then Elroy would rather that than a government that was in the pocket of the ACC. In the end, trade unions represent the people. Business associations represent vested interests. One is fundamentally orientated toward enriching the great unwashed, and one is orientated toward enriching the corporate elite. Elroy knows which he would prefer. What about youse?
If the Liberal Party is somehow mysteriously returned to power at the end of the year then it will be big business usual, but once those AWAs really start to bite the punters will flock back the unions and the 20th Century IR battles will have to be rerun. Ho hum. Go foward to the past to get back to the future? We'd rather not, but if we have to – we will.
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