The challenge for unions

August 16, 2008

When does a worker, even a casual or part-time worker, join a union? When it's clear that membership brings better pay, working conditions and job security. Why, then, is union membership among workers at an all-time low? Because in so many industries union membership doesn't seem to bring these benefits.

Perhaps it's because some employers, very few, can pay high wages. Or maybe workers have been intimidated into not joining a union. But it's also because unions simply aren't always there when workers need them.

The major problem is one of union organisation. The 2006 ACTU congress was told surveys showed 1.5 million workers would join a union if they were asked.

However, where unions are campaigning — as with the nurses, teachers and construction workers — they are growing.

This brings us to Work Choices. In its August 5 editorial, "Unions battle for new recruits", the Geelong Advertiser noted the union movement was thoroughly unhappy with Kevin Rudd and his sluggishness in tearing apart the previous Coalition government's workplace laws. But it didn't say why.

It's because Howard's laws criminalised basic union organising — the right of entry and the right to take industrial action. These laws have had a much greater impact on union relevance in the eyes of workers than things like the end of payroll deduction of union dues.

Work Choices and other laws threaten unions with massive penalties if they act illegally. This has been going on for more than 25 years in this country.

If unions are really to defend workers' rights and conditions they often risk breaking the law — whether it's to fight an unfair dismissal or to close down a dangerous work site. Going by the legal road can mean losing the dispute.

It's a stark choice: be law-abiding and irrelevant or do the right thing to defend workers' wages and conditions and risk crippling penalties. The space for legal union action is tiny.

This explains why the employers are determined to hold on to Work Choices. It's why they relentlessly blackmail the Rudd government with talk about the union threat to investment. It drives the building bosses' support of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which treats 1 million building workers as if they were terrorist suspects.

Disappointingly, even though the Rudd government is packed with former union officials it has been far more responsive to employer pressure than to the appeals by the ACTU. In the Australia of 2008, the ability of the union movement to prove its relevance depends on whether it can force the full repeal of Work Choices, and related laws, or neutralise them in practice.

That's why 1500 union delegates met in Melbourne on July 30 to campaign against the charging of Noel Washington, the construction unionist facing a six-month jail term for exercising his right to remain silent, and to get rid of all anti-union laws. In effect, the delegates were following the advice of the Advertiser editorial: it's time the unions stood up for themselves.

Finally, what's wrong with 14-year-old workers joining unions? If they're old enough to be ripped off by unscrupulous bosses — and believe me I deal with cases every week — then they're old enough to band together and collectively defend their rights. That's real unionism.

[Tim Gooden is secretary of the Geelong Trades Hall Council. This abridged opinion piece first appeared in the August 11 Geelong Advertiser in response to an August 5 editorial in the same paper.]

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