Union practice: best for whom?


Towards best practice unionism: The future of unions in Australia
By Max Ogden
Pluto Press, 1993. 85 pp. $9.95
Reviewed by Jon Singer

"Management is too important to be left to managers" — this is the fundamental theme of Towards best practice unionism, a book by ACTU official Max Ogden. Unions, he argues, must be reoriented and reorganised around a new role of "making enterprises more efficient ... on behalf of workers" and intervene in economic restructuring with a "strategy to force the pace" of change so that Australian companies will not be excluded from world markets.

Ogden's argument that unions need to turn to issues of wealth creation and cooperative industrial relations is based on the post-Fordist theses that a fundamental change in work design ("flexible specialisation") and other factors is occurring — taking several decades to complete — leading to a disappearance of middle management and its replacement by higher-skilled, multi-functional work teams. But in this short book, Ogden only asserts the post-Fordist position, leaving the reader to search for the well-rehearsed arguments for and against elsewhere.

Ogden's proposals for union responses constitute the great bulk of his book. He sets himself the task of trying "to examine the kind of unionism that is likely to be successful".

Ogden begins by considering future objectives, strategies and tactics for the union movement. His inclusion of "high quality, efficient and profitable industry and services" (emphasis added) as an objective (to be achieved over the next 30-60 years), however, introduces a slant that poses fundamental problems for the union movement.

Ogden's call for profitable private (or profit-driven "public") business undermines his proposals to strive for employment security, good jobs, greater democratic controls and environmentally sustainable business and community activity.

Profit-seeking by capitalist firms in competition will necessarily result in actions contradicting the latter objectives. For example, even if a number of companies achieve a leading position on the basis of implementing "best practice", eliminating those companies that do not, they will in turn be driven to cost-cutting measures as competition develops among them.

Ogden himself demonstrates this contradiction for "strategic unionism", which he states "is seen to hold maximum employment as a prime objective" around which it is "judged, implemented and adjusted". But, he then notes, "given the difficult employment situation in recent years ... full employment (i.e., about two per cent unemployment) is unlikely to be achieved in the foreseeable future, if ever". In practice, he has abandoned the objective of employment security, since the solution , unfortunately "traditional", of reduced working hours without loss of pay, would attack profits.

But Ogden, while retaining the profit motive, blithely argues that "there will be no [general] going back to the worst days" because of community opposition and because companies have more to gain in productivity from cooperation than from attacks on wages and conditions. This forgets that community opposition to attacks on workers may be crushed if a political fight back is not organised (and although he is in favour of unions not being affiliated to the ALP, this is only so they may support it better).

Ogden's profitability objective results in the orientation of union activity to securing enterprise efficiency. He writes that "the most obvious strategic change from the past is the union movement's commitment to negotiate and work with management to improve efficiency" and that "the tactics would require that we identify individual employers, and employer groups, with whom we can more readily work and from whom we can expect support".

Of course, points of agreement between unions and employers are possible if enterprise efficiency — read profitability — is the aim. But who does the agreement serve? Surely not the workers, whose fundamental interest lies in the elimination of the capitalist exploitation, rendered ever more efficient by such agreements, which is the source of the profit.

Ogden has offered, not a project for eliminating capitalist exploitation — rather it celebrates the supposed limiting of its extremes — but a manual for mobilising work forces for enterprise efficiency. Start with "real practical issues of genuine concern to members — issues members can become involved with and have an impact on", he says, instead of "generalised [cross-enterprise] issues". Organisers have a backup and advisory role.

Ogden explains that in mobilising union members for enterprise efficiency, unions will need to become "facilitative" rather than "service-based" (problem-solving), to develop the collective and individual ability of members to "solve their own problems" with minimal reliance on full-time officials. But while countering the position of those arguing for a marketing emphasis for unions, he fails to offer any real alternative to service unionism.

Ogden proposes that the role of the union, in the form of the organiser, be provision of information, experience and support, generation of effective debate and to "explain and keep the enterprise leaders abreast of the big picture". This is still a service role, if somewhat removed from the workplace: it does not allow for participation in determining "the big picture".

Suggesting that union bureaucratisation is really a problem of work methods, while discounting the significance of how officials got (and stay) there, Ogden seeks to minimise the role of mass meetings, and proposes that no full-time officials be elected. This ignores the influence on decision-making of officials, which means that they should be accountable and responsible to the union membership.

Moreover, Ogden can himself be found slipping back towards service unionism. He suggests that:

  • "unions should view their members and potential members as their customers";

  • a key to unions' future success will be the ability to "service the individual as well as the mass of the members";

  • unions will provide an advisory service on individual skills career paths (and individual contracts) to unionists and non-unionists alike.

Ogden's proposals, if followed, would tend to break down the unity in action among workers that is fundamental to unionism's progressive development. He therefore suggests that "the union will become a quasi-professional association" (25). This, in contradiction to his attempt to base his arguments on objective historical processes, runs counter to the tendency of professional associations of employees (such as teachers, nurses and academics) to develop into unions of workers.

One other comment is required. At times Ogden engages in sophistry and evasion:

  • He proposes sit-ins or work-ins, among other forms of industrial action, as an alternative to strikes. Though his critique of strike action — that it is usually defensive — is valid, sit-ins have actually only ever come out of previous experience of strike action (that is, workers need the experience of strike action before moving to stronger actions).

  • Under the heading "foreign control and ownership of wealth", he states that "wages policy, allied to the social wage over the past ten years, has done a reasonable job by comparison with some countries in minimising differences in income level, although there are still great disparities". But what is "reasonable"? Which countries is Australia being compared with?

Research such as Professor Bob Gregory's shows increases in differences in income levels — a shift magnified by taxation measures such as reduction in higher marginal tax rates and the imputation of dividend income. To call this "minimising" income differences is, to put it mildly, covering up for the ACTU's "best practice" since 1983.

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