Unions need to go back to basics


Historically, the strength of unionism in Australia rested on the three tenets of what came to be called “labourism” — white Australia, tariff protection and compulsory arbitration. As these policy settings were wound back, union membership fell into gradual and then steep decline.

From the late-1980s, the union movement's chief response was to reduce the number of unions. This was advanced on the logic that a small number of large unions would have access to greater resources to direct towards retention and recruitment of members.

However, this reduction of unions, from more than 300 in 1987 to less than fifty today, has not stemmed membership losses.

Between 1990 and 1996, when the ALP held office in Canberra, organised labour experienced its greatest period of decline with the unionised workforce falling by 9%. A weakened union movement declined by a further 8.6% under the Coalition government that was in office from March 1996 to December 2011.

In 2015, about 88% of private sector employees are non-union. Structural shifts in the Australian economy — the decline of well-paid manufacturing jobs coupled with the rise of lower paid service sector employment — certainly contributed to this decline. But what these structural shifts also show is an incapacity to organise in expanding sectors of the economy.

The one constant theme in the union movement's decline from the election of the Bob Hawke Labor government in 1983 is its general inability to deliver on the “bread and butter” issues of increasing wages and improving working conditions.

In the decade from 1983 this resulted from the wage restraint that came with a “wages and income accord” which was voluntarily entered into by the ACTU on behalf of a rank-and-file membership that it failed to consult on the matter.

From 1993 wage restraint came through a legislated shift to an enterprise bargaining regime that fettered unions by limiting them to issues they could bargain over and making them jump through hoops to do it. Union members were again given no say in this institutionalised wage restraint.

Once this legislation was in place under a Labor government, its provisions favouring capital over labour could only be tilted further in capital's favour by Coalition governments and a weakened and compromised “umpire” now called the Fair Work Commission (FWC).

The FWC's latest contribution to the coffers of capital comes in the form of a decision to give Aurizon, Australia's largest rail freight operator privatised by the Queensland Labor government, the power to terminate 12 expired enterprise agreements during the course of protracted negotiations over a new agreement.

This extraordinary decision has the effect of putting 6000 workers back on base award conditions while trying to negotiate a new agreement with their employer. In its reasoning the FWC said that Aurizon had been trying to get union agreement to downgrade wages and conditions and their refusal to do so “restrain[s] Aurizon's capacity to effectively manage its labour resource needs”.

Bob Nanva, national secretary of the Rail, Tram and Bus Union, said: “The Commission has taken the pressure off Aurizon to take bargaining seriously and to negotiate a reasonable deal with its employees”.

ACTU secretary Dave Oliver warned of the dangerous precedent that the decision establishes: “We are very concerned about the implication for workers once their enterprise agreements expire. It pulls the rug from under employees who lose the protection offered by their agreement and are forced onto the bare minimum standards at a time when they are trying to improve their terms and conditions.”

In the case of Aurizon the likelihood is forced redundancies and altered shift arrangements for starters.

The decision comes at the same time as the royal commission investigating trade unions resumes hearings. At the opening of the commission's 2015 proceedings, counsel assisting the commission, Jeremy Stoljar SC, foreshadowed some of the draconian policy options for dealing with the CFMEU, which has long been in the commission's sights because of its militancy. What Stoljar has in mind is amending legislation which would ban from office CFMEU officials elected by their members.

The 1987 ACTU document that was used to rationalise unions was called, Future Strategies. Perhaps it is time to adopt a new future strategy before it’s too late. Back to Basics might be an appropriate name for it.

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