Which way forward for unions?

Wednesday, October 16, 1996

By Pat Brewer

CANBERRA — A seminar held here on September 8 heard two very different views on how unions should prepare to meet the changes proposed in the Workplace Relations Bill currently before parliament.

Craig Simmons, ACT organiser with the Australian Workers Union, argued that unions should extend their services role in order to cope with a climate in which unions would increasingly compete among themselves for membership and coverage.

The alternative view presented was to fight the changes by rebuilding loyalty and membership, strengthening membership participation and union independence from political and state control.

The new legislation seeks to exclude unions from the relationship between employees and employers (except with direct permission). This promotes an environment of deals with management for union coverage. Under proposed Australian Workplace Agreements, unions would also compete with other groups (like trades and labour councils) or individuals (like lawyers) to act as bargaining agents.

Also proposed is the removal or modification of the "conveniently belong" rule, which reduces the likelihood of unions "poaching" members.

Simmons admitted, "When there are demarcation disputes, total union membership falls as members get caught in the cross-fire and become demoralised". However, he argued that the changes were the natural drift and that successful unions will be those which "win" in this new reality — win with bosses, win in poaching, win in attracting clients for services.

Simmons argued that in the new "industrial climate", there has been the establishment of "the individual consensus model of benevolent management as opposed to the conflict model of old unionism".

John O'Brien, president of the ACT division of the National Tertiary Education and Industry Union, and Tim Gooden, Community and Public Sector Union delegate and chairperson of the sub-branch delegates' committee of the ACT Department of Urban Services, disputed the idea of benevolent management in the light of their unions' experience under both Coalition and ALP governments.

Gooden said, "We need more today than just providing services like travel and loans, or just fighting at the individual workplace level, or even sectoral militancy. We need a new perspective of unions which are democratically controlled, unions which present a political alternative and seek to win the majority of workers to the view that social rights don't have to be traded off."

The active involvement of members and their identification with the union was vitally important under the new legislation, argued O'Brien. This could even be built in the process of opposing the legislation, by using the period to organise and recruit.

Both O'Brien and Gooden stressed the need for public sector unions to build alliances within the community. O'Brien pointed to the success of alliances with students around tertiary education cuts.

Both speakers emphasised that it wasn't going to be easy to re-win the basics of unionism and solidarity, decent standards of living and social services. "Rhetoric is cheap", noted O'Brien, "but we know the fights we will have to have, and we will be in a stronger position through the process."