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Issue #1555      11 July 2012

Unions’ role under fire

The ACTU Congress gave a whiff of the current parlous state of affairs. Big business interests have sensed that time is ripe for a renewed assault on workers’ rights. Union leaderships are being bombarded with the message that their role is in question and that they should think in terms of “collaboration” if they are to have a future at all. At the ACTU Congress a recurring theme was that unions’ function was to ease Australian workers through the tough times ahead and not resist “change”. There was little talk of a fight back against the assault now underway on workers’ pay and conditions, though there was some sabre-rattling about what unions should do in the event of an Abbott-led federal government. It’s hardly what the doctor ordered.


(Photo: Anna Pha)

A report on proposed changes to the Fair Work Act is now in the hands of Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten. Pressure has come mostly from one direction – to weaken the status of unions and to extend the scope of cowboy arrangements that have taken root in the industrial relations system in Australia.

Former ACTU luminary Martin Ferguson has led the charge. He says workers in the resource sector shouldn’t use any leverage they may have at the moment because their successors may not have a similar advantage. The implication is that the mining transnationals might have mercy on future generations of Australians workers if the current batch shows signs of submissiveness. That’s not how the history of the Australian working class reads, however. The lesson to be drawn from that continuing saga is that “if you don’t fight you lose”.

Opinions are divided on what form the future “collaboration” should take. Hawke/Keating-era minister Simon Crean has a rosy recollection of the Prices and Incomes Accord that springs to mind whenever the word “collaboration” is mentioned. The co-option of union leaderships in those years blunted union wage demands (and removed much on-the-job organisation) in return for such dubious benefits as the superannuation guarantee. The downside of the “reform”, not highlighted at the time, was that this measure would assist the privatisation of the state’s former obligation to retired workers and provide a pot of investment dollars for a capitalist class too reckless to maintain a stable fund of its own.

Current ACTU secretary Dave Oliver is a bit more realistic. He says we can’t go back to a 1980s-style “corporatist” wages accord. He could have added that we can’t go back because the bosses have conquered so much legislative territory that it is largely irrelevant. We no longer have a centralised wage fixation system guaranteeing pay rates across industries. Workers in unorganised sectors of the labour market are almost completely exposed to merciless “market forces”.

Back to the future?

Despite the Accord’s negative legacy, class collaboration is back on the agenda. There was much talk of it at the Prime Minister’s Economic Forum held in Brisbane last month. ACTU secretary Dave Oliver spoke of the “need” for “industry councils where unions, the employers and government can identify problems and develop solutions.”

“We have a shared interest in a prosperous economy, and unions are keen to participate in taskforces in industries like tourism, hospitality, finance, construction, mining, and childcare and to plan infrastructure, skills and public services,” Mr Oliver said.

He highlighted these industries because they are in sectors suffering from the high exchange rate of the Australian dollar, among other problems. He also said that the Economic Forum shouldn’t become a platform for the ideology of “diminished public services, less regulation, lower corporate tax and fewer workplace rights.”

The fundamental flaw in the whole notion of a “shared interest in a prosperous economy” is that it denies the reality of irreconcilable class interests. It doesn’t ask the basic question “prosperity for whom?” The cold hard fact is that, regardless of whether we have a high dollar or low dollar, high inflation or low, high interest rates or low ones, the bosses’ ideology described by Mr Oliver doesn’t change.

If any proof were needed we need only look at the booming resource sector where fortunes are being made by the transnationals involved. Despite the super profits, they are pushing for circumstances where even greater fortunes can be made at the expense of workers’ pay and conditions. At established projects, unions already have to compete to be the “negotiating agents” for workers. Destroying the unity of the workers and their ability to defend their interests is another central plank of the bosses’ ideology. Now they want the same chaos to apply to new projects with their “greenfield agreements”.

“The requirement to negotiate exclusively with unions means that major projects may be exposed to unreasonable wage demands,” Australian Petroleum and Exploration Association CEO David Byers said recently. “Given project schedule demands and the costs of delay, this may leave project construction management with little option to concede, ratcheting up project construction costs.”

Big business interests have always and will always seek to remove workers’ bargaining power and to leave them at the mercy of management. Misery and humiliation follows whenever they succeed in disorganising their employees. Workers must resist the push for retrograde changes to the Fair Work Act that would expose them further to the designs of the transnationals and certainly reject the false notion of “shared interests” and “collaboration” with the capitalist class.  

Next article – Editorial – “Protectionism” and exploitation

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