So, a certain Paul Howes has been back in the media again, positioning himself as the moderate face of Australian unionism, seeking some kind of sensible third way to end the IR wars. It’s a good thing we have brave union leaders prepared to put the national interest ahead of their own, and put their careers on the line for practical policies that benefit all Australians, right? So, you might be asking, why aren’t there other unionists lining up to support him in his call for a “new Accord” or “Grand Compact” that could end the fighting?
As a union organiser for 8 years, I’ve become quite familiar with Australia’s IR system. I’ve worked under Workchoices and Fair Work, and have studied the history of the systems that came before, and dealt with their legacy impacts in a range of workplaces. I’ve also gained a pretty good grasp of how unions in Australia have changed over the past century, and what members and supporters of unions want out of them now. I know the many different ways they operate, and distribute authority. Howes is across all this, too – I’d say that he’s probably far more steeped in it than I am; and so he’s also very aware of why his proposal is anathema to the majority of unionists today. There’s an element of cynicism in his speech – wilful provocation of the rest of the movement to establish his “independent” bona fides.
The first, perhaps most aggravating, element of Howes speech for many, is how clearly partisan it is. Not against the LNP, but against his real rivals – the CFMEU (Mining & Energy and Construction Divisions) and the MUA. The Australian Workers’ Union (Howes’ group) is a massive odds-and-ends bin of a union, covering manufacturing, mining, agricultural, transportation, and chunks of many other industries, with a clear focus on rural and regional areas. It competes directly with the CFMEU and MUA on civil and maritime engineering construction projects, and coal mining. It’s also one of the real political gorillas of the ALP, sitting on the Centre-Right of the spectrum. This has put it in conflict with Left unions – again, (bits of) the CFMEU and (the whole) MUA.
The AWU has been at a traditional disadvantage against both of these unions due to their long-standing, member-driven workplace delegate structures (variously known as lodges, branches, chapters, chapels, etc.), and generally competes with high-intensity blitzing of worksites using large numbers of paid organising staff. It’s no surprise that the union copping most of the complaints about Right of Entry use under FWA was the AWU – hundreds of visits in a year to a big site is not an unprecedented strategy for them. CFMEU and MUA do membership drives, on occasion, but generally rely on member-organisers and elected officials in the workplaces to recruit new staff members early in their careers and then maintain their membership through workplace culture.
The AWU’s campaigning approach has been successful, to an extent, in cracking un-unionised, and de-unionised sites. Iron ore mines and aluminium smelters are some of their recent successes. But the paid-staff driven approach means that they must choose targets carefully, and can’t necessarily deal with an entire region that needs attention, as with the mining/LNG boom in North-Western Australia. MUA and CFMEU, on the other hand, are accustomed to their members largely managing their own affairs and calling on head office for assistance and support – meaning that they can apply uniform pressure on wages and conditions in broad areas, where members see value in it.
And the result has been that the MUA, especially around the Gorgon LNG project, and the CFMEU, particularly in the multi-billion dollar mining construction projects in the Pilbara, have achieved dramatic wage rises across multiple employers. The AWU have done OK, but nothing on the same scale. They’re feeling the burn in terms of angry members, defections to their competitor unions, and pressure on their lower-level elected officials. So Howes throwing these unions under the bus – for getting their members big pay rises, no less – is seen as straight up jealous bastardry.
Secondly, it’s obviously self-interested. The Accord, by fixing poilcy at a national level, and preventing any input except via the bureaucratic structures of the AIRC, locked union officials into a position of complete power over their membership. It was accompanied by a process of mergers to create a small number of “Super-unions” out of the hundreds of often tiny unions that existed in the 1970s; creating unions that were large enough to act as partners in the social compact, and – where necessary – take actions (such as preventing strikes or giving up conditions) against the interests of smaller groups of members who lost out in the economic reforms underway. The AWU was one of the unions formed in this period, (as were the MUA and CFMEU). There were benefits to the Accord; but there were plenty of losers, too; and the perception of unions and unions officials as powerful, faceless bureaucracies uninterested in the workers within their dominion was hugely strengthened by this period of history. The number of otherwise progressive or moderate Gen Xers who entered the workforce in the last years of this process and still tell me that unionists are parasites based on experiences in their late teens is genuinely worrying.
It may not seem so from the way the media reports union activities, but many (progressive) Australian unions have been actively attempting to devolve power away from their executive to their membership since the mid-90’s. The implementation of economy-wide enterprise bargaining (as well as the focus on individual, rather than institutional, rights, embodied in the Fair Work Act) has pushed this project still further; with the results of union members’ bargaining processes now much more likely to be determined by their own votes, campaigning and actions, instead of the diktat of a far away union official. The unions that – through preference or circumstance – rely most heavily on the Award system (the system that operated during the 80’s) are the ones that most closely hew to the old top-down model of unionism – such as the SDA, which you’ll no doubt remember best for their steadfast and member-defying opposition to gay marriage.
So Howes’ nostalgia for a time when people like him were able to tell regular union members when they had to take one for the team is a little bit galling to those of us who joined in the so-called “organising” era. Given that he’s a man who obviously loves to display his power and influence no matter the consequences, such as in his appalling Lateline appearance during the 2010 knifing of Kevin Rudd, the idea of empowering him to overrule his membership in the “national interest” is not very appealing. (Incidentally, Gerard Henderson, who made his career fighting the “IR club” of cosy bosses and union officials, must be terribly confused about how to take all this…)
Thirdly, it’s not clear what the circumstances are that would justify unions making concessions to business. The 80’s was a period of rising inflation and unemployment, with serious labour market flexibility problems, and unions with genuine power to prevent change through both legislation and strikes. The labour share of income was at an all time high, and most major industries survived through tariff barriers that essentially operated as a tax on the rest of the community. There was an argument for opening up the economy then, and it was put compellingly to the Australian people, who – arguably – accepted it.
Today, we have low inflation, low pay increases, unemployment rising slightly, a labour market that can set prices at the individual or firm level without any fuss, and where wage rises do not flow across regions or industries (for better or worse), and unions that, on the whole, are running to stand still, with less than 20% membership across the economy and serious problems getting any traction in the lower paid, service industry occupations that are growing like topsy (largely replacing low-skilled manufacturing) and would benefit most from organised bargaining power. Even some amazingly powerful unions, like the Nurses and Teachers, are unable to achieve huge increases, because they’re stuck in the public sector where governments on both sides of the house have been more than prepared to fight them indefinitely for the sake of the budget bottom line. The Fair Work Act protects workers at the bottom slightly better, without changing any of the WorkChoices restrictions around industrial action that unions need to have genuine teeth in bargaining. So the idea that union power is causing enough of an issue (outside of construction projects in NW Australia – which, let’s not forget, are temporary: they’ll cease when the infrastructure they’re building is complete) that workers need to give something away to bribe employer groups to stop attacking their rights is fairly unhelpful. At this point in time, such a compact couldn’t be a partnership, it would be more like negotiating terms of surrender.
Now that last sentence is fairly hyperbolic; I’ll accept that criticism before you make it. But it was definitely my first gut reaction to Howes’ speech – “We’re so far behind right now, what on earth is left to give?”. I suspect I’m not alone – my experience has been that most people who work in a union have found their way into the industry because they’re outspoken do-gooders who at some point just couldn’t help themselves speaking out about something in their workplace that was just unfair. We’d view the growing inequality in the populartion and spiking profit share of income in Australia as a systemic issue that requires not merely redistribution by government, but greater bargaining power amongst workers – which the Fair Work Act (at least according to ABS stats) simply hasn’t delivered. We can’t see any signs that the monied elite are willing to give anything of significance towards these objectives – in fact, they’re increasingly opposed to these objectives as an ideological imperative. To enter a fair contract, or bargain, both sides must have something that the other wants; and the value that they place on the other person’s object needs to be greater than the value they place on their own. In this case, what the potential “partners” want from a deal is a reduction on the power and control of workers over their own wages, conditions and working life; and if there’s anything a union leader feels is more valuable than that objective, then they’re not fit to be in the position.
So far, I’ve enjoyed living my life in a country where Jack is as good as his master, but Howes’ proposal won’t do anything to preserve that ethos, it’ll just make sure that Paul is one of the masters.