Take down those Eureka Flags boys! Collective bargaining is a thing of the past, unless of course you’re a monopoly wheat exporter…

If you listen to the anti-union rhetoric from select members of the government and in the latest business council ads, you might be forgiven for thinking that unionists belong in the same category as communists, socialists and satanists. But ideology aside, one of the central roles of unions is to give buying power to groups of workers in similar jobs when negotiating collective agreements with employers. So why are such agreements discouraged for workers, but favoured when we have some wheat that needs exporting?

Joe Hockey often accuses the unions of thuggery and dominating the ALP. John Howard has consistently criticised the ALP for being beholden to unions — even though it’s a decade since the last significant union workplace battle, which was initiated by the Howard government. When it came to defence of the single desk after the AWB weapons for wheat scandal, however, nobody was more vocal than some Liberal and National MPs.

To explain why union membership is akin to eating babies, the Government needs to show how the supply of labour (workers) is so different from the supply of materials, and in this case, wheat.

As well as setting conditions and standards, collective negotiation usually delivers a better price for the goods or services provided. So why are wheat farmers allowed to argue for a fair wheat price through collective negotiation, but the rights of workers to the same process is derided, and legislatively weakened?

Sure, in the short term higher labour costs are not so good for job growth and profitability, but you won’t hear too many workers complaining. And this alone doesn’t show why workers are different to wheat.

Yes, one is an international transaction, the other is domestic, so higher prices for wheat doesn’t affect the domestic economy like higher prices for labour locally.

And the assumption of homogeneity is appropriate in neither case, less so for workers. The ‘collective’ negotiation process usually ensures a uniform price and conditions of supply. For wheat, minimum standards would be discussed in negotiations but whether it’s produced in Queensland or southern WA, the single desk must regulate the quality of wheat exported.

In workplaces, unions can perform a similar function but individual workers are more able to distinguish themselves. Also, post WorkChoices, there are now more options for the ‘buyer’ of workers to remove, or fail to promote, a second-rate worker.

But this still doesn’t explain the hypocrisy in the hyperbole against unions, nor does it show why workers are different to materials. Is profitability in individual businesses more legitimate than individual workers profiting fairly from selling their labour?

Ironically, the effect of the AWA minimum conditions is a blueprint for workplaces to collectively bargain agreements for low skilled workers. It’s a readymade list of five minimum conditions, so collective bargaining is not necessarily a thing of the past. For employers and wheat farmers that is.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey