Nov 26, 2008

Forget IR legislation, ACTU must get back to basics

Trade unions in their current form are a cultural and industrial anachronism, writes Andrew Crook.

So, they did it. On election night a year ago orange-shirted ACTU activists were skoling pints with their red-shirted ALP brethren, including a still-faithful Bill Shorten, at Melbourne’s Imperial Hotel. They’d given their all for Kevin -- street rallies featuring Bomber, marginal seat harassment and even a bizarre Sky TV linkup that saw protests beamed into pubs for those too lazy to get their feet on the street. For one night only, the left's professional activists were one, toasting both Kevin07 and Tracey, the ACTU taliswoman for casual-roster angst.

But when the mob dispersed it was payback time – the unions, headed by quiet achiever Jeff Lawrence, went to work behind the scenes, hoping their bruvvas in government could wind back the workplace angst of the Howard years. The unions’ eagerness to institute a ‘new law’ in Canberra knew no bounds. Badgering elected representatives became the overriding obsession of a dwindling labour elite eager to hitch their wagon to something, anything, after years of relevancy deprivation syndrome.

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2 thoughts on “Forget IR legislation, ACTU must get back to basics

  1. Julie

    Tom McLoughlin is right in his assessment. The mistake that Andrew Crook and John Howard was to assume that paid up members equals support base. There are a lot of people who have been happy to have others paying the price of unionism. They saw that union membership would reduce promotions and introduce bullying behaviour.

    The Hawke government reduced the need for union membership with the Accord. The Howard government introduced its own particular form of bullying by draconian legislation which prevented workers acting together to even maintain a safe workplace with threats of bankruptcy.

    Andrew Crook may have done better to compare the unions with churches – organisations that have needed significant government funding because parishioners won’t pay to be support their structures. Not only is the union movement self funded but it has mobilised workers who are more numerous than those same churchgoers.

    It has become a notion of the right that union members are what matters. What matters is that unions are wanted by many more workers who are keen to reap the benefits from those who sacrifice for the common good. This is the legacy of the Howard years which fostered a dog eat dog world.

  2. Tom McLoughlin

    Call me unlearned but I have a general impression that the union movement have succeeded in many significant ways in achieving broad COVERAGE under various awards. In that case isn’t a vibrant membership of 50 or 60% of the workforce a bit unrealistic?

    I keep harking back to the 1:9:90 rule which suggests in most social agendas 1 will over perform, 9 moderately and 90 will be passengers.

    I notice Telstra complain in a business sense at a similar notion of other telco minnows acting like passengers on their investments and infrastructure. Is that an echo I hear from one institutional sector to another?

    Are the unions experiencing a form of success with the quite decent social wage today? I’m not saying it’s all equity or picnics out there but unions seem to me to have higher class problems and less relative uncertainty to solve today and that’s a good thing. Always more to do, to be sure, not least eternal vigilance and I hope they are always there. I just wonder that most people don’t suffer like they did back say 50 years ago? Their day might return yet, so I think their job is to maintain their staging post and be prepared.

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