John Setka unions CFMEU wage stagnation
CFMMEU Secretary John Setka (Image: AAP/Stefan Postles)

After six years of wage stagnation so bad it has smashed economic growth, forced interest rates down and threatens to drive up unemployment, what’s the current preoccupation of Australia’s union movement? The ego of one man, the leader of the Victorian branch of the CFMMEU.

If media reports, police allegations and his past behaviour are any guide, John Setka appears to have little interest in the basic rights of other people. Not those of the families of Australian Building and Construction Comission (ABCC) officials. Not those of the woman he is alleged to have harassed, abused and assaulted. Not those of the staff and lawyers of his union branch and its national office, whom he wants put through a potentially illegal surveillance operation to identify who has leaked against him. And perhaps not even those of construction workers.

For the last six years, construction has been at the back of the pack when it comes to wages growth, despite an historic building boom that has only just come off its peak over the last twelve months. And construction continues to hold down its spot as the third most lethal industry for workers behind transport and agriculture. Construction continues to be underpaid and unsafe. Much of the responsibility for that rests with construction employers and the ABCC.

But Setka and his supporters seem to think the priority is waging war on their internal enemies, complete with the kind of Stasi-style tactics that they used to — rightly — accuse the ABCC of. They’ve also legitimised the Coalition’s demonisation of all trade unions, serving up exactly the kind of stereotype that fits the right’s myth of an aggressive, self-interested union leader. In the meantime, the overall level of union membership in the construction sector has slumped dramatically since 2000 to just 10%.

The fight is emblematic of the failures of both the union movement and the ALP in 2019. Despite Bill Shorten’s promise to make the election a referendum on wages, and further evidence during the campaign that wages growth has stalled and is being propped up only by health and social care spending, neither unions nor Labor made the issue come alive for voters, despite six years of wage stagnation.

With even the Productivity Commission acknowledging that weaker bargaining power on the part of workers might be a cause of stagnation, unions and Labor should have had the perfect platform to prosecute the case for greater bargaining power for workers and the importance of unions, which even in their diminished state continue to secure better wage outcomes than workers alone. They failed, especially among blue-collar voters in Queensland and Western Australia.

Setka’s as good an example of that failure as anyone else in either the union movement or the ALP — strong on the macho posturing and aggressive tweets but poor when it comes to getting results for members; better known for the abuse he yells down the phone than the strong wages growth he’s got with his tactics. He’s also increasingly unrepresentative of the union movement.

Female-dominated professions like education, health and social care have seen union membership rates fall, but by a fraction of the falls in blue-collar areas. Health and social care in 2016 still had membership levels above 20%, education above 30%. The Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation is the country’s biggest union and experienced massive membership growth in recent years. These sectors have also seen the highest wages and jobs growth of recent years — though how far that reflects the effectiveness of unions, and how far it reflects the vast sums of money governments are pouring into health, care services and education remains unclear.

But at a time when female-dominated sectors are leading the way in wages growth and union membership, John Setka looks like a relic from a past rapidly being left behind. But worse, he’s an example of how the union movement as a whole has failed to make the case to Australian workers that wage stagnation is a structural problem that unions can help fix.