Reith is Right

Green Left Weekly 18/3/1998. p.13

Peter Reith the Leader of Government Business in the House of Representatives is correct when he says there is an alternative to a unionised workforce in Australia.  He is on more dangerous ground with his claim that a non-unionised workforce will make Australia a more internationally competitive and productive.

Reith’s attacks on the union movement of Australia whether through:

  • his support for the failed Dubai fiasco,
  • his championing of Patrick Stevedore Company’s connivance with the National Farmer’s Federation at Webb Dock,
  • his attack on what he chooses to call ‘restrictive work practices’,
  • his weakening of the Arbitration Commissions power to intervene in industrial disputes,
  • his watering down of unfair dismissal legislation, and
  • his promotion of individual employment contracts

are all part of the standard right wing economic fundamentalist agenda.

Reith has been propagating this view of a brave new world of the work place for so long it is likely he actually believes that should he be able to implement his agenda for change Australia would be more productive.  However, if belief in the power of the fundamentalist economic dogma to achieve efficiency, competitiveness and productivity was all that was required to reach such ends then Australia would have arrived at such a nirvana years ago.  There have been such fiscal fundamentalist believers in our mist for decades. The major problem is that the prescription for productivity which economic fundamentalists have set down, even if such regimes could be installed, may not in the longer term actually achieve increased production.  Even if such a system of industrial work conditions were able to be implemented and they resulted in increased production, the costs – in terms of increased social dislocation, social problems and social unrest – may well outweigh the ‘efficiency gains’.

Clearly a highly unionised workforce under the leadership of a resourceful and determined union, such as the Maritime Union of Australia, has over the years generated a number of workplace arrangements for which they have had to fight long and hard. Many such workplace practices have been arrived at as part of improving health and safety.  It needs to be remembered that more people are killed at work each year in Australia than die on roads.

The current economic fundamentalist push to make workers work longer shifts will result in increased deaths at the workplace.  The increased amount of contract employment has already resulted in increased deaths at least in the building and construction industry.

Union inefficiency

The big problem with unions is that they need to discuss things with delegates, shop stewards and the rank and file. If other unions are involved they also need to have discussions with them. It may be that many unions are affected by an issue and, as a consequence, the matter would need to be discussed by the local trade and labour council. At times even the Australian Council of Trade Unions might need to consider the matter. All this takes time.

In an non-unionised workforce the boss gives the orders and most people jump simply out of fear of losing their jobs.  For many bosses who are essentially attracted to an early 20th Century view of staff relations this works a treat until some disgruntled ex-employee walks in one day and unloads his worries with the assistance of an AK47.

Even where violence is not the end result, in those factories where management fails to involve workers in creative decision making and ensuring proper health and safety protocols are in place also lose. They don’t receive the creative input from workers which could improve products and increase sales. As well they are more likely to have accidents, leading to increased worker’s compensation insurance costs.

Declining membership

Unfortunately the reason many Australians have been deserting unions is not because many unions subdue interests in, deflect attention from, and defuse the class struggle. The decreasing percentage of the workforce in Australia who are union members is due in part to the destruction of many of the old factory jobs and the shift to service industry jobs which are more widely dispersed.  Scattered workplaces are harder for unions to service.  Some unions have not kept pace with these changes and are perceived by many potential members as of little relevance.  The patriarchal power elite in several unions has not understood the need to include women in the structure of the union leadership and to dispel the image of the union as unsympathetic to the interests and needs of women.  Another reason some unions have had a loss in membership numbers is that they were forced to amalgamate into ‘super unions’ under Labor.  There has consequently been a loss of the ‘craft union’ identity.

All of these reasons put together can not alone explain the decline in union membership.  There is a missing factor: the ruthless determination of the present Liberal/ National Party Governments at both state and federal levels in association with some of Australia’s most wealthy to crush unionism and with it the organised union movement.  Fortunately for Australia:

  • the concerted press attacks,
  • the legislative attempt to turn the Arbitration Commission into a weapon with which to subdue the union movement,
  • the resort to training  mercenaries for the wharfs,
  • the legislative provisions outlawing secondary boycotts, and
  • legitimising damages claims against individuals taking industrial action

have not succeeded in beating the union movement or its membership into submission.

The alternative is gun thugs

Even assuming the union movement and rank and file union members are intimidated to the extent that free association and union activity are no longer possible, this will not be a victory for the very rich or their apologists in the present Government.  There may well be immediate financial gains for some employers in some places.  But, in the longer term, Australia as a whole will not reap increased rewards.  Even if it were possible to subdue unrest, the failure of the workers in this country to get anything like a fair return on their labour will lessen their buying power. This in turn will result in lower domestic demand and as a consequence increased unemployment. As a result those without work will be more easily conscripted to undertake more hazardous employment for even lower wages.  As a nation the quality of life will decrease.  In order to ensure workers have no alternative but to accept low paid unsafe work, unemployment benefits will need to be decreased or even abolished. The Liberal/National Party Government announced in the 1997/98 Budget their intention to do this to16 and 17 year old workers.  Amending legislation is this week before the Senate.

Once workers have lost the protection of a social wage and no longer have unions on which to rely for protection against the worst excesses of capitalism they will protect their interest by other means.  There will no longer be the ‘inefficient’ time consuming detailed consideration of issues by unions of which right wing employers complain.

Some workers will knuckle under others will rebel.  Some bosses who place unbearable demands on their workforce will find they are carried out of their work places.  Gun thug efficiency will replace the lengthy ‘inefficient’ debates on union councils.  Despite this, Peter Reith is right when he says there is an alternative to the present peaceful industrial arrangements.