Tenth Anniversary Conference

The role of trade unions for the next generation of Australian workers

Paul X Houlihan

When Peter Reith announced that I---among others---was to be appointed to a taskforce to assist in the development of the new Workplace Relations legislation, I was asked on radio if the union movement would be upset because of my role at Mudginberri. I replied that if the unions were upset, they had very good memories.

A well known journalist heard this interview and contacted me---saying that he was surprised at my reply.

"You of all people" he said to me "should know that memories are all the unions have---they have no future, only a past."

Mr Chairman, let it be understood from the outset that I disagree with this proposition. Unions do have a future, but it is a future which I believe is significantly different from their recent past.

I think that we, and they, can count on a sufficient number of employers being stupid, bloody-minded and rapacious enough to justify at least some unions staying in business.

Seriously, I believe that unions have a real and important role in a free economy and society. The key to them being able to fulfil that role lies in them making themselves sufficiently relevant, appropriate and effective and thereby be attractive and necessary organisations that workers will want to join.

A guide to a successful future can be readily found in a review of the recent disastrous past. I submit that it is no wonder Australian employees have turned their backs on the trade union movement. If you look at the industrial achievements under the Labor Government they were basically three-fold:

(i) the trade union movement oversaw a decline in real earnings;

(ii) they oversaw the greatest period of self- aggrandisement of union officials in history;

(iii) they oversaw the smashing of two non-conformist unions by the joint forces of the ACTU and Federal Government, (ie the BLF and the Pilots).

As we look calmly at this period this Society, the H. R. Nicholls Society, should consider establishing a special memorial to those industrial relations journalists who created the myth of Bill Kelty's strategic genius, we could call it the Pam Williams Award. Not only did he actively oversee those three issues I've just referred to, but his genius also gave us:

(a) the Swedish model, through Australia Reconstructed at a time when Sweden was the only OECD economy doing worse than Australia;

(b) the absurdity of super--unions---organisations that workers don't want to join and those who are in them, want to get out of them.

Those journalists seeking insight on the future of unions should have spoken to Frank Belan of the N.U.W. in NSW. Frank has been quoted saying that he recalled Bill Kelty as a young and competent filing clerk, and that he still regarded Kelty as a competent filing clerk.

But, in fairness, it wasn't just the press who were captivated by Bill Kelty and Simon Crean sitting up there in the Cabinet Room, being interviewed on TV and talking about GDP, Wage Outcomes and other matters of economic theory. Even if Simon did take 10,000 words to tell us something that a very tiny picture would have done more than justice to, we were all impressed by these new, economically literate union leaders.

When I say "all of us" I should make an exception for Union members and potential Union members. Equally, the "ungrateful proletariat" did not respond enthusiastically to the Union proposals to provide discount airfares, car hire and hotel accommodation.

These "ungrateful swine" even had to be coerced---through that reliable old ally---the Industrial Relations Commission to provide for the future of the trade union movement by way of industry superannuation, despite the fact that there was some peripheral benefit available to workers themselves. Outrageous !

Having provided that very short synopsis of some of the sins of the recent past, let me put forward a charter for a revitalised union movement. I have to say Mr Chairman that the single most surprising statement I have heard since the recent federal election was Kim Beazley saying that the Labor Party would be distancing itself from the Union movement.

If the Union movement had any of its widely reputed strategic genius, I believe that they would be distancing themselves from political Labor as far and as fast as they can. Particularly now that there won't be the plethora of "programmes" to assist the Unions to relate to women, migrants, homosexuals, macrobiotics or any of the myriad of other reasons that were given as an excuse to channel public funds to the Unions.

Now that there is nothing to lose the Unions should at least be righteous.

But, at least we are seeing from the ACTU a display of humour that we never saw during the period of the Accord and indeed I believe it's fair to say we have seen more humour from the ACTU---albeit at the assistant Secretary level---in the last two months than we've seen in the last ten years. Mr Chairman I refer firstly and most humorously to Assistant Secretary Tim Pallas on the front page of the Financial Review 23 April this year. The headline had me in stitches. Let me remind you of it. "ACTU; We'll leave the system. Threat to seek common law deals in IR backlash".

Of course not to be outdone by Assistant Secretary Pallas, we had Assistant Secretary Greg Combet on "AM" on Friday 3 May this year, commenting on the announcement by Transport Minister Sharp that the government was repealing one of the outrageous schemes put in place to keep Australian seafarers off the streets, "Sharp's proposed changes threaten the international competitiveness of the Australian maritime industry". The whole nation waits for Tim Pallas to trump that one.

Of course Bill Kelty has maintained his consistently low level of humorous activity despite reaching for the mantle of Australia's premier coal salesman.

My charter for Union revitalisation (which I don't expect to see etched in marble and fixed in the foyer of ACTU house), has these elements:

(i) Union officials must narrow their focus of priorities towards enhancing the wages and conditions of their members at the workplace. This means that Local Governments, State Governments, Federal Governments, Committees and Institutes will have to do without the frequently inexpert advice that they have been receiving from union officials who must become pre-occupied with making a real difference for their members at the workplace. Placing the ACTU Secretary on the Board of the Reserve Bank may or may not benefit the workers that Unions are trying to attract and keep as members, but such accomplishments are far removed from the everyday focus of most workers.

Unions are service providing organisations, and at the end of the day most workers will weigh up the cost of membership fees against the tangible benefits of membership. A change to annoying, frustrating or unsafe work practices or take home pay will generally score more points for the union than an ACTU brokered government commitment to "social wage" programmes. Such initiatives at the peak level have merit but with attention and resources shifted away from the workplace Union membership has suffered. Is it any wonder that where responsible employers have directed time and effort into workplace relations with employees, employees have seen no need to pay to be a member of a distant union (witness the goings-on at CRA) ?

(ii) Similarly, Union structures must be overhauled to enable a general shift of the nexus of Union decision making from the boardrooms of ACTU House and State Labour Councils back towards the shop floor. I believe that smaller unions---because of the better communication that their closer proximity to their members allows for---are better able to identify with and serve the interests of their members than the larger "super-unions". These same employees that are being given more say in the running of the company that they work for, are simultaneously being shut out of Union policy-making. What hypocrisy the Unions' pleas for "industrial democracy" are exposed as.

We also can't overlook the fact that amalgamations have been characterised by intra-union power struggles and in-fighting. What introverted and self consumed body can really expect to be adequately servicing---and hanging on to---its members?

(iii) Unions must collect their own union dues. Nothing---but nothing---helps a body to develop an organisational structure like collecting its own money. This endeavour is fundamental in helping geographically diffused organisations such as unions to develop chains of command down and communication up between officials and members. There is no doubt that the act of collecting dues directly from members necessitates that officials maintain a real respect for the opinions of their members. This is the single most important step in revitalising Unionism.

(iv) While the Labor Party always reviews its links to the Union Movement after an election defeat, I think that modern Unions really need to weigh up the value of continuing to affiliate with any political party. Most Unions do try to relate to some level of government and to push their industrial agenda, and this task is made all the more difficult when they are dealing with a government whose opposition they are married to.

Political affiliation has another cost. In recent years the distinction between the political and industrial arms of the labour movement has become even more blurred than usual. As a result, Union officials have been giving too much weight to political ambition at the expense of the improvement of their members conditions.

I happen to believe that experience as a Union official can give a person invaluable experience for a range of careers. Particularly a political career. However, I also think one's career, and the welfare of the union movement as a whole, would benefit from the "one job at a time" approach being practised.

One of the key changes which has been mooted from the Federal Government will be the removal of the "conveniently belong" rule. This of course is the mechanism which has allowed absolute monopoly unionism to develop in Australia and has meant that, by and large, Union officials were able to rely on a captive market for their livelihood. What wasn't foreseen by the architects and providers of this silk cushion" was the fact that employees would fracture all of these arrangements by simply refusing to join the unions. Such reactionary behaviour has never really been considered as a likely event, except of course where evil and manipulative employers were involved in preventing workers from exercising their right to join a Union. Obviously, preference clauses have only existed to provide a "bit of a nudge" to do the right thing.

Now, however, we are facing a brave new world, perhaps even a New Province for Law and Order in which, to a large degree, that "good old protection" will be removed. This process is little different to that undertaken by the previous government when it removed tariff protection from the manufacturing industry. The great and good in these industries told us that manufacturers, because they were manufacturers, were entitled to plunder and pillage the community with impunity while that community should be grateful for their selfless efforts. Now these reforms will extend to Unions.

Of course, we have been warned about the undesirable prospect of competitive unionism, especially by those who have most to fear and most to lose.

I suggest that of all the changes to be introduced by Reith's new legislation, the removal of the conveniently belong rule will be the most far reaching, and it will be so for two reasons:

(i) Firstly because it will mean that the management of many particularly large organisations will have to relate far more effectively to employees to ensure productivity, rather than just doing some fairly dubious deal with a Union official to the exclusion of all other Unions; and

(ii) Secondly, because employees will now be given the authority to determine who represents them (always a dangerous thing to do of course, giving workers a say) there will be a greater connection between the representatives and the represented.

The bottom line is that unions---or unions that can get out of bed and get going---have a chance to rebuild their membership base. It also means that smaller enterprise based unions which are responsive to the industrial interests of their members may proliferate. If we do see Unions that are focussed on the real workplace interests of their members, we will see a revitalised union movement in Australia.

We all understand the pendulum affect in public affairs. While it swings against us sometimes and for us in other times, this Society should strive to maintain the pendulum in that part of the arc marked "fair go all round''.