Unions: outdated or needed more than ever?
Writing in today’s Fin, Paul Gollan argues that unions are outmoded and that workers would be better off bargaining directly with their employers. Since it’s paywalled, I’ll quote the passage to which I want to respond
Recent examples of industrial conflicts involving the use of the good faith bargaining provisions demonstrate the difficulty of trying to establish workplace engagement in advancing business and employee objectives under the current Fair Work Act. The recent industrial disputes at Qantas, Cochlear, on the waterfront and at Rio Tinto’s Bell Bay aluminium plant and BHP Billiton’s Queensland coalmines, have reinforced this impression, not only for big business but also for many Australians.
Given the seriousness of these disputes, unions and the Gillard Labor government will need to re-examine their position on workplace reform. Importantly, it seems that unions have failed to understand the difference between unions servicing their members and the broader concept of unionism.
Unionism encapsulated a common ethos of solidarity around a cause that all members could understand and relate to under a working-class banner. While years ago unions were enmeshed in this working-class culture, this is not the case in many workplaces today. They are now seen by workers as some distant, third-party organisation external from the workplace.
There may well be examples where Gollan’s claims are true, but I find it pretty hard to swallow the ones he cites. Does he really think that the employees of firms that haved locked their workers out, like Qantas, Rio Tinto and Patricks, or that have repeatedly ignored pro-union votes like Cochlear, are desperate to negotiate one-to-one with their bosses? Clearly, these firms want to get rid of unions for precisely the same reasons as the workers want to keep them, because they are an obstacle to measures that would raise profits at the expense of the workers.
I find the spurious concern for workers expressed in pieces like this even more annoying than the openly pro-boss position of, say, the Institute of Public Affairs.
fn1. One of the consequences of the separation between editorial and market functions that is part of the newspaper ethos is that, even though I’ve been a contributor to the Fin for nearly 20 years, I’ve never been given access to their online version. I had a fairly good deal for the print version, so I was never willing to pay the exorbitant price they asked. But my deal has run out, and the Fin’s prices have been cut, so now, I can at least copy and paste for fair comment purposes.