What the unions really need

As I observed here, the Trade Union Royal Commission has spent tens of millions of public money to show that the corrupt behavior of a number of Health Services Union officials is the exception rather than the rule. The payments made to a dozen or more TURC lawyers, after a ‘limited tender‘ process of very dubious propriety, far exceed the amounts involved in any of the handful of offences alleged in the Commission’s report.

But that’s not to say all is well with the Australian movement. The steady decline in union membership is mostly the result of external causes (the increased power of employers, a stream of anti-union laws, and so on), but the unions haven’t always helped their own cause.

Here are some changes I think are needed:

* Term limits for union officials. To take just two examples, Bill Ludwig has been Secretary of the Queensland AWU since 1988 while Joe DeBruyn was National Secretary of the SDA from 1978 to 2014. Both men used their entrenched position to exert political power within the Labor Party, in ways entirely unrelated to the interests and concerns of their members. Which brings me to:

* Ending affiliation with the Labor Party (or any political party). Bob Hawke recently pushed this idea as a way of freeing the ALP from the corrupting influence of the CFMEU. But the real problem is the other way around. The ALP, like most Australian political parties is a shell, controlled by factional chiefs, notably including union officials who control important blocks of votes. Obviously, someone whose main role is as a party apparatchik can hardly do a good job of representing workers

* Actual workplace experience for officials. Bill Ludwig was, at least for a few years, a pastoral worker before he was a union official. By contrast, Joe De Bruyn was one of the first representatives of a modern type – the career union official. He went to work in the SDA straight out of uni , getting the job on the basis of DLP political connections, and stayed there until he retired 40 years later.

Feel free to comment or offer your own suggestions.

Update A colleague tells me that, before devoting himself to the concerns of retail workers, Joe de Bruyn had a brief stint as an agricultural economist at the University of Sydney, where I also worked early in my career. Agricultural economics was a formative influence for quite a few Australian politicians, notably including John Dawkins and John Kerin, as well as many who became prominent in the public service and the broader economics profession.

54 thoughts on “What the unions really need

  1. Florence nee Fed up,



    “In Australia there is a limited right to strike as industrial action during a recognised bargaining period is protected by the Fair Work Act.

    However, the reality is the Fair Work Act, introduced by a Labor government, retains most of the more onerous restrictions on the right to strike that existed under WorkChoices.

    For instance, any workers who attend the 4 March rallies around Australia without the permission of their employer are technically engaging in illegal strike action.

    And outside of official bargaining periods, strike action is unlawful. Meanwhile, employers enjoy virtually unfettered powers to lock out workers.”

    This tells us several things;

    (a) limited right to strike;
    (b) Labor is really on the side of employers not workers;
    (c) a safety issues strike out of bargaining period would be unlawful apparently;
    (d) employers have lockout rights apparently.

    It all looks very unbalanced in favour of owners and bosses over workers as is the intention of course. This battle is not over. Human struggles are never over… until humans die out.

  2. Had a lecturer that said along the line of, workers rarely won more than employers were willing to give. Upset many my union mates of the time.

    Not only that but everything won, would need continuing fight to keep.

    Never truer words said.

    People seem to ignore the fact, Gillard did leave much Work Choices in place, including Commissioners appointed by Howard and Abbott.

  3. @Florence nee Fed up

    I think there are two periods in 20th C history we can point to where workers won far more than employers and the rich wanted to give them. These eras were post-Great Depression and post-WW2. In each case, vast numbers of workers became organised and angry or had the potentialto become so. The capitalists and their facilitators were genuinely terrified of mass uprisings.

    After a large war like WW2, vast numbers of men (mostly men back then) were demobilised and channeled back into civilian life and the economy. These men had just had the (slightly paradoxical and dual) experience of being centrally commanded in vast armies yet collectively cooperating locally on the ground in mass movements (marching, battles) which taught them the reality of their own power en masse. Sensible civilian governments don’t mess with very large numbers of de-mobilised soldiers. They make concessions, they ease and assist their way back into civilian life. Governments treat them right or they (demobbed soldiers) may mass up against the powers that be. Ex-soldiers know what it takes and en masse they are not afraid of civilian cops.

    If only workers knew the great power they have when acting collectively. Too often this knowledge is lost in our individualist, atomised society. But it can be found again. And in peace time, vast peaceful civil protests are by far the hardest for the powers that be to deal with.

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