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. I agree with the last two but term limits means you are not allowing the election of some people unionists MIGHT want.

    Unions will always be needed whilst the discredited Theory X mindset rules!

  2. I have been a national level union official, among other things, and worked with many unions. I have also worked with business and government. The level of corruption I observed was the same everywhere, probably slightly less in unions. I don’t see how organised capital can really survive in the long run without organised labour, the ensuing race to the bottom must inevitably over time harm most businesses but if they don’t live to tell the tale then their complaints will go unheard.

    But while your prescriptions are correct it could also be argued that in fact the unions rightly own the ALP, they pretty much created it and so complaints about their influence are misplaced. But if their control is to be reduced then I think they should quite rightly withdraw completely and simply negotiate with any party that will support them, just like other corporate entities. Maybe that time has arrived since many of them in fact have very little influence on the ALP because of right wing factional dominance. Those unions would probably get a better hearing from the Greens.

  3. The ‘careerist’ situation is highly ambivalent: there is this persistent feeling that somebody who hasn’t ‘walked a mile in their shoes’ can’t really represent workers, but on the other hand, is it at all clear that the ‘good ol’ boys’ can properly represent them either ?

    I look at some of the ‘careerists’ such as Hawke (when did he ever do a unionized job ?), Kelty, Ferguson, Shorten etc and I wonder what they’ve been good for, or whether they’re really just a core part of the story of union decline.

    Did Hawker and kelty between them really’ betray’ the union movement via the much lauded ‘Accord” or was it a really good thing ?

    But otherwise, ProfQ, I feel that you are on the right track, I just wouldn’t know how to justify it.

  4. I don’t mind the idea of unions dumping the ALP at all but what on earth would the ALP become?

    A right wing bunch of religious motivated plonkers?

    A middle of the road clone of the Greens?

    One thing it would not become is a leftwing political party because it would compete for corporate funding against the LNP.

    Which might be where the current crop of ALP pollies actually prefer to position the party given their woeful inability to make any dent on the LNP.

  5. @Janice Wallace

    Yes, it’s really hard to remember, isn’t it, that until about two months ago, the primary political concern was the LNP’s woeful inability to make any dent in the huge poll lead help by the ALP.

  6. I would love to transfer many of solutions to the political arena. There needs to be a cap on number terms MPs can serve. Same goes for post of PM.

    Being a MP or PM shouldn’t never be seen as lifetime career.

  7. JQ’s ideas are worth discussion, but really they are tinkering at the edges of the problem. Unless and until workers become convinced again of the merits of collective action and invest some time and effort into participating in their unions, the degeneration of unions into little lobby groups organised to benefit mainly their paid officials will continue.

  8. @GrueBleen

    Yes, but Abbott done-himself-in. He was truly an idiot.Not hard to remain largely silent apart from when the ALP agreed with all the worst aspects of Abbott policy.

    If Shorten is so good how come he can’t knock Turnbucklesfor a four never mind a six?

  9. Undoubtedly, and sadly, unions have been aware of unsavoury practices from some unions in the past. I agree that the ACTU should have taken the lead and implemented strategies to address wellknown problems. However, that failing doesn’t then give the LNP the right to attack the whole movement. The challenge will be to find a way to fix the issues and restore public faith, and balance that against union member expectations.

  10. GrueBleen :
    The ‘careerist’ situation is highly ambivalent: there is this persistent feeling that somebody who hasn’t ‘walked a mile in their shoes’ can’t really represent …

    anyone? Why is this specific to unionists, rather than, say, small businesswomen or voters? Quite how someone like Clive or Malcolm “really knows what it’s like” to be the female owner of a small fish and chip shop in Ipswitch is beyond me. To the extent that they do, anyone could be said to “really know” anyone. Not wanting to devolve into the reality of qualia so much as ask what the commonality between Malcolm and a recent immigrant who owns a restaurant is that’s missing between Bill Shorten and, say, some random postal worker.

    I thought one of the benefits of representative democracy was that rather than getting some random as our representatives we got people with the ability and inclination to before specialist representatives? Otherwise we’d be better off using citizen’s juries and a draft for everything rather than going to the trouble and expense of running elections. They’re “people who represent our interests” not “people statistically representative of us”.

  11. I wonder whether we could get a better result by accepting careerism at one level but increasing randomisation at another. With unions it probably makes sense to insist that lower levels and some fraction of upper levels consist of people who have been represented by the union for a certain time, but I suspect for parliament it might be better the other way round.

    If we look at people who’ve been fairly randomly dumped into the senate I don’t think we have done as badly as the bought media would have us believe. I tend to agree with Andrew Elder that the media have lost the plot completely when it comes to political reporting, BTW. But if you look at Harradine, Garrett, Fielding, Brown, and the Clive party senators, we have done all right for the most part. They’re more statistically representative of us than we have any right to expect, and the overall outcome has been fairly positive. Governments who have had to negotiate with them have, for the most part, been forced to compromise in the direction of popular will rather then elite preference.

    So perhaps we should explicitly aim for that. Maybe not an actual draft/citizens senate, but a focus on making it harder for anyone to dominate the senate. One example might be by limiting parties to one representative per election. Sure, it could be gamed, but I don’t think it could be gamed so effectively as to make it pointless. But the goal is more Ricky Muirs and fewer Sam Dastyari types.

  12. I can’t see how disaffiliation from the ALP would help unions or working people. Without union money the ALP is toast or, as others observed, becomes a corporate lapdog. If the unions disaffiliate but continue to donate money there won’t be any real change in the relationship, unless the unions were ready to seriously consider offering their money to other parties instead. If the unions withheld their money it wouldn’t benefit anyone.

    As it stands the unions get to influence ALP policy and the ALP gets to influence union policy. The fact that union policy can be poor, or that they are failing to influence the ALP in the right way, doesn’t seem to me to be something that can be fixed by the threat to withhold their money. Especially if a couple of Clive Palmers saw that threat as an opportunity to buy out the ALP …

    Certainly reforming the career structure of senior types would help, though I’m not confident that frontline experience is the only way. Also loosening up the pathways to leadership in the senior ALP – Julia Gillard is a good example of someone who came from outside the union system (as a labour lawyer). More academics and environmentalists would be good too.

    To me htough the ALP is the party of workers, and always should be. The relationship between the ALP and the unions is the bedrock of our society, and although i would like to see the ALPs grip on power weakened in favour of the Greens, that doesn’t mean I think anyone would benefit by weakening the relationship between the ALP and its driving force. What really needs to happen is the unions need to find ways to get more members!

  13. Everybody saying unions should do their job better is ignoring the fact that unions are now treated as barely legal and seriously restricted from doing their job at all.

  14. @Ian Milliss
    The legal constraints on unions are trivial compared to those they faced in the 19th century, yet they managed not only to survive but to prosper. That’s because they were genuine grassroots worker movements. These days they are regarded as service organisations much like the local council or the RACQ, at arm’s length to workers and held in low regard by most of them. That’s the core challenge facing the labour movement, to which they’ve been trying unsuccessfully to rise since the 1980s.

  15. I basically agree with J.Q.’s and Ian Milliss’s perspectives. I have nothing to add except that an unwillingness to be militant enough has seriously weakened the union movement over the last 30 years or so. In particular, I found clerical union, to which I belonged for quite a long time, were unwilling to be nearly militant enough.

    With the advent of computer systems, clerical, systems and IT technical staff could wield enormous industrial power, for good, if they wished. Factory, computer-clerical and infrastructure systems do not need to be brought down or idled safely (temporarily) by purely physical action at site. They can be idled by peaceful and safe shutdowns followed by a period of non-compliance and non-attendance. If people don’t turn up, systems don’t run. Rather than gathering into masses (blockades, demonstrations) which make unionists susceptible to massed state force, the idea would be the stay-at-home mass strike (peaceful non-compliance and non-attendance).

    Clerical workers (often predominantly women but clerical-type men also) are not comfortable with direct confrontation or demonstration which could escalate into violent confrontation. On the other hand, industrial workers (steel workers, wharfies) are more comfortable with direct confrontation. The other issue of course is surviving without income for the duration of the strike. This post will get too long if I enter on that topic.

    But the bottom line is if workers (and others like the unemployed army) are not prepared to be militant then they will be defeated. They have been defeated. Asking capitalists nicely does not work. In turn, striking does not have to mean massing up physically. The “massing up” has to be ideological, intellectual, organisational and “coordinatory”. Complete solidarity is an undefatable force. The few cannot rule the many in the face of massed peaceful non-compliance. It is better done as a dispersal strategy in the modern context. And keep the streets of the central city empty as its own kind of demonstration effect.

  16. @Janice wallace

    Who ever said Shorten was any good ? I certainly didn’t. Yes of course Abbott’s poor polling was all his own doing (well, him and maybe a few others). But for some reason, Malcolm appears to be the LNP Hawke – remember how hugely popular Hawke was so that even “the recession we had to have” didn’t get him tossed out of office. Much less tossed out of parliament altogether as happened to another LNP leader in recent times.

    But Malcolm has been here before (as that other LNP guy had been), and in his prior incarnation he gave us Godwin Grech. Which shows us that Turnbull is just as vulnerable to narcissistic excess as a recent ALP leader who was also, for a while, very popular. But then he got ignominiously booted too (but his replacement, despite monumental unpopularity, managed to hold on for a full term). Yo, the party giveth, and the party taketh, and the people dismisseth.

    So, where to from here ? I have no bleedin’ idea, do you ?

  17. @Moz of Yarramulla

    All very good issues and questions, Moz, but none relevant to what I was on about so I’ll leave the answering up to you.

    But you do know that a certain fish and chip shop in Ipswich is now operated by Vietnamese, don’t you. I wonder if the red-headed lady one-time owner would have known how to represent them ?

  18. @Moz of Yarramulla

    “But if you look at Harradine, Garrett, Fielding, Brown, and the Clive party senators, we have done all right for the most part. ”

    How’s the weather in your galaxy, Moz ? Has it been raining lately or is galactic warming taking over ?

  19. I think the real issue is that members of unions don’t get direct votes on ALP motions. If unions are to affiliate with the ALP or any other party (and I’m not sure that is best for either), then I think that it’s union members as individuals who should have to vote directly on a motion for it to carry, which would in effect destroy the ability for powerbrokers in the union movement to control preselections and policy decisions but still allow union members to have a say in that party without joining it directly.

  20. Those advocating more union militancy must realise that both individual workers and their union can now be heavily fined ($10k for a worker) for striking except in very restricted circumstances. And comparing contemporary unions to 19th century unions is risible, all unions are still “genuine grassroots worker movements” but the the cultural environment is now entirely different. We all live in a constant barrage of corporate and employer friendly propaganda, many of the comments in this thread illustrate how effective that propaganda has been in misrepresenting unions as the cause of their own problems and delegitimising their activities.

    One of the sadder elements in this was the Accord because from the unions’ side it was a genuine attempt to reach a sort of detente with business where both business and workers could achieve a range of improved conditions and business efficiencies and reduced industrial hostility through tripartite agreements with government. The fact that it back fired so enormously illustrates how it was not possible to deal with Australian business in good faith and how short sighted and basically incompetent Australian business really is.

  21. With the legal restraints on union action today, the likes of Shorten should be given credit for the EBAs they manage to get.

    Williamson and the HSU mess was not revealed by TURC. Actions were already in play.

    I have this feeling, that much of the present day trouble with unions, arose when smaller unions were merge into larger units.

    This could be true with HSU and CFMEU. Maybe someone is willing to study the outcomes of that actions. Maybe we were better off with smaller unions, closer to the workers.

  22. @Ian Milliss

    The alternative to militancy, in the Australian context, has been the death of a thousand cuts. I was in the old DSS and then Centrelink. The union was the CPSU which is still an existing union of course. As the political, institutional and legal environment in this country changed it became rational in the short term for government workers to continually surrender to “economic rationalism” (Pucey) or neoliberalism. This led to a long term slide in wages and conditions. The modus operandi of bargaining agreements became the sale of conditions for “wage rises”; these so-called rises often not better than (under-measured) inflation.

    The logical endpoint of selling conditions for wages is running out of conditions to sell. The logical endpoint of the total value of wages plus conditions declining in real terms is reduction to the point where the reproductive costs of labour are not met. These trends are not sustainable in a developed nation. We are only putting off the day of reckoning which equates to putting it onto the children and grandchildren of the baby boom generation.

    You state, “it was not possible to deal with Australian business in good faith and how short sighted and basically incompetent Australian business really is.” This judgement is correct and it extends to neoliberal politics meaning both the LNP where neoliberal politics is now their natural element and to the ALP and even many professional union managements who have all capitulated to neoliberal politics. It really equates to saying “It is not possible to deal with capitalism and its facilitators in good faith. The dream of an accommodation with capital is over. Capital wants no accommodation and will tolerate no accommodation. It wants… they want (meaning the corporate capitalist and management oligarchs) winner takes all.

    The pressures on Australia as on all countries, since full globalisation of capital, are those of late-stage, global, financial and monopoly capital. If people want to understand what is happening they need to read “Monthly Review – An Independent Socialist Magazine” and its recommended authors. In comparison to this extended group, there are few other thinkers in the field of political economy who have any clue what is going on. Professor Richard D. Wolff is one other who does understand what the world capitalist system is doing and where it is going.

    The dream of even social democratic capitalism as a viable system is over. The complete defeat of the moderate left and the capitulation of much of it, like the ALP, to the neoliberal program is completely diagnostic of this state. We are currently globally moving towards corporate fascism. In Australia, the glass is half full. Our economy, though under pressure, is not a basket case yet. We have arguably the best representative democratic system in the world. Representative democracy is not the end of history. It is a stepping-stone but still inadequate. To some extent representative democracy itself is a compromise with capitalism and too easily corrupted, bought and suborned by capitalism. As such it must be evolved further towards a genuine social democracy. This cannot happen without worker owned and managed enterprises dominating the economy. This does not mean state capitalism by the way which was what the Soviet system was.

  23. JQ makes some interesting points but why should they be reserved for the union movement? Is a ‘career’ politician any different to a ‘career’ unionist, should CEOs have mandatory experience on the shop floor? If Unions are not affiliated to the ALP presumably members will not contribute to the ALP through political donations from the Unions. Assuming this was the case perhaps all corporate donations to political parties should be banned?

  24. @John Turner

    I agree. Business, corporate and association donations (including those of unions) to political parties should be banned. Individual donations should be permitted for legal adults and limited to $100 per person per annum. Naturally, some groups will attempt to game or avoid such a law in which case it would need to be elaborated. All laws face the same problem. That alone is not a prima facie case against making a law.

  25. I just joined a union for the first time in many, many years. It seems to me that the balance of power has swung too far against workers, and there is a lot of real work for unions to do. Like fighting for penalty rates, and getting a better deal for temporary/casual workers.

    I can’t help but think that the best work unions can do is for the most exploited workers. In Australia at the moment that is mainly imported labour on various types of visa, as well as illegal workers. Look after them, and you look after everyone.

  26. Globalisation makes people afraid for their jobs. How can one be militant when the company can just move digs to another country where the workers are extraordinarily compliant, along with the government?
    That the Labor party, the supposed political arm of the Union movement was the initiator of economic rationalisation and the associated globalisation suggests that the two are corrupt to the core, working for their own financial interests ahead of the workers they purport to represent.

  27. @Salient Green

    For sure it’s about taking away power from workers and making workers impoverished. Capitalists love it when workers can be forced to work for almost nothing, otherwise known as bare sustenance. Just have a look at what Apple, Reebok etc. have paid workers in S.E. Asia, China etc.

    However, there is finally an enormous flaw in this model. Impoverished workers can’t consume very much. The rich have a much lower marginal propensity to consume than the poor and middle classes. Moving a large proportion of income and wealth to the rich eventually runs into this limiting factor. Capital becomes over-accumulated and has nowhere to go to find a return. Consumption collapses and capacity is idled. The capitalists can play musical chairs with rich and poor countries for a while, maybe a long while, (wage arbitrage etc.) but eventually it’s a spiral to the bottom for everyone but the richest 1%… and finally even for them.

    The deepest tendencies of capitalism are now working their way through the fully globalised system.

  28. @Ikonoclast I know the CPSU well and I agree with your comments. I’m slightly less pessimistic about the future for a very pessimistic reason, climate change is already disorganising
    neoliberalisms arrangements and the McLuhanesque consequences of the internet have still only barely begun to play out. I’m not expecting a sudden oubreak of workers paradise but as a rule thumb what just can’t continue doesn’t continue and it often changes very suddenly. I’m expecting a few sudden jolts in the next ten years as unsustainable economies and regimes suddenly tear apart. I mean countries like the US.

  29. And yes impoverishing workers is self destructive in the long term but business has stopped caring about the long term. In my darker moments I do suspect there may be some truth in the conspiracy theory that says the rich are going to deal with diminishing resources by creating the conditions for mass deaths of the poor.

  30. @Ian Milliss

    Herbert Stein’s Law states, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” It is often rephrased as: “Trends that can’t continue, won’t.”

    Taken literally it is a truism. According to Wikiepedia, “Stein meant if a trend (balance of payments deficits in his example) cannot go on forever, there is no need for action or a program to make it stop, much less to make it stop immediately; it will stop of its own accord.”

    This might be akin to me saying, “There is no need for me to put on the brakes when my car is approaching a stalled prime mover. My car will stop of its own accord when it hits the prime mover.”

    The unsustainable processes we are running, from an ever-decreasing share of national income going to labour and the real decline of many lower and middle class incomes (especially in the USA) to endless physical growth in population and infrastructure, are trends unlikely to have soft landings.

    It would be wiser to act earlier and preemptively (brake earlier) with respect to unsustainable trends. Our system (laissez-faire capitalism or LFC) seems unable to do this for the most part. The empirical reasons for this are clear from a complex systems perspective. LFC in its pure form is a multi-agent system without global goal-seeking routines (such routines equal algorithms times heuristics in a sense). These agents make locally rational decisions but what is locally rational is not always globally rational. The fallacy of composition comes to bear among other problems. Multi-agent systems are powerful and can grow and evolve very effectively and even solve problems which no other approach can solve. This in essence is the good side of capitalism and why it works well under certain conditions.

    The problem is one of bounded or limited knowledge. While all knowledge is local and specific to agents the system might be the best possible, in some senses. When some knowledge arises (is developed) which is global and empirical-scientific (like limits to growth) it is no longer rational to continue entirely on a local-agent, emergent path. Capitalism discovered the same thing roughly speaking when it was confronted by other existential emergencies from worker rebellions to world wars. Free-agent emergence was partially abandoned for top-down command driven approaches. This amounts to the potential for high-level conscious and organized social deliberation which is another emergent phenomenon in its own right. To ignore this potential in the face of existential challenges to society as a whole has long been considered unwise. It is only neoliberal fundamentalism now which calls for deliberate ignoring of this collective social potential.

    At least that is how I see it after some reading and reflection.

  31. @Ikonoclast

    I often find myself agreeing with the views you express in the comments section and this is no exception. I am something of a pessimist insofar as I feel that the enormous existential threat to human society posed by climate change is not only poorly understood by most people but there is also a strange willingness not to face up to what it actually means for all of us if we are to limit the consequences. By the time people do face up to the situation it will be too late (in fact it already is) to avoid catastrophic changes. It is so much easier to get on with living and pretend it is not happening.
    I predict that the recent international agreement or understanding will change nothing. We are I fear, about to hit the prime mover

  32. @John Brookes
    The UK has shown the way it will go if we sit back and do nothing. Zero hours contracts and minimum wages that fall well below the poverty line.
    I am really surprised how in my own workforce there is little interest in these matters ( nurses excepted), how few people have even a basic understanding of politics or the economy especially the younger ones who seem more concerned about celebrities and reality shows. A few years ago I once had a young employee who was reading about O J Simpson say to me “we don’t have juries in Australia do we? I thought that was only in America” and this from someone who had spent 12 months in university before terminating the course!
    As the manager of the business I have tried to encourage more involvement from employees with some measure of success but their disinterest in unions, politics and economics is palpable.

  33. @John Turner

    Among many other things, I am concerned about the rise of unpaid internships. My almost 22 year old twins may soon face this scourge after completing tertiary courses. My son was lucky and accomplished enough to get paid work experience this summer break. He needs the work experience to graduate. Engineering who can’t vacation work experience can’t graduate. Some have to take unpaid, internship-like work to graduate. My daughter, in Psychology, after 4 years at uni and graduating with Hons, now faces one future possible path of another 2 years!!! unpaid training work to get a full qualification.

    Many internships in the USA and UK are unpaid. This phenomenon is now spreading in Australia. We had a name in the old days for unpaid work which was still within the economic system. It was called slavery. We can also note now that the unemployed can’t claim unemployment benefit until they are 22. I am not sure how independent young people from 18 to 22, including those shunted out of unsympathetic domestic situations, are meant to survive.

    On the other side of the coin, I and my wife are now obviously required to support or substantially support our children until age 22 and possibly up to age 24 or 25. Unemployment benefit is not a livable income and the level of youth and young adult unemployment is now very high even for tertiary graduates. Household formation by young adults is plummeting. How the powers that be think this will lead to a sustainable and healthy society and economy for all cohorts is beyond me. The extreme short-termness of current economic and social thinking is egregious. As the saying goes, the fit is going to hit the shan real soon. These trends are most definitely not sustainable.

  34. What the unions need;

    Jeremy Corbyn

    Arthur Scargill

    Ken Livingstone

    Naomi Klein

    George Galloway

    plus a sprinkle of Chomsky to spice things up.

    But they have to get rid of Krugmanites.

  35. @Ikonoclast

    Such situations as your children face abound, a friend of ours has a daughter who has a degree in Engineering and a degree in environmental science. As I understand it her interest combines both those disciplines and given that Australia has a massive issue with scarce water resources and an uncertain water future because of climate change, you would think that a person with her education would not have a problem finding work. In fact she has been trying for 5 years without success and instead works as a supervisor in a call centre.

    As far as unpaid internships is concerned it is sheer exploitation, even if I take on trainees I do not pay them the award trainee wages which I regard as exploitative. We pay 90% of our usual starting wage and as soon as they can demonstrate independence they are paid the appropriate rate for the job. Casualisation of the workforce, zero hours contracts (as per UK), and other measures creating uncertainty are bad for individual firms, bad for the broader economy and bad for individuals and their families. As you say the situation is not sustainable in the long term.

  36. @Ivor

    Given that Krugman is among Corbyn’s most prominent supporters among economists, I think you have a coherence problem.

  37. @Ivor
    I’d like to include Tony Benn in the list, he may have been aristocracy but he had the courage to give it away and was one of ablest of all the labour ministers in the UK government.

  38. @Ivor

    What we really need is perspective and clarity. Rather late in life I’ve read A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens paints a picture of a rotten society that can’t be ignored. Of course he paints it with the benefit of hindsight. What we need is someone who has a way of looking at the world that grabs the public imagination, and a clarity so that what might be difficult or confusing becomes easy to understand.

    I’m not sure if I have absorbed the mood of the general public correctly, but I think it can be summarised as, “We don’t like the way things are going, but its inevitable, isn’t it?” And the thing that is inevitable is that most of us work doing things that might equally well be done in India or China, and that is why we can’t be paid more for doing those things. And that business can’t pay tax or else they won’t be able to compete and will go out of business, so government has no money, and so our health, education and welfare systems must suffer.

    This sounds so gloomy. Like we are just hanging around the cherry orchard awaiting our fate. Waiting to be on the wrong side of a rising tide of inequality.

    I’ve been a little bit lost in the Australian bush once or twice. I see trees. They all look the same to me. But there are people who look where the sun is, study the contours of the land, the vegetation, logically sort through the possibilities, and to them all is clear. We need these people looking at our society now. And even though I really admired Julia Gillard’s government, I’m not sure she really saw the way forward so clearly. Tony, he couldn’t even see the effing trees. Malcolm, I’m not sure he thinks we’re off course.

    Everywhere there are good people doing their bit, like the owner of this blog. Like climate scientists and environmentalists. It would be nice to have a leader who puts it all together. It would be better to have a movement that puts it all together.

  39. Really good straightforward summary and Ian Millis’comments made for a good corr

    The problem for the ALP has not so much been unions like the CFMEU, but the right faction unions who have turned the ALP into a brokerage office for developers rather than hold to their promises to working people who have seen both technology and social infrastructures sabotaged and also the common wealth represented thriough the environment, handed over to precisely the myopic grubs that should have been opposed.

  40. @John Quiggin

    There is no obvious coherence problem.

    And yes, progressive Keynesian/capitalist reformists are all lining up to anoint Corbyn, eg. Thomas Piketty, Ann Pettifor, Joe Stiglitz.

    However I have met Jeremy in the past and he is further to the left and does not believe in Krugman’s ‘magneto problem’ approach. This is not to say that in power – he will be able to develop an alternative.

    Jeremy’s brother Piers is/was a communist and Jeremy has close relations with one of the British Communist parties.

    Corbyn is not an economist and generally poses himself against “free market capitalism” as argued here:


    where he joined a UK communist leader in taking the affirmative side in a Oxford Union debate on socialism.

    So unless Krugman has argued that ‘socialism works’ and that ‘free market capitalism’ does not work, or Corbyn has argued that ‘capitalism has a magneto problem’ then there is zero coherence problem – at least so far.

    Corbyn as PM may well not be the Corbyn on the back bench so Stiglitz and Krugman may get their way and we will see another Syriza suicide and worsening conditions for all under capitalism.

  41. @John Turner

    Yes, but going back in time a bit, so I do not have detailed understanding. I tried to read Benn’s diary but found it insufferably boring.

    So put Benn up there as well.

  42. @GrueBleen It is my view that the ALP/ACTU Accords, much lauded at the time even by the CPA and Laurie Carmichael, caused the decline in union membership because people quickly grasped that there was no point joining a union that is committed to brokering deals instead of fighting for wages and conditions. Unions thereby became managers of labour and the working classes saved there annual fee by just dropping off.

  43. I think limited tenure of office was first proposed by Mundey for the BLF which was, by the way, the first union I joined. I never took part in the Green Bans but it was an interesting time, during the attempted takeover by the thug Gallagher and the Federal Branch.

    I’ve always since then been an agential unionist because workplaces sure need some elbow room to fight back. The NSWNA had a flopped leadership during my training as an RN an it became necessary to fight on two fronts – to roll over the old leadership, which we did, at the same time as fighting against the sack for being a troublemaker. But the wage and condition case was just, and we won it.

    The ten person strike committee, deliberately large so that direct reporting to members was widespread, was possibly the most fun I’ve ever had at work.

    Many years later as a child protection worker I deliberately sought out the delegate’s position because of the blatant racism directed at Aboriginal ‘clients’ as well as at Aboriginal colleagues. It was a real stoush made slightly more complicated by the fact that the NSW PSA organiser for my sector totally fucking hung me out to dry. A long bitter whistleblower situation evolved. In the mix of all this was an ALP PSA mafia who acted to protect highly placed party officials who were the cause of the problem through their total disinterest in doing their jobs rather than politicking with Sussex St.

    So yeah. Limited tenure of office and disaffiliation from the ALP and other parties. Maybe then unions will be returned to members.

    And always the union.

  44. @jungney
    I was a lowly commonwealth public servant in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and remember very well being cajoled by union officials into agreeing to a miserly pay increase in return for giving up some stuff. And I remember thinking, why not just skip this pay increase and keep the conditions.

    I also remember a boss suggesting that an afternoon tea break was not a right, but a privilege. Luckily this was too much for some middle managers, who told him that they were going to have afternoon tea anyway.

  45. @John Brookes

    I too “was a lowly commonwealth public servant in the late 80?s and early 90?s, and remember very well being cajoled by union officials into agreeing to a miserly pay increase in return for giving up some stuff.”

    I too wondered “why not just skip this pay increase and keep the conditions”. Though I then went on to argue at union meetings that we should strike in the bargaining period (which I believe was still legal at that point). Union officials and fellow members then rounded on me and advanced various arguments (spurious I thought) as to why we should not strike. I said, “Well, what happens when you sell all your conditions? What have you left to sell for so-called pay rises scarcely even equal to the CPI? If you take a supine attitude they will walk all over you.”

    I was never any good at taking a meeting with me. My contempt for collective weakness was all too obvious and did not recommend my case. I stormed out of one union meeting with “Well if you are all going to be as weak as shit then even having a union meeting is pointless.”

    Workers got weak and stupid and too gutless to strike. That is why they were defeated.

  46. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. @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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s