May Day

Here in Queensland, at least while the ALP is in office, we celebrate Labour Day as May Day, with a holiday long weekend on the first Monday in May. It’s a good time to think about how workers, in Australia and globally, can turn around the long decline in the reach and influence of trade unions and the resulting decline in the wage share of national income.

The decline has been going on for decades, pushed hard by the conservative parties, but also by Labor governments since the 1980s. It was the Keating government, for example, that introduced the concept of “protected industrial action”, thereby making strikes prima facie illegal.

We are finally seeing some turnaround on this, with the ACTU’s Change the Rules campaign calling for a reversal of at least some of the anti-union and anti-worker laws of the last 40 years. On the other side of the coin, there is pressure to make employers accountable, by criminalizing wages theft and industrial manslaughter.

The conservative parties are making a mess of their resistance, working on the assumption that the public as a whole shares their aversion to unions. In fact, the public is split (presumably on partisan lines), with 47 per cent saying that unions have too much power. By contrast, an overwhelming 74 per cent say that business has too much power.

That’s from a 2016 poll, taken not long after famously independent Royal Commissioner Dyson Heydon reported that he had uncovered just the tip of an iceberg of corruption (a pretty poor returns for the tens of millions spent in the process, in my view). Two years later, the Commission’s efforts have led to only a handful of convictions, with most charges being dropped or leading to acquittals. Meanwhile, the banking Royal Commission is producing evidence of large-scale wrongdoing on a daily basis*. It seems likely that results would be more favorable to unions and more hostile to big business if the poll were undertaken today.

Repealing anti-union laws is only part of the story. Ultimately, we need a consistent pro-union campaign from both Labor and the ACTU, along with increased organizational efforts at the workplace level. It will take many years for the decades of decline to be reversed. But most workers today can see that the system is rigged against them. Plenty would be willing to join unions if the legal obstacles to organization were removed and, ideally, replaced with positive incentives.

* The fact that there will probably be few, if any, criminal prosecutions is a reflection on the law rather than on the extent of wrongdoing. A union official can be prosecuted for having a cup of tea with a mate, but financial advisors who line their pockets while ruining their clients have nothing to fear, as long as they don’t actually raid the till.

22 thoughts on “May Day

  1. One evening, during the Hawke era, my wife [sorry about the possessive] came home from work and said, during our usual end of work day de- briefing, “I did something I’ve never done before today, I voted against the union”. And she was her work place union rep. The Accord, enterprise bargaining, wages restraint and all that – when the ALP and certain union leaders sold their workers out. Maybe and hopefully Sally can change all that – it needs to be changed.

  2. I think we expect too much of Law as a solution to a myriad of ills. In fact, it’s law and the artful practice of those laws that cause so many issues. We have agreed to let Law prevail where decency and the “right thing” once held a position in society. Now, case law or lawyer-power prevails. Yet we expect “just” outcomes from courts that are already seeded with lawyers bred under the system, and now powerless to allow sensibilities to prevail.
    Politics is untrustworthy too because one side is supported (lobbied) by business, the other held by unions. Neither holds popular mandate and their influence is not proportionate to their citizen support base. Fact is, Labor or Liberal, we are all getting screwed as real wages continue to decline and inequality blossoms.
    What answer is there? Probably none in my lifetime, but a more strident attitude by voters would be a great start. A voice that demands an ethical inclusive society where we can all have at least a chance to be a part of society that is not just the swill of elites who protest at their tax rates. We can do better, and it is about time.

  3. My long involvement with the unions, through the construction industry, was one where standover thugs ran the site through threats, intimidation and action and the site management did their best to avoid costly delays. On the site it wasn’t a battle over ideology it was extortion but on reflection the politicians of the day could have sought a reconciliation, much like the German codetermination, but were too wedded to the adversarial method of governance.

    At that time construction unions were backward looking, their onsite advocates were invariably north England or northern Irish and were determined to not work, for higher pay and at any cost. This angered many other construction workers, from who wanted to work, and the freedom of association promoted by Howard was a welcome relief and to a large part broke the hold that these so called delegates held.

    IMO its in business, big and small, best interest to foster unions and union membership and to ensure that union leaders have every opportunity to be better qualified. This must lead to a better quality of management as all components of the process are interacting to their mutual benefit.

  4. IMHO Unions have had no vision since the Accord.

    There are opportunities galore out there for unions if they have nous to know what to do.

    My guess is the antics of the HSU has been a body blow to Unions overall. I know a few people in unions who have told me it had an effect on them and gaining more people in the Unions.

    In an environment where you only get a wage rise by taking a new job union membership should be increasing bigtime not falling.

  5. Criminalising wage theft, industrial manslaughter, and other corporate crimes is an obvious thing to do. It would be popular, would improve equity, and would also make the economy more efficient, by weeding out bad players. Punishments should be substantial, so as to compensate for the small chance of catching and convicting corporate criminals. Severe punishments are often not an effective deterrent for ordinary criminals, but they may well work better for corporate and white collar crime.

  6. The neocons and neoliberals won a long and strategic campaign from circa 1975 to the present. It has been a brilliant and very successful campaign. The left was completely outmaneuvered. The neocons now have the economy and the people exactly in the position that they (the neocons) wanted all along. There is a large unemployed reserve army with which to discipline labour. Official interest rates are at historic lows and this virtually free money can be borrowed and invested at high returns by those in the know using a number of devices available to the rich and to risk takers.

    The combination of low interest rates, negative gearing and the ability to minimise or avoid taxes, means essentially a regime of free available money for making more money exists for those prepared to gear in such a fashion. Big players can use this system for essentially risk free returns until a major crash. They know that if there is another crash like the GFC the really big players will be bailed out again.

    Rational, intelligent young people with the right skills now assess that working for a living is a very poor option. They will work just enough, if necessary, to put together an investment portfolio. Then they will gear it, take hedged risks and if successful will move out of working altogether. Older people see stagnant wages and bullying bosses in their workplaces. They take redundancies as soon as they they can, retire as early as possible and pay no taxes due to the special tax treatment of retirement income.

    This is an economy which says if you do an honest day’s work you are a mug ripe for exploitation. More and more people are starting to do the rational thing in this economy: avoid work and seek to become one of the exploiters. It’s now the rational thing to do. Most work is very poorly remunerated compared to all the scams running in this economy. When scamming pays better, every one in the formal economy seeks to become a scammer.

  7. Union density has been falling for a long in Europe and the Anglo world. I hope it will be restored but it must coincide with strong regulatory oversight to reduce poor governance and corruption. No more Craig Thomsons, Kathy Jacksons etc.. thank you very much.

    Like Rog above, I am well aware of the bad union behaviour in early 1980s that destroyed their reputation among vast swathes of the working class. At that time, my own blue collar parents really did hate unions. Strikes used to break out all the time and cause massive inconvenience. I recall having to walk 20 km to get to work during a transport strike in the 1980s.

    Unions are important and we need them to be strong but responsible. I think Sally McManus is great and I hope under her leadership an intelligent, modern thinking union movement will start to grow and flourish.

  8. Yeah, some of the decline in unions is due to sustained hostile attack by the Right (true, ably assisted by the folly and corruption of some unionists) that led to anti-union laws.

    But the bulk in Australia, as elsewhere, is due to simple structural change. Industries where unions are in a good position to play a positive role (manufacturing especially, but also public transport, agriculture and mining) have all declined as a share of employment in favour of industries (retail, hospitality and other services) where unionisation is both more difficult to achieve and less helpful in its effects.

  9. @derrida derider
    I dunno about the latter part of your statement derrida.
    Industries such as ‘retail, hospitality’ may differ in nature to the ‘old’ others you name but they still have major problems that can and should be addressed by unions.
    Working conditions eg bullying, sexual harassment, cuts in penalty rates, safety, wages theft [a particularly big issue currently in many retail industries] all fall within the ambit of unions and it has become increasingly difficult for unions to have a ‘presence’ due to the current laws of the hostile Right – think Cash and ROC and Fair Work et al.
    Unionism has deliberately been made ‘more difficult to achieve’ but it still is a major, often the only, protection a worker has against exploitation.

  10. i have never, ever seen an article of any description praising in any way, any union any where, any time in history.


    damned by faint praise or a “yes but” with a sting in the tail is about the best that can be hoped for.

    the derogation is so normal nobody pays any attention to it.

    as far as i can see, all the gains fought for and won have been airbrushed into oblivion and stuff like sick pay etc, etc, are seen as just a natural progression brought to us by those philanthropic, superiors sharing the benefits of their superiority.

    oh, and unions just get in the way.

    except when corrupted,then they can be really handy as a covert corporate or govt department.

  11. The past benefits earned by unions were passed on to all workers including non unionised ones. Doesn’t exactly incentivise membership.

  12. @derrida derider
    The end of mass employment as a reason for decline in unionism. Smaller work places make it hard for workers to organise and unions to recruit. Unions had there heyday before much of labour was mechanised and automated. From this point of view here simply aren’t the conditions for a resurgence to anything like the levels last seen during the 70s. On the other hand, technology now allows virtual collectivisation and recruiting. I hope so. Don’t forget we wouldn’t have our mass quality of life underpinned by if minimum wages, the thirty hour week and collective bargaining, if it wasn’t for unions.

  13. @may
    Good point.
    Yet despite an unremitting demonisation campaign by media for generations most Australians surveyed still trust unions more than big business and believe their role should be strengthened.
    Or so polling has showed and now I’ll go look for it.
    And, on a personal note, unions prevented me from severe injury in one of my work sites by refusing to allow me and my co-workers to work in extremely unsafe conditions and on another occasion I suffered physical injury on a union free site that would not have occurred if unions had known of the risk.
    Which they did 10 minutes after the accident.
    We need unions.

  14. A further point, those of us who care about the future of unions and who happen to be retired can get out from behind the computer and offer to help out now and then. There are many things you can do. I currently use my administrative, spreadsheet and payroll skills to calculate underpayment of National Employment Standard and Modern Award entitlements. If you can help a low paid worker recover just a few thousand dollars from a rogue boss it can make a big difference to their lives.

  15. @Ikonoclast
    Exactly. The myth that hard work will lead to success. Funny how it’s the unemployed who need to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work while property investors can sit on their derriere pulling in an unearned income.

  16. I think the Unions issue depends on where you are, what your job is, your gender, as well as your take on the Unions’ influence in electoral politics.

    In Victoria the Unions certainly do wield a lot of power, and can probably be said to be responsible for the Liberal Party under John Howard losing the 007 election to Kevin Rudd and Labor. This was combined at the time with strong support from celebrities and the media for Rudd and Labor. But the Unions’ anti Work Choices campaign was very effective in mobilising every day people to vote for Labor, in a way that the elite celebrity and media support was not.

    In some ways I think its a huge issue that the Unions are linked to one political party. The Unions can decide to mobilise on an issue and usually the members will fall into line – and that can directly lead into Labor picking up political support and votes. That means when Labor wants to they can get the Unions to mobilise which improves their chances at winning elections. They don’t do this every election, but they certainly did so in 2007, and look like they are trying to do the same thing again for this year and next year.

    In 2007 Victoria already had a huge problem with housing affordability, and the unions ran a scare campaign on Work Choices, like wages would go down, work would become more uncertain. Where you have housing unaffordability high wages and the certainty of work becomes important to people.

    But in government Labor under Rudd and then Gillard did nothing to fix the Victorian housing affordability problem, and housing is even more unaffordable now than it was in 2007. In fact the Labor party made the housing affordability problem worse by not allowing the GFC to correct house prices. This has led to increasing homelessness in Victoria, with homelessness in Melbourne CBD being particularly visible.

    At the same time Unions tend to benefit men doing work in manual labour jobs: tradies, factory workers, mining jobs etc.

    The other workers that Unions benefit are public sector workers – teachers, nurses etc. Women do make up a higher proportion of public sector workers than manual labour jobs. But having unions in public sector jobs means that the Labor party has more sway on public sector workers, which is politically uneven.

    While Professionals are represented by Professional Associations rather than Unions, in Victoria successive governments have moved the State to a service economy, and Unions do hardly anything beneficial to people in service jobs in retail, customer service, hospitality, care work etc. And a lot of women work in service jobs.

    In addition Unions benefit people who want what unions offer – good pay (okay most people want decent pay), and certainty of work : a lot of people don’t want to stay in the same job forever, they want flexibility and to be able to choose what jobs they do and what their career path is.

    I have personally found its almost impossible to get out of doing customer service and hospitality jobs once you start. You end up being labeled as a service sector worker and its incredibly hard to get work of a different sort. I have found it impossible to get any entry level jobs leading to professional work.

    Indeed when speaking of this issue to people, I have had people tell me (I live in a small town) that when I was in year 12 people already categorised me for low level service jobs, and a rather snooty woman said that because my mother wasn’t a professional then I shouldn’t aim to be a professional either. It was also made clear to me by another woman that this was partly to do with my half Irish background. That’s not a joke. This was despite my good marks at secondary school and university. Nobody told me when I was young, and if they had I would have had to try to argue my case, or move somewhere else where the small town social network didn’t extend to, like another State or overseas. I personally would have liked to have more choice over what work I did, and also to have been trained in the skills of negotiating with employers at secondary school. I know a similar thing happens to other women in middle age, since women have written memoirs and novels about similar stuff, where eventually some nice people tell them what the score is, when they weren’t told when they were young. As far as I can tell this is mostly to do with ethnic issues that nobody talks much about in Australia.

    So Unions don’t benefit all workers equally, they benefit male workers more than female workers, and they benefit manual labour workers and public sector workers more than service sector workers.

    And the idea that people most want certainty in employment isn’t the case when a lot of people want more control and choice over what their career is.

    And the Unions don’t help with good pay for low level service jobs, partly because its simply impractical, the small business sector can only pay wages that are consistent with their earnings. And we also have a problem in Victoria of the proliferation of informal work, which interacts negatively with the housing affordability problem, because you can’t apply for a mortgage using informal forms of income.

    On top of these issues the Unions can mobilise their pool of manual labor workers and public sector workers to win elections for Labor, when they feel like it, such as in 2007.

    In Victoria we are seeing yet again in the lead up to the State election later this year and next years federal election, Unions mobilising workers to vote Labor, trying to make the upcoming elections about work issues. What about all the other issues?

  17. “[Brisbane] can look like ultimate Pleasantville, but there are long histories of police violence, open racism, punitive fundamentalist varieties of Christianity and attendant repression. For decades they have called forth student insurgency, angry street marches, public conflict on civil rights issues and always the biggest May Day turnout in Australia.

    There was good reason for May Day in the 1970s and 1980s; the State’s ruling class then was corrupt, reactionary, and arrogant. Excercising our skills in the interstices, teaching reading practices, we hoped our students would learn to recognise the fraudulent rhetorics at work everywhere around them. The children of liberal parents were perennially ashamed of their Queensland identity; we wanted to dissolve the myth they carried, to show them that Queensland, whatever its distinctness, was always a piece of Australia, that the State boundaries were less important than some hoped and insisted, and others gloomily believed.” (p. 170)

    That reflection on Queensland’s May Day is from an essay by writer Sylvia Lawson: How Simone de Beauvoir died in Australia.

    Part of the essay is a fictional recreation of discussions about de Beauvoir in the 60s and early 70s versus discussions about de Beauvoir in the 90s.

    An interesting point is that it wasn’t only the right wing media in Australia who criticised de Beauvoir, but Australian feminists such as Germaine Greer (who Lawson likens to “fairground music” “the gusto, the virtuoso articulation, the comedy…. a great actress for whom the Theatre would have been much too small.”) saying de Beauvoir was out of date, not relevant, as well as male writers such as Frank Moorhouse.

    The other part of the essay mostly deals with Queensland and the resistance to the corruption of Bjelke Peterson’s government in 1986 (the year de Beauvoir died), and the East Timorese resistance and vote for Independence in 1999.

    For a Victorian such as myself it makes an interesting read, giving the actual details of what was happening in Queensland in 1986.

    “The license-plates issued by the State’s motor traffic authority read ‘Queensland – The Sunshine State’. Enterprising rebels, who were generally not militants at all, just normally fractious persons of perfectly middling courage, made up facsimiles replacing ‘Sunshine’ with ‘Police’. Dissent was deeply ritualised and socially pervasive, an array of shrugs and jokes masking general conscious impotence. Criticism stayed locked in its ghettoes: the campus rock station, the gadfly Cane Toad Times, the responsible pockets of academia. Then, that March, it was unlocked briefly but definitively in one signal act of highly public resistance, one which came out of hard intellectual labour and sustained courage under fire.

    …. it was the ABC, almost in spite of itself, which managed something more that year than carefully contained dissent. The current affairs presenter Quentin Dempster, and Ross Wilson, a young director and editor, worked on their own time on a zero budget to produce a documentary on the states of society, politics, media and the law….

    The outcome was an exemplary expose named ‘The Sunshine System’. It went to air in Brisbane, its one and only occasion, on 22 March 1986.” (p.172)

    Relating this back to the issue of May Day and the Unions and what I was trying to get at with my previous comment, Unions involvement in one side of politics, means that they are make a lopsided impact on Australia’s politics.

    The ABC documentary – from the public sector – is named by Lawson as a key part of exposing the corruption in Queensland under Bjelke Peterson, and bringing the conversation up to the surface.

    Should the corruption be on the left, Australia does lack responsible civil institutions and governance structures to deal with it.

  18. @ZM

    Focusing on unions as the only source of our political and economic problems is not going to give you a very clear picture of matters. There is also the influence of big business and big money. Indeed, unions (and the Labor Party) have become corrupted by big business and big money and in many ways co-opted into the system.

    There are many interconnected problems in our political economy, including the political donor effects of big business and big unions.

    Look up this for donor information;

    “Australian political donations 2016-17: who gave what to which parties

    Political parties receive money from donors and investments, and get public funding through the Australian Electoral Commission. We have mapped the entities and donors associated with every significant political party, showing how much is given and the source of each party’s income.”

    When you get to the graphic, select the party you want to examine and then hover mouse cursor over the circles to get name and amount information.

    Speaking for myself as an unconnected nobody, I feel powerless to change anything in this system. I imagine about 99% of Australians feel the same way.

  19. Unions started as bodies which allowed workers to fight back against the power of owners (capitalists). That’s how we won better wages, shorter working days, no child labour and so on. Now, unions are largely co-opted into the control system which capitalists exert over the 99%. Lenin saw clearly how this co-option would happen in Australia but then Lenin made his own egregious mistakes of revolutionary terror and totalitarianism. Still, it’s worth looking at Lenin’s insights about Australia.

    “A general election recently took place in Australia. The Labour Party, which had a majority in the Lower House—44 seats out of 75—was defeated. It now has only 36 seats out of 75. The majority has passed to the Liberals, but this majority is a very unstable one, because 30 of the 36 seats in the Upper House are held by Labour.

    What sort of peculiar capitalist country is this, in which the workers’ representatives, predominate in the Upper house and, till recently, did so in the Lower House as well, and yet the capitalist system is in no danger?

    An English correspondent of the German labour press recently explained the situation, which is very often misrepresented by bourgeois writers.

    The Australian Labour Party does not even call itself a socialist party. Actually it is a liberal-bourgeois party, while the so-called Liberals in Australia are really Conservatives.

    This strange and incorrect use of terms in naming par ties is not unique. In America, for example, the slave-owners of yesterday are called Democrats, and in France, enemies of socialism, petty bourgeois, are called Radical Socialists! In order to understand the real significance of parties, one must examine not their signboards but their class character and the historical conditions of each individual country.

    Australia is a young British colony.

    Capitalism in Australia is still quite youthful. The country is only just taking shape as an independent state. The workers are for the most part emigrants from Britain. They left the country at the time when the liberal-labour policy held almost undivided sway there, when the masses of the British workers were Liberals. Even now the majority of the skilled factory workers in Britain are Liberals or semi-Liberals. This is the results of the exceptionally favourable, monopolist position enjoyed by Britain in the second half of the last century. Only now are the masses of the workers in Britain turning (but turning slowly) towards socialism.

    And while in Britain the so-called Labour Party is an alliance between the non-socialist trade unions and the extremely opportunist Independent Labour Party, in Australia the Labour Party is the unalloyed representative of the non-socialist workers’ trade unions.

    The leaders of the Australian Labour Party are trade union officials, everywhere the most moderate and “capital serving” element, and in Australia, altogether peaceable, purely liberal.

    The ties binding the separate states into a united Australia are still very weak. The Labour Party has had to concern itself with developing and strengthening these ties, and with establishing central government.

    In Australia the Labour Party has done what in other countries was done by the Liberals, namely, introduced a uniform tariff for the whole country, a uniform educational law, a uniform land tax and uniform factory legislation.

    Naturally, when Australia is finally developed and consolidated as an independent capitalist state, the condition of the workers will change, as also will the liberal Labour Party, which will make way for a socialist workers’ party. Australia is an illustration of the conditions under which exceptions to the rule are possible. The rule is: a socialist workers’ party in a capitalist country. The exception is: a liberal Labour Party which arises only for a short time by virtue of specific conditions that are abnormal for capitalism in general.

    Those Liberals in Europe and in Russia who try to “teach” the people that class struggle is unnecessary by citing the example of Australia, only deceive themselves and others. It is ridiculous to think of transplanting Australian conditions (an undeveloped, young colony, populated by liberal British workers) to countries where the state is long established and capitalism well developed.” Lenin – Collected Works.

    There are mistakes in the above analysis but there are also some very astute observations and predictions. The non-socialist nature of the ALP is clearly depicted and its path to being just another overt pro-capitalist party is well predicted.

  20. @ZM
    “And the Unions don’t help with good pay for low level service jobs, partly because its simply impractical, the small business sector can only pay wages that are consistent with their earnings. And we also have a problem in Victoria of the proliferation of informal work, which interacts negatively with the housing affordability problem, because you can’t apply for a mortgage using informal forms of income.”

    If you are not paid your Modern Award and National Employment Standard entitlements and the amount you are owed is less than $20,000, you can make a small claim through the Industrial Division of the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court or the Federal Circuit Court. The default position is that both parties do not have legal representation and the hearing is supposed to be quick and informal.

    If you don’t get pay slips and you get paid cash in hand, you can record your hours and payments in a dairy or on the Fair Work Ombudsman’s app that is made for this purpose:

    However, subsequent to the last round of amendments to the Fair Work Act 2009 (September last year IIRC), the onus is on the employer to disprove your claims about work and earnings if they fail to give you pay slips.

    I would avoid the Fair Work Ombudsman’s mediation, as they can be extremely unpleasant and you can easily get railroaded into a deal that lets the boss off cheaply. (The Fair Work Ombudsman claims most mediations are successful, but they have a misleading definition of success, i.e. the parties agree on a course of action subsequent to the mediation).

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