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.