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"Unions at work"

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20 August 1999






The ACTU’s Unions@Work is an inadequate and incomp lete analysis of the reasons behind the decline of unions in Australia. As a result, it does not provide the basis for a new start.


Incredibly, it concedes that under the Howard Coalition government, low paid and disadvantaged workers in Australia have since 1996 received real increases in wages of 9.1%:


“Since 1996, the Living Wage has achieved an increase, after inflation, of 9.1% for the lowest paid workers — a record admired by our counterparts overseas.” (page (ii)).


Yet, inconsistently, it equates reductions in union privilege under conservative governments with unfair outcomes for employees — the very reverse of these admitted facts.


The failure of the ACTU to differentiate between the interests of employees and the interests of unions and union officials is at the core of the decline of unionism. If this document is to be a strategy for a way forward, then this flaw alone means that it is a recipe for more failure.


The document is also incomplete. It either deliberately ignores or is sanitised to avoid the three real causes of decline in Australian unionism.


1. It fails to condemn or comment on the negative impact on Australian unionism caused by the ACTU’s political affiliation with the Australian Labor Party. That failure is more ironic, given that the report arose out of an analysis of unionism in the UK where political links between the UK Trade Union Congress and the Blair Labour government have been greatly weakened — to each other’s mutual advantage.


2. It fails to condemn or comment on th e alienation and unfairness imposed on working people by the big union/big government approach of the eight ACTU/ALP Accords between 1983 and 1996— let alone the 5% to 15% decline in real wages for the low paid which it imposed.


3. It fails to condemn or comment on the decline in union services and relevance caused by the discredited 1980’s Australia Reconstructed strategy of super unions, super amalgamations and centralised union decision making.


Each of these are huge omissions. If the ACTU does not hav e the courage to face up to, and lay bare, the failures of the past then it cannot be serious about making a new start.


The ACTU needs an honest assessment of the causes of it’s decline, no matter how unpalatable they may be.


There is a choice between an organisation model and a service model for future unionism.


The organisation model proposed in the report is no answer. Pining for workforce organisation and collective recruitment in an era of greater individual liberty and a disdain by ordinary people for overblown rhetoric about industrial ideology is pining for a past long gone.


If it wants to be relevant, the only way forward for the union movement is a service model based on political detachment and subjugating the views of union bosses to needs of workers, individually and collectively.


If these directions are any guide the union movement in Australia has still chosen badly. It still puts its self-interest above workers interests and fails to see the difference.


The bottom line of this report is that Australian union officials are still not prepared to abdicate authority to the Australian workplace and Australia’s workers.


For further information contact: Ian Hanke 0419 484 095



dd  1999-08-24  10:44