Contributed by Joe Montero
Anyone following developments can not help but be aware that a central plank of the government’s agenda, is to eliminate trade unions, and if this is not possible, to render them totally ineffective.
Ever since the Howard government and the Hawke days before that, step by step, a noose has been tightened around the Australian union movement’s neck. It has fought back, but eventually compromised at each point. It now finds itself weaker, less organised, its officials no longer have the right to visit members at the workplace and what they can be concerned with has narrowed down over time.
Arguably, there is much more than coincidence between this and the significant fall in the wages share of national income, the generally deteriorating conditions of employment and the rise of the casualised economy. Weaker unions is not the only cause. The weaker state of the economy is important. But weaker unions have ensured that the position of the worker has deteriorated more than it would otherwise have been the case.
Within the union movement has been an expectation of further blows. It is no secret that the government and employers behind it are out to do everything they can, to move as close as possible to creating an industrial relations landscape with no unions.
A worsening economy and the growing militancy of big business, shared by the Coalition, have come together to result in a series of try ons, which have been aimed at imposing major wage cuts through further casualisation of their workforces. Last years battle at Carlton and United in Melbourne last year marked a turning point. Although the unions won this battle, the war has continued, with other large employers taking their turn at doing the same.
This is more than separate and unlinked individual workplace battles. They make up parts of a national strategy to force a breech that can be spread across the whole of the Australian workforce, to crush it into obedience and the acceptance of less reward for work.
Despite being in a weaker position now, the unions still remain the barrier to achieving this goal. This is the reason why they are being targeted.
Employment Minister Michaelia Cash has been particularly zealous and biting at the bit for her chance at unions’ jugular. She is also in urgent need of a distraction from the fallout of the GetUp and Australian Workers Union fiasco. It has the potential of knocking her out of her job.
She stood with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a press conference a week ago, where a commitment was made to take on the unions. Since then Turnbull has the added problem of the bifg Yes response to the Marriage Equality survey. Although he personally favoured the Yes position, the issue has added to the already existing instability within his government and cast more doubt over his future as Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party. This is not helped by the ever-worsening opinion polls.
And don’t forget the citizenship crisis, which threatens to rob the government of its slim majority of one. A series of by elections are on the way and a government divided and factions publicly brawling is not going to help.
The interplay between an ongoing ambition and the political opportunism of needing an issue to distract from other matters and impose some sort of unity in the government, has dictated the timing for a new assault on the unions. It may to happen this side of Christmas, but it is coming.
Turnbull and Cash have appeared together at a press conference to announce that five pieces of legislation will be rushed through parliament. All are designed to further constrain what unions are permitted to do and to undermine the social legitimacy of unions.
The mechanisms to do this are to tighten government control over welfare and training funds; blocking union mergers and even veto certain individuals from holding elected union positions; limiting the role of unions in the funding and management of industry superannuation funds. Put together they will impose the most restrictive web of restrictions of any industrialised country.
And it isn’t going to stop here.
In the haste to push on, the government is not taking note of the recent lessons of recent history. The Howard government lost in its attempt to crush the Maritime Union of Australia during the Patricks dispute. Howard became the second Prime Minister ever to lose his seat after being savaged over WorkChoices.
Both battles showed is that at the end of the day, Australians believe that the existence of unions is important and are prepared to stand up for a fair go. The Turnbull government risks being clobbered by a similar reaction.
There is a widespread sense that there is a connection between weaker unions and deteriorating work. For years, political leaders have been insisting that this is necessary to get the economy going and create new jobs. The result has been in the opposite direction. Most have experienced this, and paradoxically, this is the greatest potential strength the unions have to draw support across Australian society.
Mitigating this is that the government must know that the unions have been slow in drawing together and realising a collective strategy to strike back. The lessons of the past had taught the importance of building a union – broader community alliance, and this is not being given the level of priority that it once was.
The main error of the unions has been the readiness of many of them to comply with each new piece of legislative restriction and lock themselves into a system deliberately designed applied against them and not applied and rarely against employers employers .
When Howard introduced the ABCC to target unions in the construction industry, the whole movement condemned it as a witch hunt based on falsehoods. Most provided little practical help, because the emerging industrial relations legal system disallowed it.
There are many within the movement, who have been battling to get out of the trap and find ways to build a collective response. If they can’t manage to achieve this before the big crunch, the unions are in serious trouble.
But neither they cannot be written off easily. Unions came into existence because they were necessary. The emerging landscape is once again bringing their necessity into bold relief and the unions may still find their collective voice to do what they must do to turn aside the assault.
In doing this, they will come up with having to decide on whether they will continue to comply with bad and unfair laws.