Labor rule can't save unions

A caution from Down Under to U.S. unionists

It should be a fine time to be a union leader in Australia. Having bankrolled Labor victories in every state and territory and ejected the evil anti-union conservatives from Canberra, the planets are aligned for a revival of union power under a Rudd Labor Government. Now consider the real world. Even with the ALP running the country, union relevance is anything but assured. And unions know it. That's why strikes are back in fashion. But recent attempts by unions to flex their muscle to prove they still matter, only confirm that they probably don't.

It's true that unions can point to a long list of successful special pleading. Recall the secret deal between then Victorian premier Steve Bracks and the Police Association over pay, weapons and taxpayer-funded legal representation for police facing corruption charges in return for union support during the most recent state election. In NSW, raw union muscle explains occupational health and safety laws with a duty of care that presumes employer guilt and gives unions the right to prosecute OHS breaches, claiming a handy percentage of any fine paid. Labor lawyers call it a moiety but it's really union payola.

And sure, unions have applied political heat to secure big pay rises in the public sector. Witness the 15.2 per cent won by Victorian teachers in May and the pay offer of 21.7 per cent to teachers in Western Australia last month. Unions are now threatening rolling strikes in South Australia and NSW unless Labor governments cave in to similar demands. After a long period of industrial peace where strikes fell to a low of 135 in 2007, with 50,000 lost working days, down from 1519 strikes and 1.3 million working days lost in 1987, unions are back.

Back to the past, that is. You see, unions have a problem. Workers are not racing to the union cause. Not even union wins with friendly Labor governments have stemmed the decline in union membership. It now stands at about 19 per cent of the workforce, driven by their core base in the public sector. In a tight labour market with a skills shortage, you'd think unions would be riding high. They are not.

Members are leaving the cause. Not even the ACTU's extensive and expensive Your Rights at Work campaign managed to attract new members. Numbers have fallen 90,000 since last year.

ACTU leader Sharan Burrow knows why: the Howard government and a "hostile Work Choices system". That was a convenient excuse for a while. With Labor running the show, what's their excuse now? The fact is that blaming others for their loss of relevance has only blinded unions to reality.

If unions have a decent product to sell to workers in the form of benefits that flow from union membership, workers should be joining up in droves. Instead, having for so long relied on special pleadings and legislative favours from Labor governments as a marker of their success, unions grew complacent about the genuine needs and preferences of workers. Numbers may be their death knell. More important, behind the numbers is a stubborn, outdated themvus approach to management pushed by an equally antiquated union leadership that prevents unions from adapting to the changing preferences of workers and the long-term needs of business.

Unions' long-term addiction to entrenched legislative privilege and collectively enforced monopolies has left them unable to understand or promote the individual choices of workers. Witness their ramped-up scare tactics in recent weeks against individual contracts and non-union collective agreements. Unions know that Telstra is a test case of their relevance. The giant telco employs 21,000 workers on Australian Workplace Agreements out of a total permanent workforce of 34,000. Imagining that unions were back in the driving seat under a federal Labor Government, unions overplayed their hand during negotiations over a new enterprise agreement. They demanded a side agreement that Telstra said was illegal under workplace laws because it contained union-friendly prohibited content which did not require the approval of employees.

For the first time in Telstra's history, the company ended enterprise negotiations, arguing that unions were focused on boosting union power rather than the day-to-day concerns of workers. With Telstra now negotiating a non-union collective agreement with workers in its wholesale division, and the prospect of individual agreements, unions have pumped up their campaign against the telco, contesting a secret ballot for employees to approve any deal.

A union movement that has long opposed secret ballots is a movement that lacks fundamental confidence in its own relevance. What are they afraid of? If union-negotiated agreements are superior, workers would be flocking to unions and unions would not need to worry about other non-union employment arrangements offered by employers. A secret ballot of employees would not be a hurdle to union success if they were offering what workers wanted. Instead, a new generation of workers has been embracing a new generation of workplace arrangements that unions do not want.

Labor MP Craig Emerson has called on the trade union movement to "modernise if it is to survive and prosper in Australia's open, competitive economy". He says that would involve offering a bundle of services to members beyond representation in workplace bargaining, including advice to workers on individual bargaining. That hasn't happened.

Meanwhile, unions are left to ponder why they can only attract one in 10 young employees to the union cause. Is this John Howard's fault, too? Try this out for size. Gen X and genY are shunning the one-size-fits-all union model of collective union agreements. More and more workers are working very differently, willing to put a larger part of their pay at risk in return for more generous performance-based bonuses. These workers have enough faith in their own abilities to put their performance on the table to be tested, and rewarded.

Faith in individual ability does not fit the collectivist union model. Which is why unions are howling at any company, such as Telstra, that continues to offer individual contracts after the demise of AWAs in March. But if unions imagine that Kevin Rudd's workplace laws will revive their relevance, they are misguided.

They mistake power for relevance. Power can be doled out through government favours, such as new laws that secure unions a place at the negotiating table. And having bought Rudd's electoral victory, they can naturally expect delivery of this kind of union power.

Union relevance is an altogether different matter.

Relevance will only be secured when unions realise that workers work differently in today's market. Until then, unions will remain a crumbling relic of the past, dependent on special pleading and government privilege for an existence that is daily undermined by deserting members.


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