Union Movement – Where from to where?
By Brian Boyd VTHC Secretary July 2012
The initial Kennett years in Victoria from 1992-1995 saw massive mobilisations against his governments attacks on workers’ rights.
In 1997-1998 the Australian union movement displayed a high level of unity as it rallied round to defend the MUA. This waterfront union was under sustained attack by the then Howard Federal government, some State Governments and a range of employer organisations.
Between 2005-2007, under the banner: “Your Rights at Work”, again the union movement coalesced a determined approach to the blatant anti-worker IR legislation called WorkChoices. That campaign struck a chord within the organised workforce and the wider community to such an extent that Howard lost the November 2007 federal election. It was an historic sustained effort. Kevin Rudd didn’t win, Howard lost – this emphasis is often lost on our current crop of federal politicians.
The subsequent Fair Work Act left a lot to be desired in terms of fully restoring ‘Rights at Work”. Between 2007 and 2010 the second ALP federal government scoffed at addressing the ‘unfinished business’ carried over from WorkChoices into the Fair Work Act.
The hung parliament following the 2010 federal election has made it extremely difficult to pursue key union movement issues.
The Gillard government may have moved back towards consulting sections of the union movement in the current precarious environment. However achieving tangible, measurable outcomes, off the back of verbal consultations is far from easy.
The union movement currently has a 20% coverage of the overall national workforce.
Back in 1983 this coverage was about 50%. By 1991 it stood at 41%. It was 31% by 1996 when John Howard became Prime Minister.
There were profound changes in the structures and roles of unions in the 1980’s and 1990’s. The Prices and Incomes Accords and union amalgamations were two key illustrations of this restructure, that were supported by the ACTU. It could be argued that 13 years of an ALP national government, during those years with ACTU support, didn’t maintain a sound numerical basis for the 21st century.
Instead uncertainty of purpose seemed to undermine the rationale of many individual unions.
Fast forward back to the post – 2007 period and we have almost a repeat of history, with uncertainty affecting the collective role of unions in determining a whole range of policies affecting organised labour – EBA processes convoluted and almost never ending, a federal ALP government absorbing endless time and energy over basic policy “no-brainers” eg: procurement policy, over reliance on overseas visa workers, job security and vocational training just to list a few.
Coupled with this are seemingly empowered employer organisations in the current economic climate (especially globally) pushing for more restrictions on rights at work.
Sensing a constricted federal government is vulnerable to economic pressure the big companies demand more freedom to control their workforces while insisting these same workforces have no freedom at all, especially to collectively bargain.
History teaches us that by mobilising workers across the board, both empowers them and sends a strong message to the conservative forces that constantly manoeuvring to cut wages and conditions and shed jobs is totally unacceptable as Australia moves forward.