Moving Forward: Marginalising Unions Without WorkChoices

WHEREVER YOU LOOK, evidence of the misuse and abuse of union power abounds; folk in “Middle Australia” who aren’t lined up against the union movement soon will be as businesses like Holden collapse. Their outrage won’t be over job losses; it will be over the unions using them as a battering ram against a conservative government when their own actions are the problem. There are ways to deal with the union movement — once and for all.

The single greatest failing of conservative politics over the past ten years, in my view, was WorkChoices: armed with a Senate majority for the first time in more than 30 years, the Howard government introduced a fairly reasonable (if initially imperfect) set of workplace changes to increase flexibility in Australia’s labour market.

Everyone knows how that particular story played out: $13 million in union media bookings and the mother of all scare campaigns later, Howard’s government was swept from office in a campaign so saturated in industrial relations that even now, a new conservative government won’t consider revisiting those laws until at least after the next election — four parliamentary terms after the original “WorkChoices” election.

It was a failure for many reasons: the inability or unwillingness to respond to the unions’ characteristically hysterical and dishonest fear campaign; the failure or refusal of the business community that begged Howard to liberalise the labour market to fund or mount a co-ordinated response to the unions; the inability or refusal to properly explain and sell the policy to voters; the travesty implicitly committed against the national interest in mishandling the single opportunity that has presented in decades to wind back workplace inflexibility in any meaningful sense; and the damage that now continues to be inflicted on Australia’s economic and productivity growth as a result of the reshackling of the labour market as payback to the unions for services rendered to the ALP.

Above all, it breathed new life into a dying union movement that hasn’t missed a day since to wield — and misuse — its reclaimed and disproportionate power in Australia’s industrial relations system.

Yet the ultimate travesty from all of this lies in the fact that from a political perspective, the atmospherics surrounding any contemplation of workplace relations legislation reform is now so poisonous that even the conservative parties are too frightened to raise their heads above the parapet over the subject, and so I just wonder whether attacking the problem from the opposite direction — legislating on the conduct of the unions themselves — might present an alternate avenue to achieving at least some of the desired outcomes.

But first, I was asked yesterday why Monday’s article proclaiming it a “good riddance” if GMH terminated its operations in Australia was such a great idea on the basis it would lead to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs, directly and/or indirectly, and pose a colossal political headache for the Abbott government.

The answer can, to some extent, be found in a brilliant piece from yesterday’s issue of The Australian by Grace Collier, which outlines in infinitesimal detail everything wrong with the business model of the heavily unionised, taxpayer-indulged GMH, and how wages high enough to make the eyes of most of us in private enterprise water — driven by collective bargaining agreements negotiated by union thugs with scant regard for the long-term welfare of their members — have transformed an unprofitable business able to subsist on government handouts into an unproductive and uncompetitive sloth that should be put out of its misery.

As Collier observes, it seems the union thinks members are better off jobless than on award wages, so usuriously extortionate is the collective agreement it has extracted from (or imposed on) Holden’s managements. It also raises the question of what the point is in actually having the awards the unions fought against WorkChoices to preserve if the Holden example is indicative of what the movement then does with them. Regrettably, there are plenty of “Holdens” around.

Another with its name in the press for all the wrong reasons at present is Qantas, a far bigger commercial proposition than Holden which is also on its knees in large part for the same reason — its bloated, overpaid, complacent, unionised workforces presided over by union thugs and warlords with cavalier disregard as to whether the airline survives or dies.

It’s hard to believe that it has been more than two years since Alan Joyce grounded Qantas to neutralise rolling industrial action that its unions were engaging in; as we said at the time, the Fair Work Act introduced by the Rudd-Gillard government had created the most heavily pro-union industrial environment in 30 years, and the thugs at some of Qantas’ unions weren’t shy or bashful about exploiting it.

Indeed — despite the pleadings of some of the more reasonable figures in their movement, such as Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association federal secretary, Steve Purvinas — the Qantas unions collectively bent Qantas over a barrel, so to speak; and as we also said of their actions at the time

“What…is even worse is the fact that Qantas workers who have opted not to take part in strike action have been harassed and bastardised:…houses of workers refusing to strike have been damaged, or their car windows smashed in retaliation for turning up to work, are disgraceful.”

I’ll just float this for readers to consider, too: the three years Joyce bought Qantas by grounding the airline, during which its unions are prohibited from engaging in industrial action against it, expires in October next year. What right-minded individual would expect anything other than hell breaking loose at Qantas in ten months’ time?

We will, of course, get to Qantas in its own right very soon, as promised. Yet Qantas seems to have been singled out for special attention by the unions; the same unions struck largely the same deals for the same work with Virgin Blue shortly before the 2011 dispute for an average of 14% less in take-home wages for the Virgin workers than it had demanded of Qantas.

The point is that laid bare in last week’s press, it’s now clear that Qantas couldn’t even afford the compromise pay increases it worked through after the airline’s grounding, let alone the rip-off the unions sought at first to enact “in the name of their members.” Those who were loudest two years ago in their vehement protestations that the wage rises sought at the time were “modest” and “affordable,” and that Qantas was simply another evil employer that needed to be taught a lesson, are now — strangely enough — nowhere to be seen or heard.

It continues with the teacher unions; again I am going to defer to The Australian‘s Judith Sloan, who eloquently articulates the agenda of these most powerful of union beasts; it’s a good read that should really outrage anyone whose view of education funding extends beyond the idiot-simple (and fatuous) proposition that higher teacher salaries are a magic bullet for improving educational outcomes.

Indeed, Sloan concurs with my oft-repeated statements in this column that all Gonski will achieve, in short, is to fund further pay rises for teachers, with nary a care in return for enhanced standards of education delivery; what she fails to point out directly (although the allusion is there) is that such salary increases are indiscriminate: a really great teacher (who deserves to be paid more, frankly) will be paid at the same rate as the bumbling no-hoper who fell into a teaching course on the back of “loving kids” and who might have a “rewarding” experience in the classroom, but who isn’t a teacher’s bootlace.

It’s an insult to the great teacher in the example, and an abject waste of taxpayer money; it’s also a potentially lifelong disservice that is rendered upon those who really matter — the students — but when you’re a teacher union operating in this fashion and wielding the clout with which to do so, the welfare and education of school students play second fiddle to the more urgent task of lining pockets at public expense.

What makes it worse, as Sloan points out, is that the AEU in particular has taken the Victorian Department of Education to court to block it from introducing performance benchmarks for its teachers: proof, were it even required, that education is very much a second-order priority to salary.

Why do roadworks occur during the day, wreaking havoc on everyday life? Union-“negotiated” rates of pay and penalties make it prohibitively expensive for them to be undertaken overnight as they once were. Why do an increasing number of hospitality businesses close on Sundays? Because small businesses can no longer afford paying $40 or $50 per hour on the penalty rates that go with rostering staff on Sundays.

Of course, I could go on, but I think the point is amply illustrated. And the irony is that far from guaranteeing “the rights and conditions of members at work,” as the unions proudly boast, all of these scenarios (and plenty more like them) actually put their members at risk of unemployment — sooner or later.

The Abbott government has been bequeathed an unexpected opportunity to kill two birds with the one stone on account of the AWU scandal that enveloped the Gillard government; that scandal — and Gillard’s role in it — has some room yet to run, with a Melbourne court ruling that Victoria Police can access documents seized from law firm Slater and Gordon as part of the ongoing investigation into alleged fraud at the AWU. Lawyers for Ms Gillard’s ex-boyfriend Bruce Wilson had argued they were privileged.

It is already known that the industrial relations overhaul — such as it is — to be enacted by the Coalition during this term of Parliament will include the imposition of the kind of regulations and standards of governance on unions as already applies to business under the Corporations Act.

This is to be welcomed and, to be clear, is a reform that is decades overdue.

But so much of the mess that has been created by the “modern” union movement in Australia — business failures, mass sackings, and the movement of entire workforces offshore as union demands price their members out of Australian markets — dictates that something has to be done to curb their influence, even if the revisitation of a WorkChoices-style labour market liberalisation is too politically fraught to attempt.

The problem arises from the unbridled abuse of the very commodity unions trumpet as their greatest strength: their bargaining clout as a collective entity.

Whilst the Liberals are legislating more appropriate standards of union governance, here are a few other measures  — in no particular order — that should be evaluated and legislated as well:

  • The right of an individual worker to opt out of a collective agreement and negotiate directly with an employer should be restored;
  • The inclusion of any political levy in union membership fees should be outlawed altogether;
  • All major union ballots to occur as secret ballots, and to be conducted under the auspices of the Australian Electoral Commission;
  • “Slush Funds” of the kind central to the AWU scandal — and since reported to be rife within the union movement — to be outlawed;
  • The coercion, intimidation, harassment or victimisation of union members refusing to strike to be made a criminal offence punishable with fines of $500,000 for the individual and $2 million for the union, per offence;
  • Coercing, inciting or otherwise forcing or directing individual union members  to vote in support of industrial action to be criminalised and punished in similar terms;
  • Making the solicitation of new union members an offence during the standard working hours and on the premises of any business union organisers, stewards or the like enter;
  • Imposing a reasonable notice period (enforceable by the employer) under so-called “right of entry” provisions available to unions, and the abolition of those provisions altogether in businesses employing 20 or fewer workers;
  • Mandatory Federal Court review of all collective bargaining agreements struck between unions and employers since 2008, with the Federal Court empowered by legislation to dissolve these agreements where they can be shown to be significantly prejudicial to the continuing operation of the employer on a case-by-case basis; and
  • The dissolution and prohibition of any union-sponsored collective bargaining agreement explicitly stating that productivity and/or standards of performance must be excluded in determining whether employees are eligible to receive pay rises.

For far too long, the unions in this country have played fast and loose with Australia’s business sector, its economy, and the jobs of those they so callously yet emptily claim to protect.

If WorkChoices is no option, there is more than one way to skin a cat: perhaps an approach of the kind outlined here might be more propitious.

After all, unions now cover just 16% of the Australian workforce, and it’s a very reasonable assumption that a fair proportion of that 16% were coerced into joining up in the first place.

The final thought goes to Collier, who says — in the context of an ex-employee of Holden she interviewed — that

“If Holden does (close in Australia…it) says leaving will cost $600m. Most of this will go to staff payouts. The fellow interviewed agrees…the average production-line worker will walk away with a redundancy package of between $300k-500k.”

On those figures, you have to wonder — had Holden’s workforce been reasonably remunerated rather than kept in clover by a union gun to the company’s collective head — just how much more time it would have available to it to knock its Australian operation back into something resembling decent shape.

As I said at the outset, when the union “outrage” at the Abbott government begins after Holden shuts up shop, it will be a politically motivated attack on a conservative government, pure and simple; “concern” for the jobs of their members will have nothing to do with it.

There are plenty of “Holdens” around. It should give conservative lawmakers some pause for thought.

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5 thoughts on “Moving Forward: Marginalising Unions Without WorkChoices

  1. And now Toyota.
    Unions are not here for the good of the worker – they are power and money hungry conglomerates thirsty to claim larger and larger portions of our workplace to have under their control.
    Grace Collier is right.

  2. Do you think the Libs would have much of a problem with GM closing down if everybody knew the workers were getting some three times the award wage? Why hasn’t the industry minister been out in the media hammering this point home to the public? Who is running the media strategy in the Libs? They need a big boot up the backside because most of the gullible fools out there have no idea of whats really going on. The fiasco in the childcare sector and Gonski are more examples that have been poorly handled information wise and what happened to Labor’s 300 billion debt to the nation, it seems to have disappeared from the public’s view. The Libs need to let their inner mongrel loose and start attacking Labor in the media rather than seeming to be more interested in being friends with everyone on the other side, including the ABC. I would only have taken Shorten on the plane if I was going to throw him off over the ocean.

  3. If only the unions and management could work together in harmony for the benefit of all.
    Really, it could be done. It just takes a bit of lateral thinking by both sides.

    The new Government has a large handful of problems on its plate, including Qantas and the ABC.
    Here’s an example of how lateral thinking and cooperation by all participants could solve these two problems.

    http://cartoonmick.wordpress.com/editorial-political/#jp-carousel-813

    Cheers
    Mick

  4. What a load of ideological claptrap, Unions wish they had the mystical powers given to them by conservatives in a attempt to paint them as something they are clearly not. Where is the criticism of poor management practices, or has somehow reaching the lofty position of manager or holding a MBA give equally mystical powers of worthiness off biblical proportions?

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