REVELATIONS union membership has fallen to its lowest level ever — 11% in the private sector, and 15% of the total workforce — explodes the myth of union relevance; whatever past good unions rightly claim, the country — except for teachers, public servants and militant construction groups — has mostly moved on. Sound governance and labour market reform must not be derailed by a cabal spurned by almost nine in ten working Australians.
You have to wonder at what point the penny will drop for the ALP; the revelation earlier this week that union membership now covers less than two in ten working Australians is a potent and undeniable signal that the Trades Hall junta that funds the Labor Party and rules it with a dictatorial fist is no longer particularly relevant in mainstream Australia.
So far has union membership dropped that the unions have all but reached the status of a fringe group, or just a noisier minority than most of the rent seekers and beggars who trawl the corridors of power in Canberra seeking status, patronage and influence.
With just one in ten private sector workers electing to join a union overall — and marginally more than that when public sector employees are factored in — Australians have voted with their feet and their wallets in a stunning rebuff of organised labour, and one which renders void the loud and histrionic claims to continuing relevance in modern Australia.
It is figures like these that underline the utter bastardry of militant unions like the CFMEU in holding the entire construction sector to ransom: one of the key drivers of jobs growth and economic activity, the building and construction industry is effectively a petty fiefdom of lawless CFMEU thugs, and the end results of their handiwork are reflected everywhere in the form of delays, cost blowouts, higher prices, and lost productivity.
And it is figures like these that shine a light on the reasons the ALP has become so unrepresentative of — and irrelevant to — contemporary Australia; the outdated, stagnant industrial agenda of what passes for the union movement in this country nowadays does not reflect, increasingly, the lives of those who live in it.
Yet Labor remains 50% controlled by the union movement, and in practical terms this effectively means that provided unions vote as a bloc they can control any outcome within the ALP edifice; once again, the results of this can be seen everywhere, with union stooges comprising the vast majority of Labor caucuses in the states and federally, as well as populating the ranks of the ALP’s advisor pool at both levels of government.
It makes for a shallow gene pool indeed when it comes to policy vigour or (God forbid!) any originality of thought, for the one thing that can be said of all these union lemmings is that they all sing the same song from the same song sheet: there hasn’t been a new idea from any of them in the 32 years since Bob Hawke devised the Accord.
Solidarity Forever, indeed…
It is difficult to ascertain precisely what purpose — aside from brawling against conservative governments and trying to prevent them being elected, and creating industrial and social mayhem when they don’t get what they want from those conservative governments, that is — unions in Australia even serve these days.
Most of their staunchest defenders talk about “safety” in industrialised workplaces; and even on that count the claim is dubious, for even the most heavily unionised workforce contains ample underlings with ready tales of “safety breaches” being declared by shop stewards with the explicit purpose of forcing an employer to agree to something that’s usually completely unrelated to the supposed safety issue at hand.
But to the extent “safety” is a pretext for the existence of unions, a whole private industry, based on workplace expertise and tailored and specialised to fit specific industries (and probably even drawn in part at least from existing union ranks) is just waiting for whatever group of people is entrepreneurial enough to create it: making the presence of unions in their current form redundant on this particular count at a stroke.
Collective wage negotiations? The most spectacular industrial failure in Australian history can be laid at the feet of unions, with the wholesale closure of car manufacturing in this country to be complete in the next few years; unions — striking “enterprise” agreements with car manufacturers — priced themselves and their workers out of the market to the point the local industry was uncompetitive internationally.
It matters not whether car industries in other countries are subsidised by their governments or not: Australia’s was still the most unproductive of the lot, and especially when compared against the likes of Germany and the USA; these “enterprise” agreements were predicated solely on soaking up the quantum of government subsidies in pay increases, necessitating further subsidies that were eaten up in further pay rises, and the cycle — which continued — reaped its inevitable consequence.
Those agreements cannot be judged on the rates of “base pay” they delivered to members, as unions are fond of protesting, for those “base” rates, when augmented with loadings, allowances, penalties and other goodies, saw semi-skilled mechanical workers walking away with six-figure annual incomes, and reports of redundancies at General Motors at least running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per worker. Such arrangements benefit the few fortunate enough to be on the scene at the time, but they do nothing for sustainable jobs, nothing for sustainable industries, nothing for job growth, and pay scant attention to anything other than short-term expediency.
But even now, unions — purporting to strike collective, industry-wide pay and condition deals — have shown themselves adept at striking different deals with the managements of different companies in the same industry, and one example of it is the different arrangements that apply to the workforces of Qantas and Virgin: the same type of workers performing the same tasks, yet the Virgin workforce costs an awful lot less than its counterpart at Qantas. And why? Because the unions agreed.
There is no reason why the same principle cannot be applied at individual hospitals, or schools, or at the very least, to individual health and education regions, with staff delegates nominated by their peers to conduct enterprise negotiations with their managements.
Such examples shine a spotlight toward an alternative form of workplace bargaining that could offer unionists a way forward as part of a modern, contemporary workplace model. But the unions won’t have a bar of it, for these are the most conservative organisations in the country. They haven’t changed in decades. And not only do they not want to change, they stubbornly refuse to do so.
And it isn’t hard to see why.
The revelations being aired at the Royal Commission into the union movement have already seen numerous union identities referred to law enforcement agencies for prosecution and, on the law of averages, the Commission’s final report can be expected to add to that number exponentially: what is clear, before the report is even delivered, is that the organisational structure that sustains Australia’s unions is rotten to the core, and the decent men and women who work in the labour movement deserve far better than what their “leaders” are being shown to have done.
But those “leaders” are dependent not only on their citadels of power, but on having them as large and as bloated as possible: numbers, in the old solidarity spiel, are strength; and in their particular case they provide delegates at Labor conferences, clout to use against employers, numbers to wheel out across Australia’s industries and cities to bring them to a screeching halt if whatever the day’s demands are not acceded to, and muscle to intimidate, harass and/or bully opponents and holdouts into submission — or worse.
Now — presumably because a conservative government is responsible for it — we have unions campaigning heavily in the media against a free trade agreement with China that will create thousands of jobs (not least, for their own members), grow the economy, and which offers one way to attempt to ensure the unprecedented growth and prosperity Australia has enjoyed over the past 20-25 years continues.
Why? The only conclusion to draw is to “stick it” to the Turnbull government. Certainly, the campaign against the China free trade agreement being waged by the unions is baseless, and seemingly designed merely to frighten people.
In turn, this isn’t a useful or productive function of Australian unions either.
It does not matter — as a poll by Essential Media found this week — that 62% of Australians regard unions as “important;” the fact is that less than a quarter of that number put their money where their mouth is.
It’s like the 70% of people polls used to find would vote for Malcolm Turnbull if he became Prime Minister and, with no disrespect to Malcolm, I’m certain even he won’t be heartbroken when the Liberal Party’s vote (even after preferences) isn’t 70% at the next election or anything remotely approaching it.
Anyone can say they support something in theory. Words are just that. But action is what really talks, and when it comes to union membership in Australia there is less, and less, and less of it.
In today’s world, it doesn’t matter what laws you have, or whether there are unions or not, or what statutory safeguards are legislated to protect employees: if people are determined to act as shysters and swindlers and to rip people off, they are going to do it anyway. We are only talking about a small minority of people, but as the Left doesn’t comprehend, you can’t legislate away (or suppress with brute tactics) the base human nature of the recalcitrant.
But for the most part, people today realise there is a better way to deal between workers and employers than having the unions stick their (unwanted) noses into the process; the fact just 15% of the workforce even belongs to it is the proof.
It certainly isn’t a demonstration of the need for unions, or an endorsement of them.
And this brings us squarely to the present debate over penalty rates.
To his credit, Malcolm Turnbull has shown a disinclination to shun difficult, necessary reforms because they’re simply too hard as the Abbott government did; there is an emergent discussion on tax and welfare reform beginning to germinate as well, and taken in collective with the conversation about penalty rates it is to be hoped the reform process that stalled when the Howard government was defeated can be resumed.
Unions are readying to fight — as I continually point out — their fourth consecutive federal election campaign over WorkChoices; not only are they a decade behind the times on that front, but the scare tactics have been wheeled out so many times people are sick of hearing them and simply don’t believe them any more.
But WorkChoices — whether you agreed with it or disagreed with it — was introduced without being raised during an election campaign, was introduced without a mandate, and whilst I maintain it was a far more reasonable and moderate package than the nightmare scenarios repeatedly conjured up by Labor and the unions.
And WorkChoices was the charge of one Kevin Andrews to sell as the responsible Howard government minister: something he singularly failed to do, and by the time he was replaced with someone more adept at making the case for the reforms (ironically, in retrospect, by Joe Hockey), the Howard government was dead in the water. It had paid the price for its electoral heist with its political life. And it was probably the single greatest reason the ALP was able to defeat it.
But properly calibrated reform proposals — on tax, on welfare, on penalty rates, on industrial relations more broadly, and on anything else for that matter — that are adequately explained and competently sold to the electorate are not impossible to realise, nor the right kind of change impossible to achieve.
Characteristically, the union movement will oppose all of this to a man.
But with their membership being revealed at little better than one in eight Australian workers for all the world to see, it’s patently clear that whilst the unions can make a lot of voice and wreak havoc with people’s lives, they act and speak for a small proportion of the Australian workforce only.
I think it’s time to call their bluff: intimidation and threats and bloody-minded bastardy might make useful weapons of fear, and the wholesale disruption (and often destruction) the unions like to unleash with their rent-a-crowd protests drawn from people who should be at work but are more interested in participating in legally protected trouble than in any defence of “principle” can hardly be entirely ignored.
But the Turnbull government, as it moves to salvage the opportunity to prosecute reforms the Liberal Party was elected to tackle, shouldn’t be deterred by it either. We all know the tactics. None of us finds them pleasant. But a tiny band of noisemakers should not and must not be allowed to continue to dictate outcomes to the almost nine in ten workers forced to involuntarily accept the results.
That a debate is taking place on penalty rates concurrently with the rising tide of Liberal support in opinion polls carries a salutary message to those who might be tempted to buckle before union thuggery and bluster.
And for the ALP, there has never been a better time to jettison its formal links to its union buddies, and to sever the bonds that hand control of that party to Trades Hall when it represents so few people in Australia at all.
It would make a pleasant coincidence of timing for such a change to concur with the inevitable departure of its “leader,” Bill Shorten, sooner rather than later.
Naturally, no-one should hold their breath.