Mobilising Workers Against Liberal Party Shows True Union Colours

NEWS that automotive workers will participate in an AMWU protest at the Liberal Party’s Victorian headquarters in Exhibition Street today is no surprise; it lays bare the union agenda in the face of worker disadvantage at Holden: the only party it apportions responsibility to is the Liberal Party, which should tear the scales from the eyes of those remaining sympathetic to its propaganda about the “rights and conditions of workers.”

There are other issues for us to discuss and we will do so later in the day, but I have read a report on a characteristic stunt the AMWU is set to pull in Melbourne this morning and I wanted to briefly pass comment.

I find it astonishing that after 20 years of striking enterprise agreements with major employers — agreements which, by dint of the rocketing cost of wages inflicted on those companies in real terms — anyone in the union movement would point to the Liberal Party as being responsible for the collapse and/or shutdown of those companies when their spiralling bases of costs force them to take tough and unpalatable decisions about their future.

After all, the Liberal Party is not a signatory to any of these agreements: that might seem like a ridiculous statement to make, but it’s not so daft upon consideration.

The union movement has just had six years of the friendliest environment it has enjoyed in the past 30 years under the Rudd-Gillard government, underpinned by the heavily pro-union Fair Work Act, and preceded by the gift of an industrial relations policy — WorkChoices — introduced by a Liberal government without a mandate, swiftly abolished after the defeat of that government in 2007.

The decision last week by General Motors to shut down its manufacturing operations in Australia was made progressively over a period of months and years, not days; it is factually and intellectually dishonest to suggest a conservative government elected three months ago is somehow fully to blame.

I agree with commentator sentiment in the business press that Toyota is likely to follow suit, taking a fair chunk of the automotive component industry with it. But such a development will be the result of the industry as a whole failing to provide efficiencies of scale to permit either to continue to operate on a commercial basis — not because of anything the Abbott government might or might not do.

Holden Australia boss Mike Devereux — in the understatement of the year — conceded yesterday that he had “probably been too soft” in dealing with the unions during his tenure at the helm of the car maker, which is tantamount to an admission the company had caved in to the extortionate demands of its unions in EBA negotiations.

And as we discussed yesterday, the Federal Court dismissed an application that would have allowed Toyota workers a vote on modifying their own EBA on the basis that to do so was illegal: a reality directly traceable to the Fair Work Act and to Gillard’s tenure as minister for Industrial Relations under Rudd.

Contrary to the AMWU’s assertions otherwise, the new Liberal government did not seek to abandon industry assistance for the automotive manufacturing sector; rather, its policy was to freeze such assistance. The precise location at which a line in the sand is drawn is always a subjective consideration, but a firm position that a particular industry will not be the beneficiary of an endless and increasing flow of government subsidy money is very much an elected government’s right to take.

That said — as we have discussed repeatedly over the past week — the seeds of the GMH announcement were sown on Gillard’s watch — not Tony Abbott’s.

It may seem a churlish distinction to make, but yet again the union movement is placing its own political agenda and its own welfare ahead of the interests of its workers: in the past week I haven’t heard a single union voice raised in criticism of anything the Rudd-Gillard government did, despite the fact that the GM decision clearly was under consideration for much of the period of that government.

I make the point that a ten-week old conservative government inherited that process at the very end of its gestation: if this decision had been announced prior to the election, General Motors would have rightly been accused of interfering in Australia’s electoral politics just as the unions now seek to turn the decision against the Liberal Party.

I also make the point that irrespective of who is in government — be they Labor or Liberal — the day Australia’s car manufacturers closed up shop in Australia was inevitable.

One thing that is obvious in the face of that reality is that the union movement hasn’t done much to prepare for that inevitable moment arriving: the only thing they have to offer is to lash out at their usual target, with their usual propaganda, and in the meantime, the real interests of their workers are ignored.

There will, no doubt, be images of a mottled and rag-tag pack descending on the Liberals’ offices in Melbourne, disrupting traffic and inconveniencing those going about their business, beamed across the country in all the news feeds over the next 24 hours.

I caution readers to recognise it for what it is: the AMWU seeking to exploit the predicament of their members, cynically and opportunistically, to score points in a fight that will not make a jot of difference to anything that has transpired in the car industry over the past week.

Perhaps a more constructive approach might be for the unions to spend their Christmas break bunkered down with leaders in the industries they represent, workshopping long-term strategies to help facilitate the retraining and/or redeployment of those affected by the shakeout in the automotive sector that is still in its infancy.

The reality, however, is that such a prospect would be too much to ask; it’s far simpler to take pot shots at the Liberals, and deny all responsibility.

It makes you wonder what benefit there is in joining a union at all, really, although that’s not a dilemma I’ve ever had to come to a reconciliation with myself over for indulging in it in the first place.



Congratulations And Best Wishes To Dave Oliver At The ACTU

This may surprise a few people, but I have always been a firm believer in giving credit where it is due; in this spirit I would like to wish Dave Oliver my heartiest congratulations on his appointment as the new ACTU secretary, and to wish him all the very best.

At a time of chronically falling union membership, decreasing relevance to the majority of wage and salary earners in this country, and poor public advertisements such as the present Health Services Union/Craig Thomson fiasco, Australia’s unions have fewer and fewer representatives to whom people generally are prepared to listen, and take note of.

To this end, the assumption by ACTU secretary Dave Oliver of his new role is to be welcomed, and it is hoped it may be a pointer to a more constructive role for the trade union membership in the broad workplace relations agenda, and in society generally.

I met Oliver a couple of years ago, when he was the head of the AMWU in Melbourne, by virtue of what was at the time my day job in advertising; whilst there are obviously elements of his politics and agenda to which I am completely and implacably opposed — and, no doubt, of mine to him — I was very impressed by what I had seen.

My take on Dave Oliver is that he is no fool; and whilst he can be expected to be a formidable advocate for the interests of union members across the country, it is my view that in appointing him the ACTU has uncovered a decent and fair operator who will be tough and blunt, but considerate of other viewpoints and fair in his dealings.

I have been particularly encouraged by what he has had to say in relation to the fracas going on around the HSU; it is to be hoped that this ethical and no-nonsense perspective will find its way into union operations across the spectrum of the ACTU’s constituent bodies, and across Australia.

I would also hope Oliver’s tenure will coincide with a modernisation of union practices and governance to bring them into line with what might be expected by law of comparable corporate enterprises.

Whilst clearly a political opponent in many ways, I believe Dave Oliver is also someone a future conservative government may be able to do business with; it remains to be seen as to whether that is so, but it is possible — with an appropriate approach from both sides — to achieve constructive and meaningful outcomes for both sides of the industrial relations debate, and I look forward to observing how this process pans out.

I also hope his tenure will lead to the reset on the union side in the way it conducts its business so many — including rank-and-file union members — seek, and that the sort of thing we are presently witnessing on a daily basis at the HSU will become a thing of the past.

But for today, I simply wish to offer Dave Oliver my sincerest congratulations and good wishes on his new role; and I will watch with great interest — to use the vernacular — to see how he goes.