Unions: part of the solution, or part of the problem?

Since the 1980s, Australia, like many industrialised countries, has experienced rising inequality and growing concentration of income, wealth and power. Within the workplace, there are major concerns about working hours, work intensity, work-life balance, pressures on women, “overemployment” and underemployment, demands on employees for flexibility, insecurity, micro-management of time and managerial efforts to control “culture”.

Upward redistribution of income and power has accompanied the spread of “market liberal” or “neoliberal” policies in most industrialised countries – without any distinguishable improvement in productivity to justify it.

In this grim context, are unions part of the solution, or part of the problem?

Unions and the problems of the past

Through much of the 20th century, unions’ high membership and industrial and political strategies gave workers – both members and non-members – substantial gains, helping moderate or reduce inequality.

In the 1990s, though, what had worked well for unions (tribunal advocacy and doing politics with the ALP) became a liability in a context where employers and governments became belligerent and the workplace, not the tribunal, became the centre of wage determination.

Membership declined. To varying degrees unions sought to reorganise, devoting more resources to the workplace and training of workplace delegates. This boosted influence in some workplaces but the environment remained adverse. A rare but major success was the Your Rights at Work campaign against the Howard government.

Now the problem?

Although the decline was stabilised by the early 2000s, membership failed to grow sufficiently to match workforce growth, so union density (membership as a proportion of the workforce) continued to ease. If unions were once part of a solution, their situation now is a barrier to redressing the growth in inequality, and hence is part of the problem. Increased inequality in several countries has been linked to fallen union density. Few Australian unions have been fully transformed and it is important not to understate the magnitude of changes now demanded of them.

Australian unions are in a weaker situation than during the Accord of the 1980s and early 1990s. Competition for “rents”, generating a spiral of unemployment and inflation, had prompted the Accord as a solution. These days rents are still being extracted, but by different groups – extremely high income earners, top managers and directors of large firms, and some financiers.

By the Rudd-Gillard years, unions were relegated to just another lobby group. They maintained links with the Labor Party, but that government seemingly figured, “where else could unions go?”. Unions put resources into the ALP, which badly needs the resources but does not want the unions.

Structurally, unionism is no longer a primarily male, blue-collar affair. Soon there will be more female trade unionists than males. White-collar unionists now out-number blue-collars by two to one. Professionals are unions’ biggest occupational group. Manufacturing accounts for only 7% of members, less than half those in health care and social assistance. Many of the “heartlands” of unionism are no longer so.

Governance remains an issue. There are well-argued claims that proceedings of the Royal Commission on Union Corruption demonstrated bias against unions, but also no doubt that some corruption existed within some unions. To the extent certain union officials enriched themselves and disenfranchised members, this anti-democratic activity undermined workplace unionism. The governance challenge is how can unions be demonstrably pure without also appearing impotent.

Meanwhile there is a clear need for major rethinking of economic and social policy, in Australia and overseas. Despite the failure of liberal market policies through the global financial crisis, pushing millions out of work globally, the ideas behind market liberalism showed zombie-like persistence. Civil society failed to develop and articulate an alternative vision.

Can unions be part of the solution?

The net effect of globalisation’s contradictory tendencies – promoting economic and employment growth alongside greater demands for flexibility and risk shifting – depends on choices taken by many actors.

But what is unions’ capacity to shape these forces and mobilise responses? Australian unions do not face unique problems, though national factors have exacerbated them. Canadians Lévesque and Murray identified key “power resources” for unions, including their internal solidarity and infrastructure. But unions must also be capable of using these resources as contexts change. Much depends on unions’ capacities for learning, framing issues, fostering collaborative action and networks, and devising actions across time and space.

Effective union mobilisation requires power and capabilities on many levels. But perhaps the foundation is the workplace. Workplace influence requires workplace activism. This depends on effective delegates with self-belief, supported by union offices, with access to networks providing back-up, information and ideas. Formal training of delegates is essential but almost wasted if resources are not put into follow-up of training. Necessary structural changes can be both expensive and controversial.

Workplace influence requires delegates and members believe they can and do influence what the union does. Workers cannot have power in the workplace if they don’t have power in the union.

Democratisation is not so much about elected structures as it is about members’ and delegates’ ability to shape what the union does and how open it is to members’ preferences and their diversity.

An effective response to workplace and national problems requires new ways of doing and thinking about things. The prominence given to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century reflects how it “suits the mood of the times”. The need to develop an alternative vision is greater now than ever before.

But can unions mobilise outside labour? Are they capable of engagement in a ‘big conversation’ about alternatives? It would require change to the “insider” mentality – precisely what the Accord did when pensioners and poverty became industrial issues. It would require confronting unions’ old anti-environmental image – but already many actively engage in environmental and climate issues. Unions are probably the only group with the resources, breadth of membership, and organising capability to draw together the disparate groups and individuals concerned with developing an alternative. In that way, they could be central to the solution.

In the end, if unions are to be part of the solution, there is much to be done. It requires action in developing and empowering workplace delegates and members, democratising union processes, strengthening articulations between levels, developing framing capabilities, managing governance, becoming learning organisations, deepening links and networks with other organisations and movements in the community, and using such links to build and articulate an alternative vision of society. It is a huge task. But if unions don’t do this, who will?

This is an abbreviated version of a fully-referenced article in Australian Review of Public Affairs.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

CFMEU fight for right to call workers scabs

The CFMEU has taken a case to the High Court to be able to
use the term ‘scab’ during industrial action.

The case originally began during the long industrial action
which crippled BMA in 2012.

During strikes at the Norwich Park coal mine former miner Walter
Meacle was accused of abusing non-union worker Trevor Loader during strike

Meacle was accused of yelling “scab c**t” at Loader and
jumping a barrier to give him “the finger” during industrial action.

After investigating the
incident BMA terminated Meacle’s employment, but he and the Construction, Forestry,
Mining, and Energy Union deny the event took place.

In the opening day of the Fair
Work court battle Meacle admitted to “yelling words at vehicles” but
denied specifically targeting Loader.

Meacle told the court Loader
fit his definition of a scab but he could not see a reason why BMA would
specifically dismiss him for strike action when thousands of workers had also
joined him.

Lawyers representing BMA and
Meacle spent three days arguing over whether the accused had done anything wrong.

The CFMEU’s lawyer Warren
Friend denied the allegations against Meacle, saying coarse language, such as
the word scab, was simply part of the picket line and therefore was protected from BMA’s code of conduct.

Similar incidents occurred last
year as well during industrial action at Energy Australia’s Yallourn Power
station, with one employee claiming the word ‘scab’ was spray-painted on his fence.

The use of the word scab has
now gone to the high court, with the CFMEU attempting to define it as protected

Speaking to CFMEU
spokesperson Jackie Wood, she told Australian Mining the High Court case “is
about upholding workers’ rights to freedom of expression and participation in
legitimate and lawful industrial activity”.

“We argue the Fair Work Act allows workers to participate in protected
industrial activity in the pursuit of fair work arrangements without being
sacked for it.

“In this case, the worker in question was taking part in lawful
protected industrial activity, along with many others. We believe he was
targeted for sacking not because he was holding a sign but because he was a
union delegate,” Wood said.

“The word ‘scab’ is of common and historical use in Australian
industrial disputes.”

Wood went on to attack the original decision by BMA owner BHP to sack
Meacle, saying “in this case they have
used the excuse of a ‘code of conduct’ to put a worker out of a job”.

“We mustn’t allow big
corporations to further limit the rights and freedoms of Australian working
people. Allowing this sacking to stand would set a disturbing precedent.”

When BHP was contacted it declined
to comment, stating “as this matter is before the High Court it is not
appropriate for us to comment at this time”.

Toll workers vote in favour of strike action

More than 8000 workers from Australia’s largest logistics company Toll Group could go on strike for 72 hours after voting in favour of protected industrial action.

Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) national secretary Tony Sheldon said that 85% of the votes cast supported taking protected action.

The TWU first filed documents with the Fair Work Commission in July, asking them to approve a ballot on all forms of industrial action.

Workers at over 400 yards were balloted by the Australian Electoral Commission on the type of action they wished to take, including a strike of up to 72 hours.

The TWU wants confirmation that employees of companies contracted by Toll are paid fair wages.

It is also asking Toll to guarantee it won't create separate businesses with lower pay rates and differing safety standards.

Sheldon claims the company has not been open in its negotiations.

“It’s always been our intention to reach an agreement with the company that our members can vote on, but after more than 100 hours of negotiations we still remain some distance apart,” Sheldon said.

“TWU members are seeking a fair agreement that recognises their role in the continued success of Toll and ensures that their job security, conditions and safety standards won’t be undermined.”

Sheldon said the union members would now meet to decide the size of any action taken.

“Following on from this decision, our member led-negotiation team will now meet to decide on the appropriate scope and size of industrial action in the event that the deadlock is not broken.

A spokesman for Toll has previously said the company was "extremely disappointed" the union had taken the action.

"We are extremely disappointed the union has taken this action, especially considering negotiations between Toll and the union are continuing,” he said.

"Implementing union-imposed conditions that make Toll uncompetitive in the current economic environment would be the biggest threat to job security.”

A Toll employee told LMH  today that " the majority of Toll’s employees believe the current offer Toll has on the table is fair and reasonable, and want a sensible agreement finalised as soon as possible."

Image: smh.com

Toll workers prepare to vote on strike action

More than 8000 workers from Australia’s largest logistics company Toll Group could go on strike for 72 hours after the Transport Workers Union won the right to vote on industrial action.

The TWU filed documents with the Fair Work Commission on Friday asking them to approve a ballot on all forms of industrial action. The commission granted permission for the vote yesterday.

Workers at over 400 yards will be balloted by the Australian Electoral Commission on the type o faction they wish to take, including a strike of up to 72 hours, News.com reported.

The TWU wants confirmation that employees of companies contracted by Toll are paid fair wages.

It is also asking Toll to guarantee it won't create separate businesses with lower pay rates and differing safety standards.

"Fighting for the rights and conditions of workers at Toll is part of our fight to protect the rights and conditions of every transport worker in the country," said TWU Assistant National Secretary Michael Kaine.

"Our members are prepared for this next step in this fight."

TWU negotiation team member, Rick Millich, said Toll had left the union with no option.

"It's effectively pushing us for a permission slip to contract out our jobs to unsafe, substandard operations," Millich said.

"We're ready to fight to secure Toll jobs and for our families."

A spokesman for Toll said the company was "extremely disappointed" the union had taken the action.

"We are extremely disappointed the union has taken this action, especially considering negotiations between Toll and the union are continuing,” he said.

"Implementing union-imposed conditions that make Toll uncompetitive in the current economic environment would be the biggest threat to job security.”

Votes will be taken over the next month and industrial action could begin after it is endorsed.

Industrial action at Newcastle coal terminal

Workers have announced they will carry out strike action at New castle' Port Waratah Coal Services tonight.

Four hour work stoppages will start at 11pm tonight, and will stake place every night for the next week.

Maritime Union of Australia national assistant secretary Ian Bray explained that although PWCS and the union are close to an agreement "there remain a few unresolved issues that the workers consider important enough not to walk away from and, as a result, the workers are taking this protected industrial action".

“We emphasise again, however, that we seek to reach agreement on those unresolved matters because we, like PWCS, would welcome a return to getting on with the business of shipping coal to PWCS clients.”

Earlier this month workers held a two day strike, after failing to reach an agreement over ten months of long running disputes.

Two day strikes for Newcastle coal terminal

The bitter industrial dispute at the Port of Newcastle has deepened as workers at Port Waratah Coal Services go on strike for two days.

Union members working at Port Waratah Coal Services first voted to take industrial action in early May after a meeting between the unions and PWCS failed to resolve a ten month dispute over new enterprise agreements.

More than 200 Port Waratah Coal Services workers voted to take action.

The Maritime Union of Australia first warned that it would take industrial action in the form of indefinite stoppage of overtime and a ban on shift changeovers on Sunday.

However action quickly escalated to extended work stoppages of 12 and 24 hour strikes.

MUA Australia branch secretary Mick Forbes said PWCS wants to change enterprise bargaining clauses related to dispute settlement and contracting.

Forbes described the proposed changes as “union busting”.

The MUA claim anti-union proposals in the new agreements seek to undermine the safety and health of workers and tear up longstanding settlement procedures around contract issues.

The new round of strike action will start today and tomorrow, the 7th and 8th of June, starting at 8pm on both days and stretch through the night shift until 4am.

MUA Newcastle branch secretary Glen Williams said the decision by workers to take action shows the strength of the workforce.

“PWCS continues to pursue an anti-union, anti worker approach to these negotiations in the face of a wall of unity and solidarity,” Williams said.

“The company needs to finally understand that these workers will not break.”

“It’s time the company came back to the table and ceased its campaign to wind back the rights of its employees.”

Williams added that while the unions and workers were willing to take strike action, they continue to seek a negotiated agreement.

PWCS told Australian Mining the company had been open in its negotiations.

“PWCS has been negotiating in good faith since July last year,” the spokesperson said.

“There is nothing that PWCS is proposing or seeking to negotiate in the new agreement that does not respect the rights of employees to belong to a union, or to be represented collectively.”

The spokesman said contingency plans are in place to mitigate impacts to the local supply chain.

Image: secretaryofinnovation.com

Coal terminal workers to take industrial action

Union members working at Port Waratah Coal Services have voted to take industrial action as pay negotiations come to a stand still.

Maritime Union of Australia branch secretary Mick Forbes said the vote for industrial action had been overwhelming.

Five unions represent workers at the two PWCS loaders.

Forbes said PWCS wants to change enterprise bargaining clauses related to dispute settlement and contracting, Newcastle Herald reported.

Forbes described the proposed changes as “union busting”.

An MUA spokesperson told LMH any industrial action specifics ‘will be decided by the rank and file members in the future.’

The spokesperson said the main issues the unions were concerned with was job security including the settlement procedure of contract issues, what matters can be arbitrated and concerns over the use of contractors.

PWCS chief executive Hennie du Plooy said denied the company was ‘‘anti-union’’.

Yesterday PWCS announced it had agreed to accept reduced tonnages from local miners as producers had advised that the fall in demand for coal handling services was due to falls in production as a result of lower prices and higher export costs.

Image: abc.net

Bechtel loses bid to lock-out MUA

The Fair Work Commission has dismissed attempts by Bechtel to block the Maritime Union of Australia from going on-site at the Curtis Island LNG project in Queensland.

In handing down its decision Fair Work said while the MUA could not represent riggers, mooring masters, and other workers, excavator operators on-site could choose to join the union.


Bechtel had attempted to block MUA access to excavator workers by claiming the employees were not performing “waterside work”.


“There is sometimes little or no excavation work to be performed on the wharf; that work is only about 60 per cent of time [and] when excavator operators are not on the barge, they may perform roadwork . . . that is clearly not waterside work,” Bechtel's lawyers said.


In her ruling Fair Work commissioner Susan Booth said the excavator workers could be considered to be doing maritime work, and the MUA therefore had the right to come on-site.


“There was evidence … that the work of an excavator operator is no different whether it is on the land or on a barge,” she said.


“However this is not the point. The work is unloading aggregate from barges at a wharf. That places the work in the marine environment.”


“Indeed, it seems that the employer is mindful of the marine environment. Advertisements for crane operators that were brought to the Commission’s attention made reference to experience around the marine environment being viewed in high regard.”


The Australian Mines and Metals Association said there was a chance Bechtel would appeal the decision, and the lobby group said the MUA move to Curtis Island represented an attempt to poach more members.


The MUA has urged Bechtel to accept Fair Work's decision and said any move to appeal the ruling could be met with strike action from a number of affiliated unions.

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