On the day Labor’s Fair Work Act became law, the conservative media went into meltdown about “unsustainable” wage claims and dire warnings of “serious economic damage” afoot.
They could not have been more wrong.
Eight years on – despite the regular warnings of “wages break-outs” that never came – worker wages are now barely growing. Even the inflation focused Reserve Bank wouldn’t mind some healthy wage increases.
So what has happened?
First, some facts. Union members earn considerably more than workers not in a union. Also, unions now represent just one in 10 private sectors workers. Membership has collapsed in a generation.
You cannot talk about weak wages growth without talking about emaciated unions.
Part of this is due to the collapse of blue collar industries, part of it is a failure to organise casual and contract workers and part of it is some of ‘s biggest unions themselves. None of these issues is new, they have been trends for decades. But they have reached a tipping point.
And it is likely to get much worse before it gets better.
In 1992 there were more union members aged 15 to 24 than there were members in their 50s. Now there is about 3.5 union members in their 50s for every young worker.
New ACTU secretary Sally McManus is campaigning hard on a bid to “change the rules,” and says the Fair Work system is “broken” – in favour of employers.
She has a point. The International Labor Organisation, as far back as 2010, found the laws had numerous fundamental breaches of basic worker rights, though it’s worth noting it was the ACTU and Labor at that time that squandered the anti-WorkChoices campaign to deliver these laws.
Yet it’s the loss of union power – not the laws per se – that has tipped the scales so heavily against workers.
It’s only been in the past few years that employers have started to aggressively use the Fair Work Act to abandon enterprise bargaining and move workers onto the minimum pay and conditions of the award.
Before that they did not dare. Employment lawyers and companies now know they can get away with it, as ‘s unions haven’t been this weak for 100 years.
There are some things that would make unions stronger, beyond changes to the law.
The best and most successful unions tend to be the ones that have the least to do with internal Labor machinations. The hugely successful and fast-growing n Nursing and Midwifery Federation is a prime example, as is the Electrical Trades Union in Victoria.
Both are tough, independent and secure strong wages for their members.
The worst unions, invariably, operate as play-things of Labor warlords.
The Health Services Union corruption saga was inextricably linked with Labor factional politics. Its members were paid a pittance.
The Shop, Distributive, Allied and Employees Association is best known for opposing social change, whether it is abortion, same-sex marriage or euthanasia. It’s hugely active in Labor’s right faction.
Yet, as the largest private sector union in the country – nearly one in four private sector unionists is a member – it struck deals with ‘s biggest employers that have left, conservatively, at least 250,000 workers paid less than the award, the legal minimum.
What’s needed is serious cultural change, more transparency, and more member-driven unions.
Many unions are yet to successfully respond to the casualisation trend that started in the 1990s, let alone the gig economy which is starting to take root thanks to Uber and others.
New or existing fighting unions should not be shunned or constrained by archaic demarcation rules that dictate which union can represent workers, and where. It’s time to ditch the 19th-century structures.
Look at the important work of the National Union of Workers organising migrant farm workers – many of these workers they are not technically allowed to represent.
Some unions seem more interested in dividing the political spoils of a dying movement than in providing strong representation. Some healthy competition to improve the lives of workers is long overdue.
Otherwise, don’t expect strong unions or strong wages.
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