Saturday, December 13, 2008

Unions, not workers, the real winners from IR changes

The Australian union movement is probably the most aggressive in the developed world.  It moral table-thumps, insisting its position, and only its position, represents purity.  It uses and abuses international conventions from the International Labour Organisation and human rights bodies claiming Australian unions have the right to be institutionally embedded in the framework of government.

Australian unions claim moral authority based on their spin of historical events, both recent and from the far distant past.  And ultimately they allege that class warfare is the basic fact of the work situation.  They say that workers will always be exploited and only saved by the fever-pitch screeching of union class warriors.

In all this they pedal part truth and part lies.  Foreign construction workers in the Middle East for example desperately need union protection, but are sold out by their own domestic governments' frantically seeking repatriated foreign currency.  In Australia, "rogue" employers do operate in the construction sector, flouting safety laws and hiding behind phoenix companies to avoid payments to workers.

But let's get real.  Australian unions are not a bunch of holy saints.  They're rough, they're tough, they're savvy and they're rich.

They control some of the largest hoardings of money in Australia through industry superannuation funds.  They have well in excess of $1 billion a year in direct revenue of which they use a big chunk for one purpose, to promote themselves.  They often behave as badly and immorally as the businesses against whom they direct their moralistic tongue-lashings.

But let's get real again.  The Australian union movement is not one thing.  They have many shades and colours.  Many unions are highly professional, service-orientated, practical and commercial.  Some however are totally irrational, eating themselves apart with internal wrangling.  A small number are even evil in the true sense, giving legal and institutional cover to criminals within their ranks.

It is in this "real" context that industrial relations legislation must be assessed.

Yes, WorkChoices deliberately sought to remove unions from the core of the institutional protection of workers.  The Forward with Fairness legislation, now it has been revealed, rewrites unions back into the centre of the game.  Unions are touting this as the great victory of the workers.

But let's keep a balance.  This pendulum of class warfare is largely irrelevant to most work situations and workers.  We're all workers now, whether managers, shop floor operators or the self-employed.  The class warfare is primarily played out in the courts, with lawyers having revenue feasts.  The "game" is mostly one of legislative design over who has legal authority over whom.

The new legislation proves the point.  Historically unions derive their legal authority because they represent employees.  That's as it should be.  This legislation gives unions authority in their own right whether they have members or not.  It's a dramatic shift.  The power pendulum has swung wildly in the opposite direction to WorkChoices, with power not to employees but to unions.

There's more to come it seems.  Unions are campaigning hard to abolish the construction industry cop, the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).  The construction unions in particular are painting themselves as victims, claiming they have fewer rights than the rest of society.  It is not valid.  Yes they can be dragged in for interrogation but it is no different to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission dragging in some business executive for conspiring to fix prices.  The powers are similar.  So why are they needed in construction?

It is all on the public record.  The 2003 Construction Royal Commission found the construction industry is a work environment of extreme bullying and intimidation.  It still happens that workers who are not unionist are kicked off sites and denied their right to a day's pay.  Honest workers are physically abused.  It is rough stuff.  It is all about monopoly control of labour in construction.  Criminal union elements collude with some big construction bosses so the bosses can force competitors out of the industry.

There is a code of silence controlled by fear that is anti-worker and anti-human rights.  There are plenty of honest union leaders outside of construction who know this is the truth but are powerless to stop the abuse.  The ABCC has strong powers of interrogation to break the code of silence.  It is slowly working, but take it away and fear and intimidation will rush back into the vacuum.

If we are going to be really moral in this debate, it is about the rights of workers, not unions or employers.  Workers have the right to be protected from thugs, whether the thugs are union stand-over merchants or devious bosses.

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