The Union movement frames itself as a social justice movement. This perception is problematic when we analyse the effects of Unions actions over their political rhetoric.
It can be argued that neo-liberalism was not a concept of the Right in its inception but as part of the ‘Third Way’ politics championed by Clinton, Blair and Keating.
In the mid -90s the Keating government introduced Enterprise bargaining, this is a mainstay of the Union movement and is the one key organising issue used by Unions.
Recent attacks on workers and the agreements that they sign with their bosses highlights the effect these legacy Unions have had on wage setting. The CUB 55 were said to lose 65% of pay if they signed up to the out-sourced maintenance contract. A contract that was paying Award + 50c. This 65% figure included shift-loadings and penalty rates that Unions had bargained for above Award in the first place. The AMWU and ETU were careful in not releasing figures over what this meant however we can extrapolate from these figures that they used in the campaign that the workers involved were receiving more than 200% of Award. This did not happen overnight but was the result of bargaining contracts that the Union and CUB signed since the late 90’s.
In the 70’s it was the Metal Workers Award that set the industrial standard, one that has been said ‘trickled down’ to other awards across the industrial spectrum. There was self-interest in Unions supporting the arbitration and income-setting that Industrial tribunals and courts set across Australia.
Having a State based industrial system also served as a brake on attacks on wages through the Award system. The Workplace Agreements introduced by the W.A. Court government was made easier to overturn since the incoming Gallop Labor government was restoring rights that workers in other states held which creates a community expectation of fairness.
However EBA’s produce a number of structural results. Attacks on workers wages and conditions, for the most part, aren’t felt by the workers employed under EBA’s. In the 2001 WA State election, it was the ‘forest issue’ and financial brokers scandals that the election was influenced by (http://john.curtin.edu.au/gallop/career.html#18pc) , industrial relations was not a campaign issue.
EBA’s has a financial and resourcing cost associated with servicing membership. EBAs are core business for Unions and primacy is given to servicing members. Organising campaigns around EBAs are common, again a cost and servicing issue that has paramount importance for Unions. Award servicing has no membership density attached to it, after 20 years EBAs have outstripped Awards and stand on their own merits rather than being underpinned by them. Unions give little resourcing to Award management rather their primary focus is on membership servicing.
What this has created is a two-tier working-class. An aspirational middle-class that put wage-earners in the top 25% of wage earners and a working-class that falls behind as basic rights such as affordable housing, quality healthcare, choice of education become less available. Couple this with important issues such as travel, time and security and these issues compound.
EBAs have co-opted Unions into a neo-liberal agenda. Enterprise bargaining has given rise to self-interest rather community interest. There is no irony in fact that well-paid Union members under EBA’s in most industries work along side underpaid contract cleaners. This is part of a systemic racist attitude that is reinforced by the self-interest of one class of workers over another. Union memberships act in ways to validate behaviours that remove the community of interest from the workplace and premise specialisation as market conditions to justify this. Blaming management is a convenient excuse that ignores principles of solidarity, worse however, is that it justifies scab behaviour from unionist whose pay-rises are at the expense of low-paid workers. It shows a short-term mentality as management recognises that they can use it as a legitimate tactic in driving down wage costs, as we have seen in the CUB55 case.
Higher wages for legacy Union members with their history of bargaining is an attack on low-paid workers as the social contract is undone, since the individual worker under well-paid contracts have less self-interest in defending safety nets. It is the self-interest of Unions that creates this two-speed setting. Self-interest not only in financial rewards for members, but under the ‘organising model’ is the only game in town for recruitment drives.
And employers are waking up to this. The ACTU is trying to link an EBA negotiation at Sonic Health Plus with the award changes to hospitality and retail awards. However the employer is seeking to revert to award conditions in this case (https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/documents/modern_awards/pdf/ma000034.pdf ; https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/documents/agreements/fwa/ae408671.pdf).
Giving primacy to Unions bargaining over their individual wages has crippled the Award system. An unique world class system that is slowly being dismantled due to Union inattention, and realisation by employers that they don’t have to negotiate with a cartel-like interests. If EBA’s had recognised that higher payments were part of productivity increases then Unions should have the data to justify on-going above-award behaviours. But they do not.
The current crisis in the Union movement, recognised by Dave Oliver, will not be solved by the neo-colonialist following of the current US union movement theorisation. Australia has a unique industrial system, one that is not amenable to an extremist industrial environment like the US.
Ironically, after left-wing criticism of the Hawke/Keating industrial reforms, the Union movement is reduced to defending it out of self-interest. Fortunately for the working class there are alternatives, using the historic narrative and structural knowledge of the ‘disruptive economy’ there are already signs of the future of the Union movement. Unfortunately, it means fighting battles already won, as the legacy unions are firmly entrenched with middle rather than working class interests.