the right to a union is not your rights at work

One of the changes to unionism that the ‘organising model’ introduced in the mid 1990’s was developing the idea that some workplaces and members were not sustainable as part of the Union. This was a recognition of the move from ‘servicing’ to ‘organising’.

Overall, Union surveys consistently show a positive attitude by workers to Unions, the ‘they are there to help people’ attitude. This good-will is traded on by the Union movement in the political arena. However, it is an attitude out of step with what the organising strategy of the ‘organising model’ is about.

In the 2008 election, under of the auspic of the ACTU, the Union movement ran a highly regarded political campaign against the recently introduced WorkChoices called,  ‘Your Rights at Work’. This idea of rights is one that the Union movement promotes. It is beyond criticism that an explicit political agenda of workers rights is prosecuted by the Union movement.

The move of the ‘organising model’ to a utilitarian ethical framework does however make it problematic in the structural nature of how unionism is presented today. The ‘greatest good of the greatest number’ is at odds with the naive rights-based arguments that the Union presents politically , or even the Declaration of Human Rights. While many may argue that they are intertwined, these are contested ethical arguments. At the simple level, utilitarianism allows for an individuals rights to be suppressed, not for the rights of the mass, but for the overall benefit of the group.

In workplaces where there is highly organised unions, enterprise bargaining agreements that deliver substantial benefits to the workforce involved. For workers who are not part of the agreements, such as workers with alternative union coverage, contractors, etc. we would assume that those workers would at least have the minimum conditions of Award coverage. What makes that problematic is the lack of knowledge by those workers such as the case of migrants and visa-employed staff, coupled with ignorance on behalf of employers.

The type of perfect storm that occurs in the contract cleaning industry. An industry that permeates all workplaces, including those that are highly organised. Employers in the drive to suppress wages choose low-hanging fruit, such as cleaning and security as a way to opt employees out of EBA’s and unions. As a non-employer, they then can claim that it is not their responsibility for the conditions of their contractors employees.

The reality is that in the drive for profit, contractors tend to forgo Award obligations for a variety of quasi-legal and illegal arrangements. Unions are prepared to turn a blind-eye since it one way their members can obtain higher wages (at the expense of other workers) and like employers claim they have no moral responsibility for these arrangements. It is without irony that while MUA members at Patricks were organising celebration of the anniversary of the 1998 dispute, they  supported arrangements by Patricks to underpay on-site workers, the very behaviour that Patricks was trying to introduce as a result of the 1998 dispute.

Unions have a self-interest to resist the behaviours of employers in these cases. Firstly, by contracting out workplace employees, it provides the opportunity to expand this behaviour. The recent dispute at CUB was centrally located around contracting work out. By maintaining vigilance, impedes employers drive to lower wage costs. Secondly, it is the moral argument that underpins the value of unions. By ‘scabbing’ on workers (taking their wages to benefit themselves), Unions lose moral authority to argue their own case. This is not a technical argument, that is the history of ‘scabbing’. Unions use greater good arguments as expediency to suppress the rights of workers. This is both myopic and fails the overall ‘greater good’ argument.


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