BY DEAN MIGHELL
February 11, 2010
February 11, 2010
In 1972, Gough Whitlam changed Australian politics forever with the mantra ''It's time''. Today, the same slogan should apply to Australia's unions, because it is time for them to break away from the Australian Labor Party and stand independently for what they believe is right.
There's a great unspoken truth in Australia's labor movement now and if it is not tackled soon the future of this country's unions as the effective political voice of the workers is in serious jeopardy.
Everyone will remember Tracey, the highly stressed working mother who featured in the ACTU ''Your Rights at Work'' TV ads. Well, Tracey, if you still work in a workplace with fewer than 15 employees you can still be sacked unfairly and, worse, your basic award conditions have been reduced under Julia Gillard's ''modernisation'' program.
A new relationship between the ALP and unions that is based on mutual respect is desperately needed. In Scandinavia, unions and the Social Democrats have an alliance, not affiliation.
In the United States, unions largely support the Democrats and their campaigning and finance are critical, though they have no affiliation mechanism. They effectively lobby Republican politicians on many issues and some unions actively support Republican candidates if they believe it is in their members' interests.
Our system differs but the principle remains. The union/Labor relationship has its history in the British model and if that's utopia for workers, I'll give it a miss.
Too often, despite the theatre, both Labor and the Liberals now look to the polls rather than their party conferences for policymaking. There can be no more glowing example than that of industrial relations policy. Labor has effectively adopted most of the Howard government's IR policy, and rebadged it, and refers to it as ''Fair Work''. But in reality, big business and their representatives have had unprecedented access to Labor and are delighted with the results. Even Howard's Building Industry Taskforce has been retained, to the delight of multimillionaire builders and developers.
I well remember when John Howard ushered in the 1996 Workplace Relations Act. Peter Reith was industrial relations minister and the ACTU denounced the legislation as the ultimate, anti-worker evil. Union anger was at boiling point and Reith was demonised at every turn. Now there is a deafening silence from the ACTU as Labor governs and workers' rights and conditions are attacked.
The truth is that Howard's laws at the time, as bad as they were, gave workers and their unions a much better go than Rudd and Gillard's Fair Work Act. When Howard controlled the Senate, he then took it too far and paid the ultimate political price.
During the recent Senate inquiry into the Fair Work Bill, the ACTU refused to buy into the debate that the bill contained many breaches of human rights as defined by Australia's international obligations under International Labour Organisation conventions. If the ACTU is so severely compromised by the ALP relationship that it can't stand up and fight for basic workers rights, then something is seriously wrong.
Belatedly, after the Fair Work Bill had become legislation, the ACTU has identified 15 serious breaches of human rights and has said that, ''on balance'', the Fair Work Act met Australia's ILO obligations. Australian workers have every right to feel let down.
Membership numbers have declined and so too has the influence of the ACTU, which has refused to adopt a policy that is at odds with the ALP and this strategy simply hasn't delivered.
The challenge for unions is simple - create unions that workers want to join. The financial membership of the Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union has grown every year since 1995 despite the huge job losses through electricity privatisation, manufacturing decline and bad IR laws. Unions such as the Nurses Federation and Police Association have had large growth too; neither are affiliated with the ALP in Victoria. Significantly, we have close to 2000 apprentices under the age of 25 as members.
Many workers are sceptical that ALP affiliation is too often a mechanism to ensure pre-selection to a safe Labor seat for a few union leaders and they rightly ask, to what end? I've seen too many union leaders who think the ALP is the ''main game'' and spend most of their time wheeling and dealing in the ugly factional process. I'll admit, I've done my bit too, but I've always known that a union's mission is looking after workers, not preselection.
Unions must act strategically. That may include backing independents and parties that care about the interests of ordinary working people.
Collectively, unions represent close to 2 million Australian's directly as members; we act to protect millions more. We proved with the ''Your Rights at Work'' campaign that we can be Australia's most powerful lobby group.
By remaining affiliated with the ALP, unions are automatically the enemy of the Liberals and National Party and I seriously question if their stance on trade unions would be as severe if unions were not an intrinsic part of their political rival.
I'm not anti-Labor, far from it. It is my hope that unions and the ALP always have a good working relationship in the continued interests of Australia and working people. However, relationships change, evolve, collapse and rearrange, it's part of life and so too must the relationship change between Labor and unions for the betterment of both.
Dean Mighell is Victorian branch secretary of the Electrical Trades Union.