A quite astounding piece was published yesterday in both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age by Dean Mighell, the Victorian Branch Secretary fo the Electrical Trades Union: “Unions must leave Labor”. He writes:
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….
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.
One’s political views are often formed in childhood, and though I was only nine years old when Gough Whitlam’s Labor government was finally dismissed and the Fraser Liberal Government resoundingly elected in its place, I soaked up every bit of my farming community’s views of both the Labor Party and their Union bedfellows. My wife, on the other hand, was the child of school teachers, a school teacher herself, and usually the school union representative. We could not possibly come from more disparate political worlds.
The point is, that my antipathy towards the Unions has always been tied with my antipathy towards the Labor Party. Would it be a good thing if the two were not like Siamese twins “joined at the hip”? Would my view of either change markedly? Very possibly. It would be a very different political world here in Australia if it were not simply assumed by the Unions that Labor could do no wrong, and the Liberal/National Coalition could do no right. Mighell makes this interesting comment:
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. … 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.
The Magisterium of the Catholic Church tells me that workers unions are a “good thing”. While in theory, I am able to accept that, in practice, I have always found it very difficult to see. Part of this is precisely because the Union Movement in this country is not just seeking to protect human rights in the workplace (something that Mighell says it isn’t doing very well at the moment), but has tied itself to the entire left-wing agenda, from abortion to homosexual marriage. AND of course, there is the original reason why my childhood community hated the Unions: they are so concerned about their own individual rights, that they have traditionally shown little concern for anyone else in the economy, including the agricultural industry. One of the difficulties with the Union Movement’s world view (and with traditional Catholic Worker’s Movement ideas – somewhat corrected in the Pope’s latest encyclical) is that there are a lot of “workers” out there who are self-employed, and who need just as much human rights protection as those who are employed by others.
Human rights, in the workplace as anywhere, should not be a political issue in this country. They should be recognised across the board. The Liberal Party is as capable of doing this as the Labor Party. Vice versa, both parties are equally liable to fall under the influence of national and global powers that ignore these rights. The ACTU has assumed, for too long, that all “workers” are Labor voters. This is simply not the case – not by a long shot. As long as the Australian Union movement is tied directly to the Labor Party, there will always be a large block of workers who have no intention whatsoever of “voting Labor” by joining the Union. As Mighell writes:
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.
I commend Dean Mighell for raising the question of formal separation of the Union movement from the Labor Party. Now I would like to see a true human rights movement for “workers” which embraced all citizens of this country who work for an income to provide for themselves and their family, whatever their political views and whatever the situation of their employment.