Industrial Relations 101

Xiaofan Bi’s article ‘Time for Trade Unions to Grow Up’ is an anti-union screed, notable not just for its factual inaccuracies, but its wild innuendo and fundamental misunderstanding of Australia’s industrial relations system.

The author says he can “no longer tolerate” rogue unions, but he never explains what a “rogue union” is. If you glean the article for clues, it seems that a rogue union is any union that fights for better pay and conditions for its members (all unions). What this also implies is that at one stage the author did tolerate these “rogue unions”, with no explanation as to what shifted his perception ex cept from reading that Martin Ferguson and Paul Howes had called for wages restraint.

Something needs to be made of the analogy the author uses, comparing the unions to Dark Age peasants. This is an entirely trite and offensive slur against the millions of workers across Australia who pay union dues, not to mention those who fought and died on picket lines for the pay and conditions we enjoy now.

What the author seems to be implying with this analogy is that the peasants were wrong to use their deductive reasoning to believe there was gold contained within the goose who laid the golden eggs. Rather, he would have us believe that the gold is produced magically somewhere inside the goose (“the economy”), and that the peasants (“workers”) should invest their trust in it to deliver wealth for them. Perhaps a small reference to “magic pudding” economics would have sufficed.

What was missing from the article was what the author thinks a reasonable pay rise, or wage, or set of conditions should be. If 3% is too much, would he be happy with 2%? Or maybe he wants a pay freeze or even a pay cut? How about putting all these manufacturing workers on the award? This omission highlights the fact that the article was nothing but an attack piece on unions.

The author also misrepresents the pay rises afforded to workers between the period of September 2011 to April 2013. It was in fact 4.5% (not 7.75%) and his mistake arises from rolling in the April 2013 to April 2014 pay increase of 3.25% into the equation. So here is an author clamouring for wage restraint for Australia’s blue collar workers, and he is not even able to demonstrate financial literacy or the ability to read a pay table.

The offensive letter he quotes to the 400 workers scabbing on the 2011 strike represents another instance where the author demonstrates a misunderstanding about how unions function. The letter bore no AMWU letterhead, and was written by striking workers, not the AMWU. It was most definitely written by AMWU members, because only union members have the right to take protected industrial action (something the AMWU would have known), but the question the inclusion of this “evidence” poses is to what extent does the union have responsibility for what its members do?

The author also fundamentally misunderstands the way in which an enterprise agreement is formulated. Before an agreement expires, the employer calls for workers to nominate bargaining representatives. Some workers elect themselves or their peers to sit at the table. Unionised workers may (and do) elect their union to do the same. Only unions who have legal coverage of that industry are entitled to represent their members. During negotiations, both the employer and staff (some represented by their unions), must engage in “good faith” bargaining. If a party is found to have not bargained in good faith, the Fair Work Commission may compel that party back to the bargaining table for further negotiations.

The employer at any time may put the proposed agreement to a vote with all staff. This vote is a secret ballot, and a union will advise staff to vote yes or no. If a majority votes no, then negotiations continue, until a position is reached where the majority of staff vote yes. If the agreement expires, it continues without pay rises, providing an incentive for staff to reach an agreement with their employer.

The author seems to have this impression that the unions are all-powerful and monolithic organisations, when in actual fact they are only as strong as their membership. A good enterprise agreement is an indication of the strength of workers in that workplace. Unions are member-driven organisations, and the push for better pay and conditions comes from workers, not union officials. If the author is unhappy with the current system of enterprise bargaining, perhaps he’d like us to go back to the old system of compulsory arbitration and conciliation? Or maybe he’s calling for a return to Australian Workplace Agreements?

The article revealed another interesting point: Why would the AMWU put itself out of business? If workers and AMWU leadership knew that the agreement would lead to massive job losses, why would they have pursued it? Unfortunately, trade unions do not possess crystal balls that allow them to peer years ahead. The author is right to say that losing jobs is not advantageous for the AMWU, and I would hazard to suggest the AMWU knows this too.

The reason we enjoy great pay and conditions in Australia is not because of the generosity of the bosses, it because there is a 150 year old history of struggle, with thousands of workers having lost their lives and endured poverty on the picket lines for demanding safe workplaces, fair pay and the right to unionise.

What the original article sought to do was attack unions, but in actual fact the author attacked the workers who make up unions, labelling them as greedy and stupid. This is shameful rhetoric: pure ideology masquerading as analysis. The predicament in the manufacturing sector hints more towards the dynamic nature of global capital, not the avarice and power of unions, despite the author’s claim that wages were a “main factor in cause the planned departure of Toyota and GM Holden”. Trade unions are an essential component of Australia’s workplace relations system, and wholesale attacks on their credibility by cherry-picking enterprise agreements and posing single-cause explanations are only assisting those who profit from our labour.