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Issue #1810      February 14, 2018

How the union movement can un-break itself

Although the history books say that Howard’s WorkChoices policy was killed by the trade union movement and Kevin07, in reality, the biggest trick the Liberals and big business-devils ever played was convincing the world WorkChoices was dead, buried and cremated.

Just when workers felt they were safe, protected by the Fair Work Act, the Liberals and big business were bringing in individual contracts and minimum rates by stealth, and finding loopholes to sabotage collective bargaining. How did they do it? By turning workers against unions.

In my study of trade union narratives, I have looked at the way the media have framed trade unions, from the shearer’s strike, the pig iron strike, the waterfront dispute, the Hawke Accord to WorkChoices. There is a consistent theme in the coverage: unions are framed as the villains – unreasonable and bad for the economy. Employers are framed as the heroes – reasonable and good for the economy, always given the benefit of the doubt.

This narrative has been so successful at winning the culture wars that workers are cutting off their nose to spite their face by opposing unions, right when they need unions most. Take, for instance, the case of Turnbull cheered on by truck drivers when promising to rid them of the Transport Workers Union and the Labor Party’s Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, a regulatory body which was designed to “increase truck driver pay” so they could drive more safely.

Think about it for a moment. These owner-operator truck drivers were “outraged” that a union, of which they weren’t members, was working in their interest for free. It was forcing monumentally-profitable supermarket chains to pay them enough that they didn’t have to break the speed limit all night to make a living. Since they were all being paid at least the same minimum amount, and truck drivers provide a service the supermarkets can’t forgo, they’d still have work. So, how is it in truck drivers’ interest to campaign against higher rates of pay?

Contract workers, like these truck drivers, have been convinced that “being your own boss” gives you “freedom”, when really the only freedom it gives is for employers to rip you off. The fantasy of the Liberal’s WorkChoices dream has come true, yet many workers vote for union-bashing Liberal governments again and again.

By framing unions as power-hungry political players, the media have detached “unions” from “workers”. They have put unions in the political-establishment-bucket, where they are written off as acting against the interest of workers. Industrial disputes are framed as “boss” versus “union boss”, suits doing back-room deals, leaving workers with no voice in the story. Media reports of train strikes are about the will of “militant power-hungry union bosses” rather than stories of poor conditions for rail workers and unsafe travel for commuters.

Employers have been using the cover of the Global Financial Crisis to claim they can’t afford pay rises. This is not a believable excuse. Profits are up 40 percent in the last four years, yet workers are still waiting patiently, too patiently, to be rewarded by wage rises. Too often workers believe their only choice is unstable, casual, low wage work – better than no job at all.

Part of the reason profits are so high is because productivity isn’t being rewarded, and wages do not cost what they should. Profit-takers are laughing all the way to off-shore-tax-haven bank accounts, while workers are left with wages that are not keeping up with cost of living.

Then there is the double-whammy of the Liberal-stacked-laughingly-so-called
“Fair Work Commission” which has made industrial strike action virtually impossible.
So, even when the brave few union members organise to push back against greedy, uncompromising employers, they are left with no option than to put up with bad conditions, or resign.

But this is not the end of the story. Employers are individually greedy in refusing pay rises, and are also collectively cutting off their nose to spite their face by reducing the spending power of their customers. With 60 percent of the economy reliant on consumer spending, you have to laugh so you don’t cry when groups like the Retailers Association bemoan low retail spending in the same year as they’ve won their campaign to cut the pay of hundreds of thousands of workers’ penalty rates. Workers are consumers, and when they can’t afford to shop, they don’t shop. This is not rocket science.

Unions are in a position to tell this story – of how the wage rises they facilitate are good for the economy; how workers should be unafraid of wage rises and how employers are lying when they say they can’t afford to pay workers.

The media’s trade union narratives have helped the Liberals and big business turn workers against unions, which ultimately turns workers against themselves. Unions can help to un-smash the movement by telling new stories to explain how workers can improve their lives, and make the economy a more equal and profitable place to work, by joining their workmates in solidarity.

Next article – Gender pay bender

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