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  Issue No 107 Official Organ of LaborNet 17 August 2001  




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2.3 The State of the Union

White hope or white elephant? The future of trade unions is by no means guaranteed in the networked society.




The union movement in the Industrial Age evolved as the institutional response to the imbalance of bargaining power in the workplace. It was the structure through which labour negotiated with capital. Tribunals and laws were developed to set minimum wages and standards and trade unions were the official entity that represented the interests of workers. It was almost like a machine,: input the ambit claim, pull the lever and out come an economy-wide wage increase.

But now the structures are breaking down. And it's not enough to blame hostile employers and a Conservative Government. It was, after all, the Keating Labor Government that started the push towards enterprise bargaining. It recognized that the structures that Labor had built over the previous years would no longer serve the interests of workers in a networked economy.

The movement has now been in this precipitous decline over the last fifteen to twenty years, that's been so obvious and yet unions have - on the whole -- stuck their heads in the sand and done nothing about it, or very little. In Australia there's been this incredible sense of drift where we could see what has been happening everywhere else, but we still had a Labor government in power that was softening the blows, globalisation and neo-liberalism going on.

There were small changes made, there were some things done that were useful like establishing Organising Works, others that were probably counter-productive like the creation of superunions by forced amalgamation. But there was no major turnaround - there was still a decline. Why hasn't there been any change? Why is there a stagnancy or paralysis? Why is it so difficult to move those organisations towards a changing economy and a changing workplace.

The reasons for the decline are well-known. The move away from blue collar and manufacturing jobs towards the service industry and the decline of large organisations where unions traditionally flourish are largely out of the union movement's control. But as the Information Age rapidly approaches we have sat like kangaroos in the headlights, maintaining the same unwieldy structures that we have always had and cultural problems that have left individual unions paralysed. Even today, many unions are led from the top down, they have leaderships that are authoritarian - which is an obstacle to change.

You've also got unions with very progressive leaderships that understand what the problems are, and what changes are required, but they are confronted with a workforce and culture with their organisation that will not accept any change. They have skills and experience that are no longer relevant. A lot of those people working as industrial officers or organisers are actually wannabe lawyers. They want to be able to put on a suit, go down to the Commission and save workers. That's what they want to be, that's what their career aspirations are, that's what their training and experience is. But we are confronted with that situation where that is not what the organisational needs of the unions are. What a union needs is people who can relate to members - who can go out and understand what their situation is. Who can identify the issues and the leaders in the workplace who can drive those issues. The system we've been operating under, that historically has delivered a lot of good things for workers, is now an Achilles heel for us because it has produced this particular organizational structure.

The Organising Response

There is a change happening though. A huge amount of effort was expended over the last twenty years, except it just wasn't expended in useful ways because there wasn't that issue of looking at new ways of working. The ACTU leadership at its most senior level embrace an organizing culture. He's dramatically cutting the IR side of the ACTU and investing a lot in the communications, campaigning and marketing side. Let's hope that over the next two or three years that it will pay dividends.

The organising approach does match the dynamics of network technologies to the extent that it is about flattening the structures within trade unions to bring the institution closer to the individual members.

In a union, you've got your organisers, they're your front line, they're the ones making the decisions. You admin staff and senior officials should be setting the environmental controls, and providing political nous so that the organisers can do their job. Instead the organizer is regarded as a low level, low status position. Unions are very hierarchical with all power resting in the full-time elected officials. You get this information log jam and organisational paralysis around that individual. This is propped up by the industrial and legal officers who generate 'important' decisions for the leadership, often involving legal action and large sums of money.

Democratisation of the organisation is crucial for any union. There's lots of things about IT that may be overstated - but one thing it does do is bring out a lot of the issues about what needs to be done. One thing the Internet's done brilliantly is bring out the need for two way communication and having interactive capabilities between lots of people and unions. One thing that IT is going to do for unions is confront them all the time about their lack of democracy within their organisations, because people are going to talking to you all the time.

Accepting Insecurity

The rise in job insecurity is a great opportunity for unions - let's make no bones about it. It's just that unions are tending to oppose the shift that has created the insecurity rather than looking at ways of helping members thrive in the new environment. But think about it strategically: in a situation where you are likely to move around in small enterprises, what is it that gives you a sense of continuity? In the past it was the enterprise like IBM or DJs, where's the continuity now? The identification of a worker can no longer come form the transitory engagement with a company.

This is an invitation for the union movement to step up to the plate and offer workers an identity. And not just and identity, but also a network that will help them move from job to job. APESMA and the Nurses Assoc. probably are of the best examples around at the moment - a hybrid union professional organization that provides advice and protection but, more importantly, a sense of professional identity to the kind of work. Critically, these unions are providing the infrastructure to assist people to move around - providing the infrastructure for mobility.

This stretches our traditional notion of what a union is. In the current industrial age sense a union is an Industrial Organisation of employee registered with the Industrial Relations Commission. In the information age a union is a network of people doing a similar job across workplaces. The unions' role extends from the traditional industrial role, to organising, professional support and assisting people to change jobs.

There are a large number of unions that are effectively still looking at their members in the same places that they looked for them ten or twenty years ago, they were under that rock then, but of course they are in totally different places now. It's all about the idea that people will join a union if they're asked and there are issues out there in the workplace that you can organise around - if you actually do it. But they do have to be asked, they're not going to come running to you, but they are totally open to the idea.

The Finance Sector Union a few years ago were fighting all their industrial battles around the big banks and insurance companies, but they realized that they weren't taking account of the fact that a lot of workers were disappearing out of the industry...they were going into new types of financial sector organisations. They've turned around, and over the last couple of years, aggressively trying to recruit from call centres and other places, but it took them a while to realise it and the horse had nearly bolted before they realise that their membership was going down significantly.

Things can be turned around but it means that union have to change, they have to recognise that if they are sitting on a declining sector, they have to have a growth strategy. They also have to look at what there members needs really are; rather than just what they appear to be. For instance rather than promising job security, which a union cannot deliver, unions can work with employers to ensure that employees skill are kept up-to-date. If an employee has portable skills which they can take from job to job then the need for job security is diminished.

Limits to the Organising Model

But how do you organise a worker in a workplace where there are no issues? Where the employer treats employees well. A smaller organisation, where the work might have a personal relationship with the employer, where the worker might hold shares in the organisation, where they're well treated, where they're learning, where they realize they're employable elsewhere and can leave any time Is there a role for a union in this kind of workplace, or should unions continue to focus in on workplaces where there are bad employment practices?

The problem for unions is that there are organisations like that, and they're a growing sector - unions are now confined to 20 per cent of the private sector, so it's unlikely, working for a union that you would ever hear about this kind of organisation. Working in a union, the only people that ring you up are in workplaces where there are problems. There is the risk that is unions are consumer with looking at all the bad employers in front of them - and they are still there in numbers -- that the rest of the world might be moving on. There is a growing segment there, that does have a different approach to their employees, and unions need to find a constructive role to play in this kind of workplace.

Let's say you've got a workplace which is bad. The boss is treating the employees badly, they're unhappy - they turn to the union. The union campaigns in the workplace around issues. It doesn't work at first, but the employers behaviour is so bad that the union has lots of good issues to organise around, eventually the union successfully organises the workplace. The employees, now unionised stand up the employer, the employer recognises that unless it changes its style then there will be continual confrontation and it won't be able to make money. Eventually management changes their approach.

What happens then? What should the union do? There are two ways to go - the union can still scratch for issues to campaign around, and try to keep the workplace in a state of confrontation or the union can recognise that they can't keep the workplace as active and as angry as it would be if the employer was still providing them with issues. People want a conflict-free work environment, they are naturally conflict averse. People want to live their lives, get on with the job but if there are issues there then they are prepared to stand up and be counted. They'll become less confrontational? Hopefully as management changes the means of resolving the conflict will become less confrontational.

Where does a union go from there? We have canvassed the role of unions in helping people in the transitions between employment and it is a really unappreciated and under-done one. Unions need to be looking at forming their cooperatives of members - they're own labour hire firms. They also need at looking at sharing information between members. Workers who are in the union could be sharing valuable information such as job opportunities, current rates they charge (to ensure they are not undercutting each other), information about the good and bad employers, useful training courses, even good accountants and lawyers. The notion of the union as the network needs to be explored in far more detail - particularly in the context of the increase capacity that IT advances provide.

Unions also need to look at broader social issues on behalf of members - and that doesn't mean broader social issues like foreign aid to Mozambique - as much that's important. But there needs to be advocacy on like social infrastructure for employment, things like long service leave for casual and transient workers. I think superannuation has been a genuine and great success for the Labor movement, and I think we need to look at using that model in other places, as much as you might disagree with other achievements of the Labor movement in the 80s.

Is it still about capital and labour?

Is that an industrial age dichotomy? Yes and no.

There's a plethora of situations in workplaces, some where management has too much power, others where the union/employees have too much power. There is an optimal power balance between the employees and management, one that involves mutual respect and recognition of respective roles. This get particular interesting when the labour has invested in the capital or the capital has invested in the labour - both of which are occurring increasingly - this changes the whole dynamic of the relationship.

Employee share ownership and investment by worker pension funds have changed the face of capital. What happens to a workforce when their own futures are tied to the prosperity of their employee? In many start-up companies, share options make up a substantial part of the remuneration package. But even in traditional jobs, it is not unusual for a union-controlled superannuation fund to have a substantial stake in a company employing its members. How can we separate the forces of capital and labour here?

Now let's look from a management perspective. Increasingly the management task has become to manage a set of assets which are not physical - that are mental. If you are going to be a good manager in this world - if you are going to make this leap, there will still be physical assets but they will be less than they were in the past. And they are always replaceable. In fact, they go out of date in six months.

What is a modern company now? I've got a friend who works for a magazine. They all work in a room - one single room, not too large - all desks facing each other. There's no capital at all in there. It's just computers worth nothing. The real value in that organization is the human capital. You must invest in it through training - and you need to maintain it by providing opportunities for individuals to keep them engaged with the organization. Ultimately this adds to the stability of the organisation. It becomes a lot more difficult to buy and sell an organisation like that because you can buy and sell capital but can't buy and sell the people as easily.

All of which is to illustrate the point that while there is still a relationship between capital and labour, they are no longer necessarily a dichotomy. Rather, they exist in relationship to each other.

The Orchestra Pit

This is a really important anecdote that sums up this new wave of management philosophy that really creates a quandary for unions. There is a guy in the US who writes in the Harvard Business Review called Ely Mintzberg, who is Professor of Management at Montreal and NCED and Fontainbleau in Paris, and he talks about the role of the manager as being as an orchestra leader. If you look at an orchestra, everyone has to play their instruments to virtuosity, and it's their talent and their skill that's making that instrument play. The orchestra leader has to figure out how to make them play together (tempo). The leader also needs to work out how to motivate the orchestra get the most out of each individual.

It's not just about developing their skills, it's their creativity. I think creativity is a real key word in the whole thing. Stepping out of my union role and back into my project management role. I think it's absolutely vitally important to maximise people's creativity and your ability to contribute - it's giving them room to maneuver there - it's giving them space to be able to do their own thing. You resource them and then you give them an area which they can work with that's actually going to allow their creative juices to flow and actually do something. And I fail to see how you can do that in an environment or climate of fear or control...

In a Tayloristic environment there is no room for creativity. In fact, it's undesirable. In an Information Organisation the opposite is true. If we look at management and labour as being two halves of a coin, rather than competing things, without the individual creativity of the orchestra players, the orchestra doesn't exist. But equally, without the conducting of that orchestra leader, and without the motivation that goes on behind, they can't work together in a way that makes an audience cry. And that's what you are after. You are after excellence by matching labour and management. New managerial theory then says that management needs to synergise its employees rather than direct and control employees. You are a team leader, you are not a team dictator. A football coach.

And this leads us to an even starker question: if workers aren't engaged in a class war, why should unions be?

According to Our Theory ...

This is an area which is really important, which is where a partnership between the labour movement and government needs to go when Federal Labor gets back in power. We need to look at a much grander project about work infrastructure. If you like, re-inventing awards. Re-inventing a National system. But there are things other than wages and job security that we need to have as our priorities in the new economy.

This is not about trying to remove job security, wages and conditions as important issues for representation, they'll stay there and they should be national issues as much as workplace issues. When I talk about partnership between the labour movement and government I actually think that on a series of issues small business, as distinct from old style large businesses, benefit by having common infrastructure/standards. If there are awards, lets say - providing a base standard, if there is superannuation, if there are training guarantee levees, those sort of things, that actually helps small business because somebody else can't get a competitive advantage over you.

The best model for that kind of partnership is the building and construction industry. Mobile long service leave ought to become a national scheme, independent of a particular employer, for instance. The next round of battles, I think, is as a series of savings accounts. One of the ways you entrench them, so conservative governments can't axe them, is you make them bodies private account, like superannuation. Is really hard for the conservative government to get rid of superannuation because all these people, who have five thousand dollars in the kitty, which is just theirs. Same with the sick leave account and long service leave account and various other sorts of accounts. In the construction industry it would be virtually impossible to unravel that infrastructure, because every worker appreciates it and employers appreciate it.

So what does all this mean for unions? One of the roles for unions I think is to help remove the blocks to that kind of activity going on. That's where workplace-wide infrastructure, let alone country-wide infrastructure, is an important part of doing that. Because if you get rid of frustrations and potential areas of dispute, like common conditions, like base wage rates, like making sure they have access to education - which are social negotiation issues - then you can get on with the job of actually working as an orchestra.

So then the unions' role shifts from becoming focussed around industry-wide campaigns or job security or wages and conditions, to identifying points of conflict that actually hold back the organisation. Helping the managers and the employees find the issues which are causing problems to the organisation and solving them. The union takes on a problem solving role - teaching employers how to treat their employee decently.

So, we could promote a model of unionism there. Where unions assist both the employees and the management. But unions would need to have an understanding of organisational structural issues as well. More so than perhaps they have now. And I don't mean understanding from the point of view of how it impacts on the workers but from the point of view of how the environment the workers have to work in is going to be best for those workers. Which also means economic issues and so on. I think that's more important.

Three Tiers of Unionism

The basic tier is operation within the workplace. Which is an orchestra leader rather than a dictator model to management. The second tier is cultural infrastructure for enterprises and workers, which facilitates and supports mobility without it being a disaster for workers - and that's the benefit for management as well. And the third tier, which is something which is only just beginning to be recognised, is that when you are an educated person, once you've got above a couple of layers of Maslow's hierarchy of need, then the money side over all is less important. It's recognition and fulfillment. An important reason people go to work every day is because it's an important social environment in your life. It's where they make friends. It's where they have a sense of community and unions can help build that sense of community.

Rampant individualism is one of the biggest problems over the last 10 to 15 years in terms of politics and social policy - but also it's got economic consequences as well. It's not a good economic thing. It's destructive. It breaks down cohesiveness in the workplace. It breaks down team work. It breaks down that important social aspect of work, which produces better and more productive workplaces.

There needs to be a re-fostering of collective environments and unions have got a contribution to make to that in the workplace. Let's face it. A company that has good managers - it's keeping its workers happy, it's providing them with purpose and meaning - people are going to probably accept lower wages in exchange for better purpose and better work environment and better management.

Whereas a company that still keeps the old model - that's got the confrontational command and control - that doesn't allow its employees self expression - that doesn't look after the interests of its employees - it's going to have to buy them off. The only way it's going to hang on to decent people is to pay them hideous amounts of money. And they are going to lose their competitive advantage over the smart company that's got its employees happy.

Unions will always have a role in fighting the excesses of the bad employer. But it may have an even brighter future working in partnership with the good employees. To be able to play both roles is the movement's key challenge. To chose which card to play means getting closer to the shopfloor. The organizing approach puts unions on the right trajectory to get here. But in a networked society it's only a first step - how they handle the power that collective strength gives them will ultimately dictate their long-term success.

This chapter is based on discussion involving the authors, Social Change Online director Sean Kidney and the ACTU's Noel Hester.


*    Read last week's missive

*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 107 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: What's The Deal?
Labor's IR spokesman Arch Bevis explains how a Beazley Government will rebuild our broken system.
*  E-Change: 2.3 The State of the Union
White hope or white elephant? The future of trade unions is by no means guaranteed in the networked society.
*  Industrial: Into the 21st Century
ACTU President Sharan Burrow looks at the landmark deal delivering workers 12 months paid maternity leave.
*  Unions: The Black Hole
Jim Marr goes inside Stellar to discover the human cost of a management philosophy that says: you are on your own.
*  History: The Age of Dissent
The Sydney Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History has organised a Conference on Social Protest Movements and the Labour Movement, 1965-1975.
*  Media: ABC and the Knowledge Nation
Tony Moore looks at how the national broadcaster's fortunes are closely linked to the Knowledge Nation Agenda
*  International: Brazil´s C.U.T. - When Big Is Beautiful
The CFMEU´s Phil Davey drops in on Brazil´s equivalent to the ACTU, the Central Unica Dos Trabalhadores (CUT).
*  Satire: Bracks Disputes Cabramatta tag
Victorian Premier Steve Bracks has called for a national council to decide on a location for Australia's drug capital.
*  Review: Globalisation Is Globalisation
In an extract from his book, Christopher Shiel argues that the official Australian perspective on globalisation is strikingly narrow.

»  Labor's Entitlements Pledge: Trust Will Remain
»  Ripped Off Workers Start Election Push
»  Stellar Out of Line: Hamberger
»  It’s a Record! Longest Ever Bank Queue
»  Still No IR at ABC Radio
»  Qantas Threatens Bangkok Workers
»  WorkCover Report Delayed Two More Weeks
»  Unrest in Hospitals Over Contracting Out
»  Paid Baby Leave Sparks New Family Push
»  Nurses Pay Action Hots Up
»  Costello's Couriers March to Canberra
»  'Man Who Worked Too Hard' Wins Back Job
»  Soldiers Suffer Dodgy Bog
»  Union Backs Call For Safety Review
»  Cleaner Wins Annual Leave Rights Dispute
»  Tip Top's Not the One
»  Flying High: Airport Guards Scoop Cash
»  Union Presence At Big Indian Community Fair
»  Activists Notenbook

»  The Soapbox
»  Sport
»  Trades Hall
»  Tool Shed

Letters to the editor
»  The Shark That Cried Woolf
»  The Plight of Casual Teachers
»  Belly's Back!

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