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  Issue No 37 Official Organ of LaborNet 29 October 1999  

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Unions

Old Habits Die Hard

By Paul Maquire

With the release of its blue print [email protected] the ACTU seems to know where it wants to go. But again it has failed to face up to the underlying structural issues preventing it from getting there.

Contrary to popular myth, the union movementís power in Australia has never been derived from the rate of participation of the workforce in unions. Membership has generally flowed as a result of the exercise of union power that has derived from the combination of four basic planks rapidly disappearing from Australian political and economic life: the centralised wage fixing system, control over policy direction in the Australian Labor Party, exclusive rights of representation in award matters, and strategic influence within key areas of the industrialised economy.

The combination of the exclusive rights over award matters and employee representation, and strategic influence within key industries in Australiaís industrial-age closed economy, allowed unions to build influence and membership. It enabled them to extract benefits such as closed shop arrangements from employers, delivering large numbers of members to them.

But globalisation and technological change have blown away the strategic leverage the unions once enjoyed. It is not coincidental that the rate of membership of unions has rapidly declined. It is obvious- even to the most disinterested of observers that the unionsí best chance of regaining strategic influence in Australiaís economy is to recruit new members from the emerging Information Age industries.

Existing union monopolies are incapable of gaining a foothold in these growth industries. The new, post-industrial-age industries employ younger people who are better educated and are entirely unimpressed with the union movementís industrial age rhetoric. Information technology, the newer players in financial services, and the hospitality industries are virtually union-free zones.

The solutions to the declining interest in unions lie in structural reform of the unions and the legislative structures that support them.

The European model of industry based monopoly unionism adopted by the ACTU and implemented through the Industrial Relations Act 1988 should be laid to rest. Integral to this reform should be the dismantling of the exclusive right of representation of employees in a particular industry or occupation.

There would be no other area in Australian society that would tolerate as it does the right of an organisation to retain exclusive control and access over an entire industry when it boasts of less than 40 per cent of the actual market. When it comes to the industry of Employee Representation, employees have only two choices. They can stay in the monopoly union or resign.

The current monopoly structure of exclusive rights promotes laziness, discourages new ideas and perpetuates mediocrity among its officials. Introduction of even limited competitive unionism would allow new players into the field and might stimulate some innovation to encourage people to join a union. The arguments against competitive unionism no longer hold up in the post-industrial economy.

Unions should also be more accountable to their members. It is almost impossible for a person with new or different ideas to participate in a union. Imagine the public outcry if the Australian Securities & Investments Commission turned a blind eye to insider trading, or collusion to freeze out new competitors was ignored or even officially sanctioned. This is analogous to what occurs in the lack of supervision of registered unions.

Instead of mindlessly crippling union capacity to represent employees through anti-strike laws, the Federal Government ought to properly empower and resource the Industrial Registrar to exercise real supervision of the financial and other related activities of all registered unions.

Many of us who worked in the union movement and left in frustration would welcome a mature debate on union structures. But political partisanship and self interest are likely to prevent it. More is the pity as strong and responsible unionism is still our best chance to humanise modern capitalism.

First published in WorkSite

Paul Maguire, a former union of official with the Shop Distributive & Allied Employees Association and the State Public Services Federation, is an industrial relations adviser with Jobs Australia Ltd. The views expressed in this article are entirely his own.


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*   Issue 37 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Republic: Yes, It's Time
Opposition leader Kim Beazley invoked the spirit of '72 when he launched the ALP's Republic campaign.
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*  Interview: What Price a Just Republic?
Magistrate Pat O’Shane is far from happy with the republican model. But she still believes a Yes vote is her best chance for genuine constitutional reform.
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*  Economics: Who the EFIC are you?
If you have not heard of Export Credit Agencies, don't be surprised because it seems they're not too interested in letting the public know what they do.
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*  Unions: Old Habits Die Hard
With the release of its blue print [email protected] the ACTU seems to know where it wants to go. But again it has failed to face up to the underlying structural issues preventing it from getting there.
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*  Legal: Second Wave: Reith's Non-Right to Strike
Peter Reith has called his new laws the Workplace relations Amendment (More Jobs Better Pay) Bill 1999. If legislation is to carry these new, colloquial titles then the ‘More Control, Less Freedom’ Bill would be a better title.
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*  International: Wahid’s New Team
Indonesias new government is blemished by Suharto-era appointees but an advance for reform, says Indonesia’s trade unions.
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*  History: They Fought Them on the Airwaves
Radio broadcasts were an important weapon in the long-running struggle for equal pay.
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*  Satire: Revealed: SOCOG Reserving Gold Medals for Tattersalls
The scandal over the secret allotment of premium tickets for the 2000 Olympics escalated today with the news that members of Sydney’s elite Tattersall’s Club will receive Gold Medals without actually competing.
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*  Review: What The Age Wouldn’t Print
Some time before Monday 18 October, Age editor Michael Gawenda saw red and then got out his blue pencil. An article, heavily critical of Robert Manne, written by Overland editor Ian Syson, was pulled by Gawenda.
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Columns
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»  Sport
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»  Trades Hall
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»  Piers Watch
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Letters to the editor
»  An X for President - Feedback
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»  Republican Soapbox
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»  Education an Asset for All
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