Interview: Muscling Up
Unions: Thinking Pink
Bad Boss: Global Bully
Unions: National Focus
Economics: Friend or Flunkey?
History: Young Blood
Industrial: Living For Work?
International: Fighting Together
Poetry: Medicare Plus Blues
Review: Human Racing
The Locker Room
A New Mark for Labor
Bob Gould On Kicking The Liberals Out
Living For Work?
Those whose economic condition forces them to labour for most of their waking hours do not have the leisure to be citizens in any proper sense.
Dawn Oliver and Derek Heater, The Foundations of Citizenship.
What should we expect from work? Should the conditions of work recognize our ability to participate in community and family life, in political parties, unions or other voluntary organizations?
For most the answer may seem an obvious 'yes', but in reality many workers simply lack the time or energy, after long hours at work, for even basic forms of family and community interaction. The work dilemma formed a disturbing and persistent subtext to an important series of debates recently conducted by Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney.
US academic Tom Kochan, New South Wales Labor Council Secretary John Robertson and leading Australian industrial relations researcher Barbara Pocock all addressed the work dilemma and urged a fundamental rethink of public policy.
Kochan, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, believes we have to question our assumptions about the nature of work. 'What moral values underlie work?' We have become so enarmoured of the idea of efficiency and productivity, he argues, 'that we have lost sight of other key moral values.'
Work should embody ideals of dignity, equity and giving workers a voice - some say in how the workplace is organized. The relationship between work and family life must be recognized. People also see work as a chance to use their skills, and as a social experience, Kochan stressed, aspirations that implicitly express a strong idea of citizenship - being recognized as a valued member of the workplace community.
Barbara Pocock's address to a seminar on 'Women, Work and Family' took up the impact of long hours of work on family life, and the ability of workers to participate in the community. Pocock, a senior research fellow at the University of Adelaide and the author of the recent The Work/Life Collision, pointed to the insidious loss of 'schoomze" - time for social contact with neighbours and family. Boys and teenagers strongly notice the absence of a father whose long working hours keep him from the family home.
Pocock believes that part of the problem is that public policy is made by the 'careless' - literally by those who do not have to care - politicians whose meals are provided, who do not have to drive themselves, and do not have to care for dependents. Australia's industrial relations system reflects this carelessness: a focus on 'masculinised' conceptions of work that lead to resistance to reforms such as parental leave. Yet everday, 40 per cent of workers have someone - children or other family members - who quite literally depends on them for their basic needs.
Given the current weakness of the union movement, Pocock urges that a 'new coalition' of sympathetic interests groups come together - political organizations, community and welfare groups, unions and employers - to push an agenda that restores the balance of work and family life.
NSW Labor Council Secretary John Robertson took up these themes a week later in a seminar on 'Trade Union Futures'. Robertson believes that over the last twenty-five years, our sense of community 'has been restructured and demolished' by economic deregulation, a process that has accelerated under the Howard Government. Health care and education have become increasingly expensive, compelling workers to work harder and longer to manage the bills.
Robertson notes that all forms of voluntary organizations, including unions, have witnessed declining participation in recent decades. Unions can rebuild membership by getting in touch with people and their needs. Robertson is urging the development of a 'social action' plan that propels the union movement 'into the middle of the community', and its needs, and to engage with issues that coalesce community support - the refugee issue, opposition to the war in Iraq, security of entitlements.
A question from the audience clarified one of the essential problems of current debate on these issues: how to shift public discourse from what's good for the economy, to what's good for the community? Throughout the debates, it was acknowledged that there is a need for a new language of citizenship - one that recognizes the workplace and community rights of working Australians and their families.
* Mark Hearn is a post-doctoral research fellow in Work and Organisational Studies, University of Sydney. Details of the seminars, part of events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the teaching of industrial relations at the University of Sydney, can be found on workSite: http://www.econ.usyd.edu.au/wos/worksite/
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