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How to ‘un-smash’ unions

Labor’s Mark Butler says unions are in ‘deep crisis’ thanks to Howard ‘smashing the power of organised labour’. 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. And wow, wasn’t it easy.

In my study of trade union narratives, I have looked at the way the media 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. It is no wonder, since the public have been hearing this trope for their entire lives, that they believe it.

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 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.

Unions need to ‘un-smash’ the movement by countering this dominant cultural narrative in two ways:

The first is to put workers back in the frame by taking themselves out of it. Let workers tell the media their story, rather than speaking on their behalf. Remind workers that a union is just a group of workers who have every right to a say in their working lives.

Unions need to tell the ‘workers are the union’ story to show they aren’t just another boss, an outside influence who meddles in workplaces and tells workers what to do, duping members into giving them money to extend their political power. A union is not forcing workers to do anything against their interest. Instead, a union gives workers the tools to organise better wages and conditions for themselves. Unions are not in fact run by ‘union bosses’; workers vote to control the action. Enterprise bargaining agreements result from worker consultation; everyone working together to solve workplace problems.

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.

To fix this, unions need to remind the public that workers are the true victim of stalled workplace negotiations; workers are forced to take the drastic measures of industrial action. Employers are the villains who have forced them there. Strikes happen because workers need them, not because union bosses want them.

The second thing unions need to do to ‘un-smash’ dominant cultural narratives is to kill the mistaken belief that union-won pay increases cost jobs, with the presumption that low wages are good for the economy.

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% 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.

A solution to this problem used to be collective bargaining. But since most workers don’t bother to join their union, let alone consider collective action, the employers have them right where they want them – in a position where they feel too vulnerable to ask for a pay rise. And even if workers do ask, they can be easily rejected.

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% 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 earning 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.


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  1. David Spry

    I agree with all that you say.
    But at a fundamental level relating to fairness for all workers unions need to get on the same page.
    Being a right wing or left wing union means that those unions are focused on issues not related to the lives of workers but to deals, connections and influence that are focused on personal power.
    The worker loses out when unions fight with each other and cause disunity within the Labor Party.
    If they can put their differences after their commitment to workers, and show this to Australians at large, support for them may return and we may get a more cohesive Labor Party that can attract majority support from the electorate and properly responsible tribunals.

  2. Andrew Smith

    Unions or their leadership, like Labor, have to an extent mirrored the LNP and corporate elites ie. predominantly pale and male and/or skip. Hence sectors that have become more diverse in employees both local and temporary or part time, with significant ‘foreigners’ or dominated by small business, have been Drneglected; outside of traditional blue collar sectors of manufacturing and resources especially, and including white collar such as the public sector including health care.

    While the traditional demographics of elites are declining (or now retired and more conservative) seem to be exerting more influence or being influenced including the public service which has been hollowed out ie. casuals employed from hire agencies at lower levels with no or limited tenure, and much outsourcing; this includes the health sector.

    Another issue is not tracking new and increasing employment in growing services sector again health, plus finance, IT, education, tourism & hospitality etc.

    While having sub-optimal coverage in supporting local employees in these industries, those sectors where many internationals are employed or are the customers, are dog whistled and/or ignored eg. international education (dominated by Oz employees on sessional or temporary contracts), ditto health care with outsourcing, then those who employ students and backpackers including tourism & hospitality, agriculture, retail etc.

    Understand retail union has always been quite right wing, but the CMFEU appeared to be targeted some years ago by ‘Australia’s best demographer’ to help misrepresent international students in media and public narratives (taking our jerbs) who were constantly dog whistled by being described as ‘immigrants’ suggesting permanence when in fact only temporary residents with part time work rights (only a small minority eligible for permanent residency); net financial contributors and supporting education and related employment (nowadays immigration and population data is routinely misinterpreted and misrepresented in media and social narratives, due to the UN definition change in 2006 to purposely inflate headline numbers).

    However, while a thousand jobs were lost at Port Kembla (?) ten years ago and Ozzie blue collar workers highlighted constantly by media and related unions, there was silence when 20k non unionised Oz workers lost their jobs in education and related services when Gillard and/or Rudd governments were led to restrict visas under the guise of caring for the environment ie. ‘sustainable population’ (rebranding of the old fossil fuel oilgarchs’ eugenics movement).

    Of late, one cannot help but notice how any union voice or commentary, good or bad, has been disappeared by mainstream media?

    Such old class politics played on behalf of elites, playing off native versus immigrants, and some unions and/or Labor have been partly responsible by being led into this cul de sac in past decade or two.

  3. diannaart

    Agree Andrew.

    We cannot hope to defeat an extremist right while we fail to deal with those, who claim to be progressive, working against the left from within.

  4. Jon Chesterson

    This was always the agenda of wealthy corporations, the Liberals and Murdoch Press to manufacture a picture of and alienate the people from the union, divide, conquer and destroy. The extension of that old bulldog colonialism which the Liberals have pulled off so well. The only victim here is the people, and now that we are onto it, they take the Dutton route of national security because they have lost the cause, their deception to fool the people has been exposed. So the next battle will be to demonise and criminalise the voice of critical reflection, freedom and dissent. The next battle will be in the courts and streets.

  5. Ricardo29

    The employers, helped by the Libs/Nats are clearly winning this war, helped along by unions like the Shoppies doing deals against members interests. Victoria your article should be required reading for every worker in an industry where a union exists or is active. Sadly non-unionists also benefit from improved wages and conditions so have no incentive to pay the fees. This was always a frustration for me when I was active in my union (AJA/MEAA) where a lot of people believed their wages/conditions were all their own work. Be that as it may, there will be no change until we demolish the LNP decisively and for a long time.

  6. Glenn Barry

    I’ll play devils advocate here and ask, what happens if the LNP and employers groups completely achieve what they desire and a large percentage of the population are impoverished.
    What happens then? They’ll be like a dog that chases cars – once caught – no effing idea what to do with it.
    Social decline will ensure that they spend ever increasing amounts of time in fear and looking over their shoulders besieged by people willing to do anything to take what they’ve got, which is a most curious role reversal given how they achieved it.

    Then will they wake up and realise that they OWN a country overwhelmed in inequality that’s basically an urban war zone?

    Trying to distil their perceptual deficiency…

  7. Andrew Smith

    Watched journos at play this a.m. out of the corner of my eye i.e. ABC’s Insiders; where they all look like each other, agree with each other and/or don’t go off piste.

    I am all for gender equality but it seems if you are female and want a mainstream journalism media role you must toe the line and be quite conservative; even the women at The Guardian sound more comfortable talking the game, tactics and outcomes but avoid any contentious content (might scare the oldies?); hence nowadays centre right is left?

    Again…. Laura Tingle had to drop her dog whistle in, claiming high levels of immigration which she put at at 300k, infrastructure not keeping up…. This is the ‘nebulous’ NOM which includes Australians and is about ‘border movements’ not ‘immigration’ which are largely estimated anyway leading to an ‘estimated resident population’. But provides scary headlines for the xenophobes masquerading as ‘liberal and environmental’ to get people talking….. who got to her? It’s become a regular feature of her commentary on RN’s LNL and AFR…..

  8. stephengb2014


    If the UK and especially the USA are anything to go by we have a long way to go before your fears are realised.

  9. Glenn Barry

    Stephen, I like your optimism however there’s still the lingering potential that we’re just one financial crisis away from something dire

  10. wam

    A great read VR and you didn’t mention fourhundredandfiftyseven.

    My poor old brain flashed the narrative for unions:

    Ads cannot have doug cameron et al involved in the campaign.

    Should dispel the reagan trickle theory for the bullshit it is ( trumble this morning was abyssmal in his defence of cuts without a deal on wages did trump do a deal with the big employer companies to pass on some of his largesse to the worker??)

    ps does 457 jobs count in the ‘new’??
    Andrew Smith
    Trumbles was impressive in his naming of shorten as the answer to every question but even more impressive was his use of I the scary bit being the I was followed by ‘F’

  11. Harry

    Great article Victoria but also depressing as it highlights how little power workers now have, at least in part due to their lack of political awareness. Privatisations, outsourcing, tariff reductions, and globalisation have all contributed to the decline in union membership. A raft of anti-union laws have further swung the industrial balance of power decisively in favour of employers. And unsurprisingly most employers have taken advantage of their impotent and docile workforce. The abandonment of the post-war commitment to full employment is another key factor: unemployment and underemployment is substantial and the threat of joining the ranks of the unemployed is also there when employers have the whip hand.

    A future Labor government should commit to restoring full employment.

    As a start and only a start, I believe the best way to do this is to introduce a Job Guarantee, ie an unconditional offer of a job for anyone who wants work but cannot get it, payable at least a living wage . The Job Guarantee is a federal program that provides sufficient funding to local communities (either through existing councils, through specially designed set of departments and organisations, or through non-profit and social entrepreneurship sectors), to employ at a socially inclusive minimum wage anyone who is willing to work but unable to find work in the private sector.

    The Job Guarantee redefines full employment as 0% involuntary unemployment. This is radically different from the neoliberal definition of full employment, which typically hovers around 5% unemployment (and it’s a sad state of affairs when even our Labor leader has accepted this definition on the record).

    These jobs are guaranteed to be within the local area (no 90 minute travel time) and the jobs are fit to the capabilities of the workers, not the other way around.

    By definition, then, if there is no work for you to do you are eligible for another social security payment such as disability support or aged pension.–a-job-for-every-australian-within-a-year,7740–a-job-for-every-australian-within-a-year,7740

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