Statist versus unionist solutions to #ChangeTheRules

Daniel Gerrard has been a Labor campaign manager in Victoria, Western Australia, Queensland and the ACT. He is currently working for Bec Cody, one of our ACT Labor MLAs, whilst doing a PhD in campaign methods.

We need to #changetherules, but first we need to get the balance right.

Normally when we see an argument run that we need to get the balance right on industrial relations, the argument is that we must ensure management and capital get a bigger cut of the profits, and workers should accept becoming poorer. That argument is rubbish, and so are the people who make it. There is another balance we urgently need to discuss though, and that is the balance between the role of Government (the state) and unions in getting working people their fair share.

Whilst many may not have heard of it, the debate between Statist and Unionist solutions to the challenges faced by working people has been long running in Australia and since the 1970s it has all been going in the same direction. Government has picked up more and more of the responsibility, leaving unions less and less of the space. From my time in the Maritime Union of Australia, for example, I have health insurance offered by a union health insurance fund, a remnant of a once common part of the union offering in this country. The shift to Medicare and the social wage was a good thing for society, but reduced the value unions could offer with membership.

The Social Wage and the Accords were the biggest step in the direction of devaluing union membership, but the road has been long, complicated, and incredibly detailed. If, you, the reader, forgive me for some simplifications and generalisations, I’ll save you the three volume historical thesis. It’s enough to recognise that in the 1970s, union membership was high, industrial relations laws short, and industrial relations lawyers rare. Today, union membership is low, industrial relations laws are voluminous, and industrial relations lawyers common. Some of the path from then to now was paved with good intentions, other parts were designed by the meanest and trickiest plans that Howard, Costello, Reith and Abbott could imagine.

Some examples of what we compromise when we move from Unionist to Statist solutions include:

  • We gained legislated right of entry for union officials, but we lost the ability to say, “the company will employ a person on the agreed rate, who will be chosen by the workers, and will wander around the workplace making sure junior management doesn’t bully staff.”
  • We legislated unfair dismissal protection, but we lost the ability to insist that no disciplinary action could be taken against a worker, except by the agreement of their peers, otherwise we are not working until the boss apologises.
  • We gained protected industrial action where we cannot be sued for going on strike to get an enterprise bargaining agreement, but we lost the ability to go on strike when the boss breaches it.
  • Secondary boycott laws protect working people from supply chain disruption, but mean the green bans, the South African boycott, or preventing the export of pig iron to Japan in the late 1930s would be impossible.

Essentially there are two paths to helping workers. One is by direct government action, by legislating penalty rates, running a national single payer health insurance system or regulating the right to strike. The other is by Government legislating the right to organise, and a mechanism for dispute resolution in the commission, and letting unions take care of their members. Whilst the Statist solution would seem to help everyone, and the unionist solution would seem to leave behind those who do not join, the lived experience has been very different.

Coalition Governments either remove Statist legal protections, or pervert the enforcement mechanisms so badly that billions of dollars of superannuation are being stolen in Australia without consequence and wage theft is rampant. Construction unions are daily attacked by an Australian Building and Construction Commission obsessed with minimising their members’ rights whilst turning a blind eye to safety. Meanwhile, those Statist solutions have reduced the value unions can offer with memberships, and selling those memberships has become harder and harder for decades. Without strong unions, when Liberals and Nationals use the law to hurt workers as they do not have the organisation to resist.

As the excellent campaign that Sally McManus and the ACTU have led to “change the rules” progresses into the ALP making and implementing policy, we need to be cautious about what we are changing the rules to. If our solutions are Statist, rather than Unionist, they will further undermine the ability of unions to recruit and organise the workforce, making working people worse off in the long run.

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