The Guardian June 21, 2000

unions@work A Response

The report unions@work, launched by the ACTU in August 1999, 
outlines "strategies  for growth and developing stronger unions". It is the 
ACTU's blue print for trade unions over the next five to ten years. The 
following are extracts from a critique of unions@work by the 
Australian Socialist Coalition*.

There are many positive aspects of "unions@work", notably in the attention 
paid to the need to organise non-union workplaces and areas of employment 
growth, and to improve the workplace organising ability of those unions 
currently not making a good job of it.

On the whole however, the document represents a technical approach to what 
is, in the main, a political problem.

The major problem for the trade union movement in this period is the demise 
of overall union strength.

The document recognises this, but ignores the class perspective and comes 
up with a solution which will only address some of the organisational 
aspects of the movement's problems. The document does not give a realistic 
analysis of the major reasons for the decline in union strength.

The Accord and its aftermath

The main message of unions@work is that the answer to declining 
power is to organise increases in union numbers, both in currently 
organised union sites and in new sites.

While no one could deny the importance of increased union membership and 
density, this is only one component of what should be a broader political 
agenda for the movement. 

The policy is a reflection of the continuing influence of the underlying 
political position adopted by the trade union movement at the time of the 

The union movement was seduced (via the Statement of Accord) into a bargain 
which promised much that was progressive, most importantly reduced 
unemployment, but in return for wage restraint and "industrial peace". It 
was, however, an overall agenda which put the needs of capital before the 
needs of labour.  

The outcomes of the Accord process were devastating both for the union 
movement as a whole as well as for individual workers.

For the union movement it meant continued allegiance to ALP economic 
policy, which was increasingly focussed on wages policy (as indicated by 
Accord Mark II and its successors), and the dominance of the ACTU position 
over the decision-making capacities of affiliated unions.

Because of the lack of class-based struggle some rank-and-file members have 
blamed their unions for the effect on their wages and conditions.

The anti-union laws enacted by Coalition Governments prior to 1983 were not 
repealed by the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments and this set the scene 
for more punitive legislation, especially that of the current Howard 

Overall, the partners to the Accord oversaw the erosion of the traditions 
of independent and militant unionism in Australia, bringing dismay and 
disillusionment among trade union members over the weakened state of 
unions. It also brought widespread disillusion with the ALP.

For individual workers, the loss of real income and the acceptance of 
"productivity improvements" by trade unions (often giving up benefits won 
over many years) for small pay increases, was the reality of the Accord. 
Furthermore, only some of the promised social benefits were introduced.

Income distribution statistics for the 1990-1996 period indicate that there 
was a growing disparity between the rich and poor. 

The basic principle underpinning the whole Accord process was the belief 
that improved profitability for capital, particularly if it is achieved by 
wage restraint in wage reductions as is occurring now, leads to increased 
investment and therefore higher demand for labour and improved job security 
for workers  what is known as the "trickle-down" job creation theory.

Such a theory requires unions to support increases in economic growth and 
profit rates as the solution to unemployment, based on the myth that labour 
and capital have mutual interests.

Strength in the Workplace

As the document correctly claims, workplace delegates are important to 
every union. But a careful balance is required between placing too many 
expectations on the role of worker-delegates (who already have their normal 
paid duties as employees) and on the importance of paid union organisers.

A realistic assessment is required of just how much time workplace 
delegates have to take up the recruiting, servicing, bargaining, 
campaigning and organising non-union sites that is encouraged by the 

There are also the employer threats to active union shop delegates in 
circumstances where job security is nowhere near as strong as it used to 

Growth in new areas

The document ties its strategies to one central priority  the growth 
challenge, via recruiting.

The aim of recruiting has to be to give direct voice and power to working 
people and recruiting is only one part of the story.

If large membership and high density doesn't translate via decent union 
education and direct, regular, democratic participation into a strong 
united voice in the industry concerned, then recruitment is a waste of 

To argue for collective structures in every workplace is important, but 
these structures must enable membership involvement in decision-making in 
union policies and strategies, and in an informed and democratic way.

Too many unions currently do not even hold regular branch meetings where 
the business of the union and wider related issues are discussed.

The rank and file becomes disaffected if recruited and then not consulted 
democratically at the various levels of decision-making.

Technology for the times

Using the new communication technology to most effect for the movement is 
an important challenge, and requires careful planning. But these new tools 
(including call centres) must not be used to replace those people who best 
understand each workplace and industry.

The technology must be used in a way which enhances their expertise and 
allows faster communication of issues and background information and 
sharing of tactics.

A strong union voice

The most important issues raised in this section are the need to fight for 
decent wages and conditions, to form strong alliances with other 
progressive community groups, and to develop international unionism.

But they are raised in a very general way, and with no strategies on ways 
to carry through on wages and conditions, let alone the more complicated 
question of alliances.

Surely one of the crucial ways to guarantee good wages and conditions for 
all workers is via a fair system of centralised wage-fixing, the principle 
of which the ACTU appears to have abandoned.

Individual unions have strength when they organise and campaign in a 
context of overall strength of the whole movement, and of strong leadership 
from the ACTU.

Lacks class perspective

The document perpetuates the earlier Accord assumption that labour and 
capital have a mutuality of interests. As we have seen, the consequences of 
that false position have been devastating for workers, union membership and 

In the section headed "Background to the report", a number of economic and 
labour market changes and trends are discussed, but in a way which implies 
that they are the outcome of some invisible economic mechanism called 

There is no mention of the intense class battles which are now growing by 
the day by labour and other progressive forces against the demands of 
international finance capital.

This is a struggle which capital has, in many respects, been winning, 
despite the resistance of trade unions and community organisations around 
the world.

Union delegates and organisers have become tied up in most workplaces with 
bargaining and local agreements, which is enormously time-consuming and 
leaves little energy for recruiting and campaigns on other important 
issues, like job security and privatisation.

Key Issues for the Union Movement

A more objective analysis of the situation indicates that the reasons for 
the weakened state of the union movement are very serious and are 
political, not merely organisational.

Many workers do not see unions addressing the problems that concern them.

The majority of unions do not take part in the wider political struggle, 
but remain tied up with the effects of the corporatist policies.

The key issues facing the union movement today are:

* The repeal of the regressive clauses of the Workplace Relations Act and 
the Trade Practices Act which are severely restricting the rights of 
unions, tying up union finances in expensive court costs and weakening the 
strength of the movement. Some related matters which flown from the above 
legislation and government policies include:

* a return to industry bargaining and a centralised wage-fixing system with 
appropriate powers returned to the Federal Industrial Commission

* an end to restrictions on the scope of awards to a narrow range of 

* opposition to individual and non-union agreements over union agreements

* rejection of unfair dismissal laws which favour bosses

* elimination of the present restriction on the right of unions to 
establish workplace organisation, including the right of entry to union 

* re-establishment in full of the right to strike

* bringing under control and limiting part-time, casual and contract 

* The adoption of real job creation programs to overcome unemployment (both 
apparent and hidden), and the loss of secure full-time, permanent part-time 
and well paid work for all who seek it;

* A nationwide union recruitment drive to rapidly overcome the loss of 
union membership and density;

* The maintenance of Australia's economic sovereignty, neglected by 
governments giving away controls over the economy which have undermined the 
country's industry base and the livelihoods of its urban and rural 

* Attention to the widening inequality of incomes with associated social 
and health problems;

* Real attention to the mainly feminised, part-time and highly casualised 
service sector;

* Implementation of clear, democratic processes in unions with the 
opportunity for members to be involved in consultation and the decision-
making processes;

* Attention to the loss of working class perspective and the will to 

* The development of issues and programs which will give meaning to the 
call for cooperation between the trade union movement and community 

* A concerted campaign by all unions and the ACTU against any further 
privatisation of the public sector;

* Effects on job losses, union membership and the impact on the social 

* Development of a Sustainable Industry Policy with a call for the ALP to 
adopt it as their Industry Policy. Such a policy is the key to full 
employment, economic sovereignty, and ecologically sustainable production 

* * *
*The Australian Socialist Coalition is a coalition of the Maritime Union Socialist Activities Association, the Communist Party o Australia, the Greek Atlas Association and Marxist Initiative. Copies of the full pamphlet are available from The Australian Socialist Coalition, PO Box 183, Haberfield, NSW 2045.

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