A Sensible Suggestion from a Union Leader

A quite astounding piece was published yesterday in both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age by Dean Mighell, the Victorian Branch Secretary fo the Electrical Trades Union: “Unions must leave Labor”. He writes:

In 1972, Gough Whitlam changed Australian politics forever with the mantra ”It’s time”. Today, the same slogan should apply to Australia’s unions, because it is time for them to break away from the Australian Labor Party and stand independently for what they believe is right….

By remaining affiliated with the ALP, unions are automatically the enemy of the Liberals and National Party and I seriously question if their stance on trade unions would be as severe if unions were not an intrinsic part of their political rival.

One’s political views are often formed in childhood, and though I was only nine years old when Gough Whitlam’s Labor government was finally dismissed and the Fraser Liberal Government resoundingly elected in its place, I soaked up every bit of my farming community’s views of both the Labor Party and their Union bedfellows. My wife, on the other hand, was the child of school teachers, a school teacher herself, and usually the school union representative. We could not possibly come from more disparate political worlds.

The point is, that my antipathy towards the Unions has always been tied with my antipathy towards the Labor Party. Would it be a good thing if the two were not like Siamese twins “joined at the hip”? Would my view of either change markedly? Very possibly. It would be a very different political world here in Australia if it were not simply assumed by the Unions that Labor could do no wrong, and the Liberal/National Coalition could do no right. Mighell makes this interesting comment:

I well remember when John Howard ushered in the 1996 Workplace Relations Act. Peter Reith was industrial relations minister and the ACTU denounced the legislation as the ultimate, anti-worker evil. Union anger was at boiling point and Reith was demonised at every turn. Now there is a deafening silence from the ACTU as Labor governs and workers’ rights and conditions are attacked.

The truth is that Howard’s laws at the time, as bad as they were, gave workers and their unions a much better go than Rudd and Gillard’s Fair Work Act. … During the recent Senate inquiry into the Fair Work Bill, the ACTU refused to buy into the debate that the bill contained many breaches of human rights as defined by Australia’s international obligations under International Labour Organisation conventions. If the ACTU is so severely compromised by the ALP relationship that it can’t stand up and fight for basic workers rights, then something is seriously wrong.

The Magisterium of the Catholic Church tells me that workers unions are a “good thing”. While in theory, I am able to accept that, in practice, I have always found it very difficult to see. Part of this is precisely because the Union Movement in this country is not just seeking to protect human rights in the workplace (something that Mighell says it isn’t doing very well at the moment), but has tied itself to the entire left-wing agenda, from abortion to homosexual marriage. AND of course, there is the original reason why my childhood community hated the Unions: they are so concerned about their own individual rights, that they have traditionally shown little concern for anyone else in the economy, including the agricultural industry. One of the difficulties with the Union Movement’s world view (and with traditional Catholic Worker’s Movement ideas – somewhat corrected in the Pope’s latest encyclical) is that there are a lot of “workers” out there who are self-employed, and who need just as much human rights protection as those who are employed by others.

Human rights, in the workplace as anywhere, should not be a political issue in this country. They should be recognised across the board. The Liberal Party is as capable of doing this as the Labor Party. Vice versa, both parties are equally liable to fall under the influence of national and global powers that ignore these rights. The ACTU has assumed, for too long, that all “workers” are Labor voters. This is simply not the case – not by a long shot. As long as the Australian Union movement is tied directly to the Labor Party, there will always be a large block of workers who have no intention whatsoever of “voting Labor” by joining the Union. As Mighell writes:

Membership numbers have declined and so too has the influence of the ACTU, which has refused to adopt a policy that is at odds with the ALP and this strategy simply hasn’t delivered.

The challenge for unions is simple – create unions that workers want to join.

I commend Dean Mighell for raising the question of formal separation of the Union movement from the Labor Party. Now I would like to see a true human rights movement for “workers” which embraced all citizens of this country who work for an income to provide for themselves and their family, whatever their political views and whatever the situation of their employment.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “A Sensible Suggestion from a Union Leader

  1. matthias

    I was a staff member of a union and also a Liberal voter. A conservative unionist would often want to vote LNP but followed the ALP line Dean ‘s speaking sense for once

  2. Son of Trypho

    I’ve always suspected as much and see it pretty much the same way for farmers – the Nationals have pretty much done nothing for them for a very long time – perhaps they also need to move away from virtual automatic support for that party?

  3. Paul

    Hi David, I think someone should ask Dean Mighell if he plans to reduce the union fees by the amount they now contribute to the Labor party. Call me a cynic, but I doubt it, he probably has other uses for the extra cash.

    On worker’s movements as a whole, we now know that Marx (or was it Engels?) was completely wrong to talk about the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Even if the proletariat are poor, they hope they or their children will someday become rich capitalists. Hence the ideologies and politics of “workers movements” have become a lot more complicated than Marx probably expected.

    Like you, I have inherited a lot of my political leanings from my background, and it reminds me that this is one of the criticisms atheists make of religion, that it is passed on by indoctrination, and not by reason or revelation. As Malcolm Muggeridge said (probably before he eventually was baptised a Catholic): “I was born on the banks of the Thames, so I am a Christian. If I had been born on the banks of the Ganges, I would have been a Hindu”.

    My reaction to that is that religious people are imperfect, so their motivations in choosing or remaining with a Faith can be sometimes similar to the indoctrination of political allegiance, but that doesn’t prove that there is no absolute truth (or otherwise) to the claims of each church. In fact, these days, the “tribal Catholics” believe less and less in the teachings of the Church.

  4. Son of Trypho

    On another depressing note (taking into account the blog author’s significant other is a school teacher) – http://www.news.com.au/technology/queensland-school-behind-kill-a-hooker-facebook-page/story-e6frfrnr-1225829368614
    – if this is correct one really must ask what is going on in Catholic schools nowadays for this sort of thing to occur?

  5. Unions are only a positive force when workers are being oppressed. Once that stage is over they become unhealthy influences because:

    1. They quickly become “protection rackets,” demanding loot in exchange for not stopping production.
    2. Union leaders almost always morph into Leftist politicians, and put politics ahead of the welfare of workers.
    3. Their policies help their members at the expense of those who don’t have jobs. For instance they promote policies that make it hard to fire or lay-off workers. That’s good for those who have jobs, but the unemployed are much less likely to be hired if the employer can’t get rid of them later.
    4. Unions consistently fight innovation and change, and this harms society as a whole. (That’s one of the reasons unions are in decline. Because heavily-unionized companies tend to ossify and decline.)

    The Church seems to be stuck in a time warp, imagining a bygone world of wretched workers in cloth caps trudging into “dark satanic mills.” I doubt if many people in the Vatican have any experience of the modern workplace.

    • Useful observations, John. The third point of your four is exactly what (at least a part) of Workchoices was about, and exactly the grounds on which the Unions in Australia fought it. It was intended by the Liberal (=conservative in this country) Government to free smaller businesses from being shackled with underperforming workers.

  6. matthias

    However Schutz we should enlighten John W as to the history of the Democratic Labor party which was a right wing union supported by the RCC .The Federated Iron Workers and the Shop Assistants Union were for along time right wing but with the loss of the Old right laborites and of the RCC they have amalgamated with more lefties.The only really Right Wing unions left are the NUW and the one that started with the shearers strike of the 1890s’-The Australian Workers Union. The leadership of the latter is still Right wing.
    As for the farmers federations they will always support the Nationals because the latter tend to push the economic nationalist line-look at their alarms over the Chinese almost takeover of Rio Tinto. This support seems to be always at cost for the environment or Indigenous australians

    • PM

      John W’s jibe about the Vatican is on the same level as saying they should shut up about sex because they’re celibate. I am increasingly worried about the tendency of self-styled ‘orthodox’ Catholics in the US, and their satellites here, to swallow whole the utilitarianism and social Dawinism of the US Republican right.

      Meanwhile here is Tony Abbot from this evening’s news:

      ‘ “The Government says its changes are simpler for businesses and give employees better protection, but Mr Abbott says the laws have boosted penalty rates and led to rising wage costs for employers.

      He says employers, workers and consumers are worse off under the Government’s laws.

      “There will be nothing open after midday on Saturday,” he said.

      “[Kevin Rudd] wants to bring back the church Sunday for all of us, because there’ll be nothing else to do on Sunday under Labor’s laws but go to church.

      “There certainly won’t be any shops open if he has his way.” ‘

      Dare I say ‘cafeteria Catholic’? Curioser and curioser.

      Not to mention the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church which condemns preventive war – unlike Sarah Palin, who think that waht we need is a war, any war.

      • Now you have me worried, PM. Our cleaner cut her finger and couldn’t do the job last Thursday. She offered two times she could come: Sunday morning which she preferred or Monday morning. I said Sunday would be fine. Did I do wrong?

        • Paul

          I’m old enough to remember a time when Catholics would indeed have examined their consciences over a matter like this.
          I would think that a one-off case like this is no problem, but what Tony Abbott is talking about is getting rid of higher pay rates, which has had the effect of forcing all shops to open on Sundays, and hence forcing all people to work on Sundays, and that, I think, is a real problem. It is a way of saying the only thing that matters is work and commerce, and I believe the 3rd Commandment has something to say about that.

          I believe that in Israel, they take the 3rd Commandment very seriously, and they seem to run a thriving economy anyway.

      • I’m probably stupid to try rebutting this, but…

        “John W’s jibe about the Vatican is on the same level as saying they should shut up about sex because they’re celibate.”

        No, they are not on the same level. Sex is the same always, and the Church’s wisdom goes back at least 3,000 years; labor unions are a recent trend, and are part of social situations that are in flux.

        “I am increasingly worried about the tendency of self-styled ‘orthodox’ Catholics in the US, and their satellites here, to swallow whole the utilitarianism and social Dawinism of the US Republican right.”

        This is a despicable lie about the “US Republican right.” And even if it were true, it is neither Utilitarianism nor Social Darwinism for a Catholic to argue that a particular social policy is counterproductive. The Church does not say that its social policies are infallible.

        The Church has long looked favorably on unions, but it doesn’t claim that they are above criticism, since in a quick scan of CCC I notice that she condemns violence in strikes.

        And it doesn’t make one a “cafeteria Catholic” to discuss the wisdom of the Church’s social doctrine. That’s just name-calling by midget minds who can’t refute the specific points. Argue the issues; seek Truth.

    • Matthias, what you say should remind us that human rights must never be approached in a party sense, ie. protecting my rights over against the rights of others. If it is a human right, it is good for all. That is one thing about the attitude of my native farming community that always made me uncomfortable. They were forever playing “the city” off against “the country”. The world cannot work that way.

      • Tom

        That’s something that has to be recalled in every sense. In any political sphere, once ‘rights’ become used as a bludgeoning tool to get what one wants, they are not human rights. Idea’s that proclaim a ‘human right’ for small sections of society are, equivocally, not human rights. There is no ‘human right’ for gay people to get married, because it destroys what one means by the term marriage. A human right is a right that applies to someone qua human – that is to say, “because I am human, I have this right.” Not “because I am gay, I have this right,” or “because I am poor, I have this right.”

        Otherwise it will lead (as it has in The West) to the conflict of rights – the conflict that has arisen in most of the anglo countries in the West, of the right to Freedom of Religion (which is a genuine right) against the ‘right to work for whomever you like no-matter your social activities,’ which slowly abrogates the right to Freedom of Religion.

        It seems then, that the problem with Unions is not that they are radically pro-Labor and unable to defend or support anything else (although this IS a problem), the problem is they used to exist to defend real human rights, and now they have morphed and exist to defend non-human rights. It’s one thing to say ‘we want to protect people from oppressive work conditions’, and another entirely to say ‘we want anyone who exists in our union to be impossible to terminate’.

  7. matthias

    In this era of globalism it is the trade unions in the developing world that have stood up to American, Australian or British corporate exploitation. I wrote on John Weidner’s blog that Palin needs to develop a world view beyond the “mile wide and inch thick”one that she seems to have. Supposedly she is a Christian-a proddy like me- so i hope that she is fair dinkum about following the Prince of Peace-tutherwise she is a cafeteria Christian .