While John Winston Howard is infamous for his failed “workchoices”,* among other things,** it was Kevin Rudd who oversaw the end of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and its transition into the castrated free market enforcement service that is Fair Work Ausralia. There’s a bunch of
propaganda news around at the moment about the Health Services Union and Craig Thomson, but little about FWA itself which held the enquiry and has only now ordered intervention. There was an interview on the news on tellie the other night, I think it was Bill Shorten, saying the law would be changed to prevent further political problems like the current HSU issues… which would mean that what’s happened wasn’t illegal under current law… which makes one wonder who else is doing similar things… But don’t hold your breath waiting for mining lobbyists to appear in the headlines any time soon.
What’s happened with the pilots’ union, AIPA, in recent weeks was the same thing the so called Fair Work body did to the nurses in Victoria. Punish them for standing up for their rights. Qantas pilots lose Fair Work challenge.
There have been a number of observations, here and elsewhere, on the punitive treatment of unions and employee groups in Australia, but now it seems to be effectively illegal for people to strike in Australia. In Victoria the nurses opted to walk out and stage work stoppages regardless, and following that the HSU scandal broke in the press. The pilots have made a more conservative response but are still over a barrel regarding their requests for safety and employment standards to be maintained.
It has been seen in every nation where free market economics is implemented that unions are among the first and most frequent to be targeted, because they’re about the only organisation of citizens that enables real democratic responses when governments and corporations aren’t listening. No one’s saying that all union leaders are saints and that there aren’t problems in some groups, but it’s hardly worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater when our standard of living is being gradually eroded to compete with sweat shop labour overseas. What other options do we have?
Employees and small business representatives could expand union membership and request greater transparency and representation in leadership and get on with the job. Or the current situation could continue, where every problem with unions is used by media and politicians to erode confidence in employee organisation and further erode people’s rights and representation. This is where I keep coming back to a bit of a brick wall, that being that the whole problem is just so unnecessary.
Unions got their start in the era when people were losing limbs in factories and children were being sent down coal mines. Two and three hundred years later, there’s no good reason for sensible and practical changes to working conditions to be erased in favour of serving the free market.
The story we were first sold with the idea of the free market was that it would support economic growth, enable creativity and competition and help raise everyone’s standard of living. That was what they said. But as with the naming of Fair Work Australia, it turned out to be largely “newspeak.” Say one thing and do another. The reality is that not everything is best valued by reduction to purely financial terms. The economy is just a construct. People contribute to their families and the community in many ways other than just money.
Economic growth can’t continue unabated on a planet with finite resources and small business and self-employed people have found themselves forced to compete with multi-national corporations which has resulted in everyone other than CEO’s having to compete with sweat-shops and slave labour to keep their heads above water. Rather than helping the developing nations raise their living standards, ours have been reduced. “Competition” is used as some kind of magic word to justify people being ripped off. “Economy” is some kind of magical monster that must be fed a constant diet of unemployed and public spending cuts on essential services.
In reality, the economic system can be changed if it isn’t working. It simply takes the political will. And the political will isn’t going to be brought to bear unless the voters create some pressure. With corporate lobbyists having so much influence and politicians of either stripe being held to ransom by the threat of currency collapse and interest rate hikes, it will take quite some pressure to return us to adequate representation.
And what is it we’re representing? In the Qantas case, it’s aircraft safety, maintenance and job security. Hardly a big ask.
*One’s “choices” under that system being either bend over or swallow.
**Such as the enormous increase in religious influence in politics and leading Australia into fraudulent involvement in the Iraq war and therefore complicity in murder, intent to commit murder, grievous bodily harm and grand theft against hundreds of thousands of people.