Albanese has touched a nerve on IR policy and should be encouraged by the response

Feb 19, 2021

The release of the ALP’s industrial relations policy is another reminder of the erosion of employment rights and benefits, the degree to which that is attributable to the decline in union membership, and how Labor should approach its relationship with trade unions.

Launching his Securing Australian Jobs Plan, committing Labor to “Jobs, jobs, jobs”, Anthony Albanese ventured into commendable, if cautious specifics, tackling the vast, and growing, vulnerable end of the workforce spectrum: those in casual and contract work, where inequality and exploitation are rampant. His keynote speech in Brisbane last week came ahead of the Government moving to weaken workplace protections, ostensibly to alleviate Covid-caused business distress.

If the speed and hysteria of the reaction to Albanese’s policy is any measure, then Labor is on a winner.

Attorney General (and Industrial Relations Minister) Christian Porter instantly put a $20 billion price tag on Labor’s proposals.

The Australian Industry Group said Labor’s plans would “reduce jobs and investment”, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said it would “kill off casual employment”, and the Business Council of Australia said the ALP should support the government’s industrial relations overhaul. Right!

It was an interesting contrast to the muted Government response to Labor’s “keynote” commitment on childcare a few months back. Cynics might say that’s because most of the corporatised childcare operators will be co-beneficiaries of the proposed extra spending.

On workplace conditions, though, commentators are saying the Government is facing a political threat comparable to the “Your Rights At Work” campaign unleashed against John Howard’s WorkChoices legislation, credited with playing a huge part in Howard losing the 2007 election. History, though, can be prone to exaggeration. While “Your Rights at Work” was described, by some, as one of  the biggest working class mobilisations in Australian history, the wear-out factor of 11 years in office might also have had a little to do with Howard’s demise.

Among others, Peter Hartcher, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, suggested “IR” was a “knife fight Morrison can’t win”. One would hope so, but sticking up for workers and, by implication, unions, remains a challenge for Labor that is not without political peril. However, if Labor doesn’t stick up for workers, who does, and for what other purpose does the Labor Party exist?

Significantly, on Tuesday, the government appeared to be backing off from its proposed Covid-relief dilution of workers’ conditions.

In the past 44 years, union membership has dropped from 50 per cent of the workforce (in 1977) to 14.3 per cent in 2020. The biggest dive in membership was in the 10 years from 1992 to 2002, falling from 40 per cent to less than 25 per cent of the workforce (Australian Bureau of Statistics).

The long-term decline is partly attributable to the “casualisation” of the workforce, where those most in need of protection are least able, and least likely, to join a union. They are isolated by their own perception of being “self-employed” and often move from one workplace to another.

Rightly, these are the very people Albanese has focused on: those whose income security is entirely at the whim of their employer; who accumulate no entitlements to leave (maternity/parental, holidays, long service, sick etc.), or redundancy payments, and can be terminated on minimal notice.

I do wish he’d stop using Uber drivers as the example though; I suspect many of us have more relatable examples even in our own families. And as for the constant references to the “gig economy”, I still think of a gig as an engagement secured by a band to play at a suburban RSL.

It might behove Labor, and the unions, to make the point, incessantly, that the ABS report that recorded the membership decline also noted that workers in unionised roles earn $1,450 a week on a median basis: $350 more than non-unionised workers.

As the Australian Council of Trade Unions ramps up its anti-government campaign, we’ll see how vulnerable the ALP is to the age-worn conservative zinger that Labor is captive to the trade unions – an attempt to demonise the relationship.

While the behaviour of some unions and their officials warrants the negative stereotyping,  the record of corporations and their chief executives somehow doesn’t tarnish the conservative parties they so generously support.

Nothing much happens in the Labor Party, particularly at an organisational level, at conferences and the preselection of candidates, without disproportionate influence from unions. There’s a legitimate contract in place: that Labor is there to represent the union movement, and the union movement’s obligation and interest is to support the Labor Party.

And then there’s the money: the affiliation fees that unions pay to the ALP, the donations, and the millions they spend campaigning on the ALP’s behalf at election time.

In the 44 years during which union membership plummeted, Labor has had 10 parliamentary leaders. Three came from the trade union movement: Bob Hawke, Simon Crean and Bill Shorten. The most dramatic dip in union membership, between 1992 and 2002, is often credited to changes introduced by Hawke, the only union leader in modern history to become Prime Minister.

Inarguably, many were necessary to ensure Australia’s competitiveness in an increasingly global market. Not everyone will agree that the lost jobs and lost industries were worth it but the consensus is that it had to be done. Like many tough decisions in Australia’s history, these were made by Labor.

Meantime, in 2021, the gap between rich and poor will widen, real wage growth will remain snail-paced, and “temporary” employees will continue to be left unacceptably insecure.

Labor must never apologise for who it speaks for, or be intimidated by the Big End of Town, let alone the Attorney General. Albanese has touched a nerve and should be encouraged by the aghast response.

In the US, where union membership is only 10 per cent of the workforce, President Joe Biden reportedly refers to himself as “blue-collar Joe”, and has pledged to be the “strongest labor president you have ever had”, saying unions will have greater power under his administration. While campaigning, Biden told corporate chiefs: “I want you to know I’m a union guy.” He said: “They just nodded. They understand. It’s not anti-business. It’s about economic growth.”

Yes, Joe, it’s about that, too.

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