WAYNE McMILLAN. David versus Goliath: reform and reinvention (Part 2 of 2)

Apr 7, 2017

What Sally McManus’s is saying is correct, I agree with her conclusions about what has happened to workers over the last 30 years and what is becoming intolerable now in 2017. Across Australia in 2017, little or no wage growth, increased working hours, increases in casual jobs, a decrease in full time meaningful work, rising increases in household debt and rising inequalities in income and wealth is the bleak future facing Australian workers and their families. In the public sector, outsourcing and privatisation have meant an erosion of working conditions and rates of pay for workers. What can be done to rectify this alarming trend?  

Will Sally McManus’s passion and courage which has been somewhat lacking from union leadership over the last 20 years, be enough to bring about real change? I don’t think so.

As much as I admire and respect Sally McManus, for her intellect, drive, genuine concern for Australian workers and her skill in the industrial relations arena, I know it will not be enough to achieve widespread success for Australian workers. I don’t believe that coming out of the blocks with an over the top antagonistic stance towards employers will necessarily be the winning formula to help workers. I do believe like Sally McManus in following the rule of law unless that law is unjust. If a law is unjust then organising non-violent public action where appropriate should always be considered. However realistically this should only be one tactic in a multi-faceted strategy that has more far reaching impacts to bring about substantial change. Let’s hope that Sally McManus and Ged Kearney have a more comprehensive set of strategies in a well thought out long-term campaign in mind, because mere rhetoric and sabre rattling alone is doomed to failure.

Unions need to be more than a one-trick pony. Only a carefully executed multi-faceted campaign that comes out of left field and catches employers completely by surprise will do the trick. Unions have to reinvent themselves and outsmart employers, NOT outmuscle them head on otherwise they will be fighting a losing battle. Therefore 20 century strategies/ tactics in a 21st century society will not be effective. New thinking will be the key to union success. The question remains what are the most efficient and effective organisations to represent workers in the 21st century? Can unions as they are currently structured and operating meet the needs of workers? I have serious doubts that without a massive rethink unions will go the way of the dodo.

The way forward: short term to medium term solutions

What do most workers want in the 21st century? Most workers would like meaningful, interesting work, decent, flexible working conditions and rates of pay in line with productivity/costs of living. Unions have been attempting to meet these needs across industry sectors but this has been an uphill battle due to worker fragmentation and isolation, employer hostility and draconian industrial legislation that ties one hand behind their backs. In effect, the industrial relations system has evolved to create ineffective union representation. In the short term, unions can only reinvent themselves to be superior service organisations for their members. This in effect means they must be located where their members live and become part of the local community. Unions can and should become the new community service centres for the 21st century. They could start off with providing an array of specialist employment, legal, superannuation, housing, consumer, financial medical/health and industrial relations consultancy services for the community as well as their own members.

Ordinary community non- members could join as associates or if low income/unemployed a small service charge per service could apply. By providing services to the wider community, unions would be able to secure a broader base of funds. This in turn would make available extra funds to provide more varied services. Community union service costs could be shared with other community non-profit or profitmaking organisations to share the burden of infrastructure or rental costs. To make the necessary changes to evolve into 21st century community service organisations will require a new set of skills and expertise, for union management/administrative workers. The process of change will take time, however experimental models for change, need to be put in place now to ensure members get value for money, when the final working model is chosen. Of course different unions could experiment with different models that provide a different bundle of specialised services.

Community service unions have the advantage of being geographically closer to their members and families. Unions could play an important, vital role in their members’ communities, and this will give them a higher profile and relevance in those communities. I believe some unions are moving closer to this operational model of action than others so for them the transition will be easier.

The way forward: medium term to long term solutions

If employers won’t provide meaningful, interesting work, decent flexible working conditions and rates of pay in line with productivity/costs of living than unions could do a 360 degree turn around and become the employers, instead of the representatives of workers. This approach has the added bonus of providing exciting badly needed new forms of employment, in emerging industries such as renewables, solar and battery technology, community infrastructure /services, reclamation, soil conservation and land, aquatic, bio-sphere and marine environmental services. Unions would then be competing with employers to provide employment and this could have the effect of mopping up a certain amount of unemployment /underemployment and driving up wages and conditions. The old saying is if you can’t beat them, join them, and so unions evolve into becoming employers with this strategy.

Where would unions get the funds/capital to start up new employment initiatives? Well initially from their new broader based community service unions and the older more traditional unions that have surplus funds or members who would like to buy shares in a new employment initiative. In addition, industry superannuation funds and crowd sourcing are excellent funding alternatives, as well as new forms of worker bonds or securities. It’s important to remember however that the funds provided will be used to provide decent, well remunerated employment first and foremost. In this model workers welfare is at the centre, not shareholders returns. These new employment models could be examples of future developments in 21st century employment arrangements. In effect unions get the opportunity to set the agenda for working conditions and rates of pay instead of existing employers. 

There are a range of employment entities that could be formed from sole ownerships to worker co-operatives to provide meaningful employment. However worker co-operatives are a model that would allow workers more industrial autonomy and ownership. There are worldwide, successful co-operative models already in place, so it makes it easier to use these as a guide for implementation and to assess the different pros and cons of each type. Individual workers could buy shares in the co-operative and that means they have a real ownership in the operation and productivity of the co-operative. There are successful models operating in the Basque region of Spain under the Mondragon and other examples have operated in Canada and the USA. In Australia’s history there have been many worker co-operatives operating over numerous years, but they have never been well funded or integrated into a network like the Mondragon in Spain and so they eventually died out due to isolation and lack of on-going capital funding. Integration of producer and financial co-operatives are the key to success. To provide capital to expand and invest surpluses must be generated from production or provided from outside the co-operative by investors.


Work in the 21st century has changed dramatically, workplaces and employing organisations have also changed and the industrial environment is completely different to what it was 40 years ago. The future provision and types of employment can’t be left solely in the hands of powerful employer groups, governments and political parties who have little interest in ordinary workers needs and concerns. Unions can be the saviours of the workers, but they will need to reinvent themselves and transform gradually into new entities. This is no easy task but without this transformation they will dwindle on the vine and become extinct industrial fossils.

In this brief article I wanted to impress the need for unions to think outside the square and not go back to 20 century union thinking. However whatever strategies unions decide to put in place they will need to be multi-faceted and comprehensive and they will need to be implemented as soon as possible. The challenges and the rewards are there for workers and their unions but the time to begin this process is now not tomorrow.

Wayne McMillan has been a proud union member of the NSW Public Service Association for 30 years. He has been involved with many private and public sector unions. Wayne comes from a long line of decent working folk, who were all staunch union supporters. 

I have sketched out briefly some union alternatives to the current model in operation. My ideas are probably not new and it’s possible some unions are already moving in these directions or have even better well thought out alternatives. If this is the case please let me know about them. I welcome any constructive discussion and debate about these urgent issues. I can be contacted at waynemcmillan746@gmail.com.

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