Elections, Union Bashing, and the Truths of History

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Confronted by a resurgent Opposition and persistently poor opinion polls, the federal government has responded by targeting the Labor Party’s links to the union movement. The premise of this campaign is simple: paint trade unions as mindless economic vandals, and the Labor Party as beholden to them. Fear among the electorate will do the rest.

The business lobby paid for a similar media onslaught in the weeks leading up to the election campaign. One commercial featured an abandoned store with the slogan ‘CLOSED DOWN DUE TO UNION BOSSES’ daubed in paint on the front window. Another depicted three heavy-set blokes in archetypically working-class clobber storming into a workplace and switching off the lights as a prelude to imposing iron-fisted industrial tyranny.

Now the Howard government is asserting that 70 per cent of a potential Rudd Labor frontbench would be comprised of ‘anti-business’ union apparatchiks. ‘Anti-business’ is code for ‘bad for jobs, interest rates, and inflation’. In other words, elect Labor and you elect the union movement; elect the union movement and the country goes down the economic drain.

This campaign evokes the ‘bad old days’ of the BLF and the Ship Painters and Dockers Union, of Norm Gallagher and Craig Johnson. Never mind that an ‘anti-business’ union official is, in fact, an oxymoron. Or that it was a Labor state government that deregistered the BLF. Or that it was the Hawke-Keating Labor government that began the process of industrial deregulation that first allowed unions to be sidelined, and has lead the nation directly to Workchoices. Fear speaks louder than history.

It is thus tempting to dismiss the Howard government campaign as an empty propaganda exercise. Except for the fact that it actually does a grave disservice to the union movement and the role it has played in creating a system, unique among industrialised nations, that balances the profit imperative against the right to dignity in employment.

Anyone who has spent any time working in the union movement knows it too well to succumb to sentimentalism. Unions are flawed, like any human institution. They have their share of corrupt, incompetent, and irresponsible officials. But the same is equally true of business and politics. The Costigan Royal Commission, which started life investigating organised crime on the waterfront, ended up exposing the corrupt financial practices then flourishing in the boardrooms of corporate Australia.

More relevantly, the trade union movement has been responsible for the progressive improvement of working conditions in Australia since before Federation. From the initiation of the eight-hour day movement in 1856, to the Living Wage test cases of the recent past, unions have sought to create working conditions that not only enable ordinary citizens to earn a living, but which uphold their dignity as human beings.

And it has frequently done so in the face of bitter opposition from both business and government. Business has always asserted its right to determine employment conditions, with only ‘market pressures’ to ensure humane outcomes. Government has more than once argued against improved employment conditions on the grounds they would make Australia’s economy less competitive. But the truth of this nation’s socio-economic history is that our robust economy and advanced living standards have been built on a foundation whose cornerstone is active participation by the union movement. Remove that cornerstone, and the foundation collapses.

And the foundations are collapsing. Australians may be wealthier than ever before, but they are also more stressed, more insecure, working longer hours, and acutely conscious of the absence of quality of life. And it is union officials who are frequently on the pointy end of this dichotomy, helping employees cope with their grief and rage when they fall victim to the vicissitudes of the globalised economy.

Far from being industrial thugs, union officials are all too often the only support mechanism standing between stressed Australian workers and human tragedy.

Christ taught that the labourer was worthy of the hire. Implicit in this teaching is the assertion of human dignity over considerations of profit. By resorting to stereotypes in its quest for electoral survival, the Howard government improperly denies the dignity and humanity that are the ongoing endeavour of trade unionism itself.

© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2007. All rights reserved. Originally published in Eureka Street as “Union officials victimised by fear campaign”.