The Multinational Monitor


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Labor and Labor

In Australia

by Fiachra Marcaigh

In July 1974, on stage in Melbourne, Frank Sinatra made a fool of himself. After some rambling abuse of the Australian press, "old blue veins" described women journalists as hookers. He went on to display his civility and said, "I'm not particular. I'd give them a buck and a half."

There was an uproar. The Australian Journalists' Association (AJAA - the journalists' union) called on other unions to see to it that Sinatra's remaining concerts were cancelled and that he could not leave the country. Further, the hotel unions were asked not to give the Sinatra party food or drink, or to handle their bags.

The second Melbourne concert was cancelled at once. Sinatra's entourage had to carry their own bags as they left Melbourne for Sydney. The president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), at the time, Bob Hawke, was quickly involved. He was reported to have told Sinatra, "You may not be able to leave Australia unless you walk on water. If you don't apologize, your stay in this country could be indefinite." Sinatra was told his plane would not get a drop of fuel until he apologized.

It is difficult to imagine the same thing happening now. It is not just that the machismo that made the insult to women journalists particularly offensive has been rolled back. Nor is it the fact that the unions would now be open to heavy legal sanctions. These are factors, but most of all, it is difficult to imagine the present AJA or ACTU becoming so involved in what was patently not a bread-and-butter issue. "Pragmatism" is ascendant in Australian politics and trade unionism.

The Australian trade union movement has power that is unique in English-speaking nations. With 55 percent of the work force unionized, the proportion of union members in Australia is higher than that of the United Kingdom (45 percent), West Germany (40 percent) or the United States (15 percent). In a country that is set to celebrate its 200th (for Europeans) birthday, the movement that began with the first recorded trade union, in 1830, has had an enormous impact on the country.

The trade unions have direct input into the policy of the largest political party, the Australian Labor Party (ALP). And the unions are the traditional training ground for high officers of the ALP. The party and the union movement can move as one at times - the ACTU worked to avoid any major strikes prior to the recent Australian Federal elections. During the long periods of conservative rule, the unions have put a check on the almost laissez-faire capitalism espoused by the Liberal Party. But much of the union movement's power is now under attack.

The Australian trade union movement, like most others, was born out of necessity and into adversity. It is nothing new for it to be under attack. But in the past five years the pace of attacks has increased. Traditional foes have become more vocal and more committed to neutralizing the power of the unions than to reaching compromise. There have been a number of legal victories against individual unions, with damages - in one case, of $A 1.7 million.

Nor are the unions safe from "their own" side. Last year, special Acts of the Victorian state) and federal Parliaments were passed to deregister (in effect, to close down) the left wing Builders Laborers Federation (BLF). It had 40,000 members at the time, a figure that has now dropped to less than a quarter of that.

While the BLF was a special case, in the Australian states in which ALP governments are not in power, particularly in Queensland, all unions are under attack. The Queensland government brought an Act into force earlier this year that outlaws strikes in export industries, but defines "export" as including trade between the states and industries that supply industries that trade between states or overseas. Under the Act, fines of $ A250,000 for unions and $A50,000 for union members, can be assessed.

The Queensland coal unions geared up for a confrontation by calling stop-work meetings to discuss the new law. In shift working rural mines, such meetings are 24-hour stoppages and, under the new law, strikes. The ACTU urged restraint, and the federal government framed an industrial relations bill aimed at rectifying the situation, but the proposal was shelved when the federal election was called. Even if it had passed, it might well have been bogged down in a legal quagmire as courts decided the scope of state and federal legislation on industrial relations. Meanwhile, the Queensland Act is in force.

Queensland, and its National Party Government, needed no nudging to the Right. But the rest of Australia has also moved to the right in response to the recession of the past three years. Real wages have fallen, unemployment has hovered over 8 percent and high interest rates have undermined the Australian dream of home ownership, until recently the norm for over 70 percent of Australian families. Employer groups have relentlessly pushed the line that the unions are to blame for much of this and that "wage restraint" is all it takes for the economy to recover. In these harsh economic times, their view has won some public acceptance.

A poll, appearing in Rupert Murdoch's The Australian newspaper in March of this year found 73 percent of those surveyed were against the principle of compulsory union membership. Only 22 percent were in favor. Another poll, in The Bulletin magazine, found union officials ranked second-to-last for credibility among 12 occupational groups. Journalists were one step higher and only used-car salesmen were lower.

While the number of union members is growing, the work force is growing faster, leaving the unions behind in percentage terms. Much of the numerical growth is in service industries and in the public sector, rather than in traditional blue-collar industries. Both these new areas are vulnerable, the former to economic recession, the latter to government cut-backs. The future of the economy is uncertain and both parties are prepared to cut public services to varying degrees. Union polls are reported to have revealed that only 20 percent of the work force believe the unions should have as much power as they do.

The ACTU, and its 162 unions with 2.5 million members, compared to a total of 326 unions and 3.18 million members, have leaders that recognize the dangers. Although unionists of the old school, or of the far left, would not agree, the movement's leaders are effective.

The secretary of the ACTU, Bill Kelly, 38, is variously described as "a cherub," "dour" and "an arm-twister." Few, however, disagree on his power. Writing for the business daily, The Australian Financial Review in June, Jenni Hewett said, "What Bill Kelty says quietly, almost inaudibly, every day reverberates throughout Australia." The more public face of the ACTU is Simon Cran, the president, who has seen to it that he and Kelty have complementary roles in running the ACTU.

Kelty gained his position four years ago. His blueprint for the future of the trade union movement is "Future Strategies for the Trade Union Movement," a document largely based on experience gained under the Hawke government.

While the Labor Party is almost an extension of the union movement, the movement suffered under the Labor government. In an effort to bring Australia out from behind its traditional tariff barriers and into world trade, Labor floated the Australian dollar, opened up markets and investment rules and exposed Australia to the full blast of the world mini-depression of the early eighties.

As recently as 1985, Kelty and federal TreasurerPaul Keating were talking about real growth rates of 5 percent in the Australian economy. Those forecasts are now no more than embarrassing memories and the unions have felt the force of the economic downturn.

Last year it became obvious that the cherished national wage fixing system was not going to hold in the face of economic facts. Kelly was instrumental in setting up its successor, a two-tiered system that provided some increases for everyone and allowed the bigger, more powerful unions to go for extra increases. Part of the formulation of the system came from a union trip to examine such a system in Sweden. What was on the point of be coming a low-level non-event became vitally important once Kelty was known to be going.

Implicit in the Swedish system, in the words of Jenni Hewett, were "the benefits that had come from a compact with unions and government and business to cut wages to allow a small troubled economy to change and take advantage of a devalued currency." Kelty told her the trip "demonstrated that you didn't have to abandon yourself to the free market in the individual pursuit of self interest, that for the union movement to survive and grow the reverse was true."

Hewett said, "That was in September. By the time a special union conference was held in December to discuss the issue, the opposition was minimal."

The Hawke Labor government did not attack the unions directly, but as the entire political climate became more conservative, elements of the Liberal and National parties took extreme positions on unionism. In turn, these mainstream parties gave some air of respectability to the union-haters of the group that became known as the New Right.

This group (not new at all, but newly vocal and militant) is associated with some employers' and farmers' associations and a number of wealthy individuals. As far as they have a common policy, it is to destroy union power by putting into place individual agreements between workers and employers that would supersede union rights or national wage agreements -- dismantling the trade union movement and everything it has achieved. These workplace agreements are always referred to as "voluntary" and enforceable as normal business contracts, with all the normal legal penalties.

One example of the "voluntary" agreements at work was provided last June and July by the giant mining company Peko Wallsend. When Wallsend decided to buy a troubled New South Wales coal mine, it made it a condition of the UK$50 million sale that all workers sign such an agreement. The money went to the former owners, and the workers received nothing for their "contracts" but a new boss, and one with a poor industrial relations record at that.

The New Right has put considerable money behind its principles in some disputes, encouraging legal actions against unions and winning victories that have put very unpalatable writing on the wall for unions. The big money provided to the owner of Mudginberri slaughterhouse, in his dispute with the Australian Meat Industry Employees' Union, allowed him to win $A1.7 million in damages in 1986. The union's funds were seized to pay fines.

The Australian rural writer, Anthony Hoy, reported, "They can bask in the knowledge that the precedent they have set will stamp in legal history the quaint name of the buffalo-killing works..."

Kelty's "Future Strategies for the Trade Union Movement" acknowledges the "combination of the pragmatic with the ideal" as the basic philosophy of the movement. "In summary, the union movement is about reducing inequalities in our society with the aim of eventually eliminating poverty. At the same time we seek to make a major contribution to the creation of wealth in the development of the economy."

Having sketched the threats to the movement and the economic context, it says, "The union movement has played a highly responsible role" in moderating wage claims, in cutting strikes and in trying to protect the low-paid from declining real wages. There is little doubt of this, or of the fact that the Hawke government would have had almost no hope of reelection were it not for the conciliatory stance of the unions during its term.

Hopefully, with a Labor federal government in power for the next three years, the unions can look forward to a sympathetic hearing. There is likely to be a new industrial relations law that will at least not undermine the unions and will protect them from some of the dangers they face. Hawke has promised wage increases as large and as prompt as the economy can deliver. Should living standards drop to the point where the ACT[J cannot maintain discipline and there is industrial chaos, the Labor party is likely to strike back just as harshly as a conservative government. But it is much more likely that Bill Kelty will have a period of grace to set about the program outlined in "Strategies."

Fiachra Marcaigh is a freelance writer who has been living in Australia and who is now based in Dublin, Ireland.

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