Can Union Power be Diminished?

Like me, Mick Jagger was once a student at the London School of Economics (not long after I left there). He once wrote “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need” (I would have said “if you keep trying”).

My point here is that there are at last some signs that increasing numbers, even inside the ABC and other leftist media , are accepting that there is a real need to do something about the quasi-monopoly power unions have acquired. But can Tony Abbott recover his polling by increasing his recent attack on the Labor-union connection and identifying the problems with existing workplace relations?

Today’s Newspoll shows no change on the 46/54 TPP but a further deterioration on the Better PM basis. Even so, an opportunity is now undoubtedly there to recover the polling and provide Abbott and his government with the reputation for which Jagger was awarded – a knighthood. But Abbott needs to find the right song to sing.

Relevant are last night’s ABC Four Corners and today’s SMH, AFR and Age. The latter three printed a pretty straight report of Heydon’s decision to delay a decision on his alleged bias, but also indicated that police are now effectively targeting the CFMEU’s most powerful figures for having committed criminal offences. Most interesting is that one of those figures (previously a State ALP vice-president) has suddenly “resigned” from the CFMEU after having been told by the union to take “gardening leave” (see article below CFMEU bosses across nation may face criminal charges).  

I did not watch the Four Corners program because its description in the guide suggested a typical ABC report overly sympathetic to Shorten (it was titled “Machine Man”). But while the report below on the mushroom incident involving the AWU when Shorten was running that body is not new, its re-run in Four Corners confirms the union problem is alive and well and so, it appears, is Shorten’s problem.

An additional point can be made in support of deregulation of workplace relations.

Historically, Labor and the union movement have argued that a regulatory system is needed to ensure workers get a reasonable return from their efforts and that employers do not push them down to “the bottom”. But what happened under the regulatory arrangements installed by Gillard? As shown in this article by Judith Sloan (Pay Packets Reflect the Trying Times), there has in fact been a steady reduction in the rate of growth in wages to the point where they are only just keeping pace with inflation ie “the system” is not yielding any real wage growth. Of course, there are other reasons for this: but a good case can be made that  “the system” has not played a helpful role for workers , whether in terms of wages or employment ( that cannot be detailed here).

Note in particular the critical comments made by long time Labor supporter, and former minister and head of the ACTU, Martin Ferguson (a partial payback for the attempt made at the recent Labor conference to expel him). Ferguson’s comments are also covered in this article (Ferguson on Unions), also by Judith Sloan. In a damning claim he asserts that Labor caucus currently has no independence and that too many “wait for the phone call from the trade union heavy to tell them what to do”.

Another ex-Labor minister, Gary Johns, has also made some acerbic comments in this article (Dinosaur Unions Shown Up By Pro-worker Breakaway Associations). Johns points out that Shorten’s actions in accepting money from his union members’ employer for his election campaign has itself ensured that the Royal Commission would be politically charged. “Shorten’s actions are the embodiment of the ALP’s dilemmas and no amount of  blackguarding the commissioner can solve them”.

Assessments like these by ex-Labor and union leaders should make the next election a walkover for the Coalition. But Abbott needs to forget his promise to postpone reform of workplace relations until after the election and seize the day.

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