THE IMPORTANCE OF UNIONS August 29, 2007Posted by wmmbb in Australian Politics, US Politics.
Every occupation in the society has its representatives, from the Law Council to the Business Council, but when more humble people organize to protect and further their interests, in the view of Howard, there is something fundamentally wrong. What twisted thinking underpins behind this attitude. Sure union leaders in some industries, for example building, are adversarial, but that reflects as much a response to the nature of those industries.
Equally, unions have their problems with organizational culture, organizational structures and the changing nature of the workplace. I think they could be more participatory and provide more appropriate services to their members, but these problems are the fault of the members as much as anybody else. In imitation of the United States, there has been a concerted attack on unions. Amidst all the propaganda, designed so that a few can grovel in material well being at the expense of the many, while simultaneously at least in their own minds being wholly independent of the society, we might forget the value of unions.
When I was in hospital, I found myself in the casualty ward in which people were prepared for operations. I was pretty much in a low state, having been beaten down and put in a bed in which I could not sleep. I was sitting in a reclining chair, like the waiting patients, as a spectator, I had to the acknowledge the processing efficiency of the nursing staff. I wonder about nurses, as at least one told me she was “university educated”. One of the patients was seventeen year old, who by the look of him had never lifted anything heavier than a surf board. He had been injured working with a tiling machine. We forget, or we sometimes, do not know that union organizers get to know much about work practices and safety issues, and are important agents in providing workplace safety.
Dean Baker, writing for Common Dreams makes the following observations in relation to the United States:
The weakening of the labor movement is not just bad news for the workers who lose union jobs. According to polling data, there are tens of millions of workers who would like to be represented by a union at their workplace, but don’t currently have the option. The best way to get a guide as to how many workers would be in unions if they could opt to do so, in the absence of employer threats and harassment, is to look at the unionization rate in the public sector.
While public sector managers are not generally friendly to unions, they can’t fire union organizers or use the other harsh anti-union tactics that are now standard practice in the private sector. As a result, more than 36 percent of public sector employees are members of unions. Given the freedom to choose, it is likely a comparable share of private sector workers would also be in unions. This would imply an additional 30 million workers in unions.
In addition to directly benefiting the workers they represent, unions also benefit the larger workforce and society as a whole. In an industry with a strong union presence, non-union firms know they must maintain comparable wages and benefits if they are want to keep their workers from joining a union. The decline of unions has undoubtedly been an important factor in the growth of inequality in the last quarter century.
Unions have also been essential to a wide range of political initiatives over the post-war period. Programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start would not have been possible without the strong support of the labor movement. The same is true of the key civil rights legislation of the sixties. More recently, the labor movement was at the center of the effort to prevent President Bush from privatizing Social Security. It will be difficult to make much progress on a wide range of social and economic issues without the support of a strong labor movement.
The information about Dean Baker accompanying the articles is:
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer ( www.conservativenannystate.org). He also has a blog, “Beat the Press,” where he discusses the media’s coverage of economic issues. You can find it at the American Prospect’s web site.
UPDATE: 30 August 2007.
Ken Lovell provides an analysis of the role of the unions in relation to the decentralization of wage system that Howard has initiated and Labor seemingly endorsed. He argues that unions in Australia effectively became remote from their members due to their role in the centralized award system and union amalgamation. Are members better off, for example in terms of workplace safety, as union members? Can the union movement accommodate an increasing casualized work force?
Furthermore, Dr Jim McDonald writing a quest post at Larvatus Prodeo is singularly unimpressed with the ALP IR policy – “it lacks guts, it is bad policy, and will lose votes”.
UPDATE: 24 September 2007.
Kim Beazley, former Opposition Leader, addressed the role of unions, and their importance for democracy and democratic movements, in his final speech to Federal Parliament. He noted at least the three following points:
We were a party that was an outgrowth of the trade union movement, a determination on its part that they would participate effectively in democratic politics. It is no accident that the union movement is now being abused up hill and down dale by employers in the advertising you see on your television every night and that it is being abused up hill and down dale by our political opponents in this place. Understand this: when you wish to assault democracy, first you attack the unions; when you wish to restore democracy, first you start with the unions. It is no accident that the opposition in Zimbabwe now is led by the unions. It is no accident that they are the heart and soul of what gives force and power to the democratic movement in Zimbabwe.
I recollect when I first came into this place that the walls in Eastern Europe were cracking. The Soviet empire was falling apart. What was the first indication that the Soviet empire was falling apart? Solidarity. I had a lot of Polish electors in my then constituency of Swan, and they were fascinated by what was happening with solidarity. We held rallies, sent petitions to the Soviet Embassy and the like, but what was absolutely clear was that it was a challenge that the Soviet Union could not handle. A challenge of free unions was something that a dictatorial Communist Party could not handle. That was the key to establishing democracy throughout Eastern Europe. If you undermine unions, if you undermine democracy in the workplace, then you will undermine democracy in the nation overall. First destroy the unions; then you destroy democracy.
The unions have done something else for this country. When I was a minister in the best years of my political life, they were tough times and I will talk a bit more about them later. The Prime Minister in this place quite frequently talks about the real wage growth since this government has been in office—and it is true. The statistics he gives out here are true, but they are not the story. The story is this: when manufacturing industry in this country collapsed in the early 1980s after years of sclerotic protection, when it could not be sustained even with that sclerotic protection, the union movement in this country took a deliberate decision to lift the profit share.
Maybe it is just me, but I saw reported the first two observation, not the third. Consensus now seems a long time ago. So much for building social cohesion and common purpose, which might be thought of as the stuff of political leadership.