The feature of the Union Conference at the moment seems to be couched in a mood of sombre refection. There is no doubt that the union movement has a proud history and has gained much for workers since the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Employers are now employers, not owners of employees, yet they find themselves now facing dwindling membership, and a feeling that the hope and trust that people once placed in the Union Movement is diminished.
The conference takes place with the Health Services Union Fiasco as a backdrop, and clearly like every other person in Australia, they are amazed, concerned, and shocked to see the level of rorting and rip-off that seems clearly to have taken place. Whilst those who have been named in this all all claiming innocence, it seems clear after a million dollars or so of tax payers money that has done on the investigation, that there is virtually no other conclusion that appears credible to the reasonable person. Craig Thompson is doe to speak in Parliament, under the cover of Parliamentary Privilege, on this matter in another week or so, however one hopes that he has more to say that people are going to feel comfortable to believe than he shared in the Lauries Oakes interview, reaction to this was generally ‘unbelievable’.
The unions of course are key stake-holders in the Australian Labor Party, and this of course has its strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities. Whilst the Government is celebrating the polls returning to 30%, the unions may believe that in terms of the next election a stake in the Labor Party is like a share in a 12 year old nag running in a race against a Black Caviar. At the same time there are moves afoot within the Labor Party to change the balance of power and increase the democratic edge and the voice of the branch membership. For any of that to happen will require the Unions to give up a little of the power and control, and that would seem not likely to be where they want to go.
The big issue is reality is the change in the nature and character of the Australian Workplace and Workforce. One of the results f the success of the union movement in creating better working conditions for employees has been the rise in subcontracting. Many businesses prefer to abandon traditional employee relationships with staff in favour of outsourcing and contracting, so as to reduce the level of commitment that they are required to make to the relationship. Arguably it gives them more flexibility and less cost. The people who are in this new arrangement are abandoned by the Unions as they are now mini bosses in their own right, and so the divide and conquer has eventually happened.
If the Union movement is to recover the gound then they must reinvent themselves so that they can make sense and a positive contribution to the new arrangement.
As well as that it would seem they have to clean up their act. Much of the new contracting workforce who gets to take home realistically between 30 and 60 thousand dollars looks at the union heavy weights on salaries in excess of 250,000 for doing very little for their membership.
I am pleased that the movement appears to be asking the hard questions. The Labor Party which should also be asking itself some hard questions seems to come up with great statements like ‘ it was time’ or ‘it was the K Rudd factor’ or ‘the media is against us’ or simply ‘we was robbed’. While they don;t ask the questions a little harder they have no hope of finding the answer, because in reality they are not acknowledging the problem.