We Need the Union Movement


I was talking to a lady I know (she used the term debate, but I fear that – without wishing to cause offense – would require knowledge on the topic) about a few political topics. It wasn’t so much a coherent discussion as it was a rushed scattering of vaguely connected points we each made, but one point took centre stage. The union movement.

I need to start this off by saying that any reference to things like socialism and worker ownership of the workplace and the products of their labour was off the table. Were I to have mentioned that word, I would have been laughed or perhaps shouted out of the room. The context of the chat was very much within a capitalist framework, with the most ‘extreme’ concept simply being that of unions (a standard tenet of social democratic ideals, examples being the Greens here in Australia or Bernie Sanders in the US).

But even this relatively mild idea of unions holding any form of power was enough to concern this person. This comes as no surprise, however, when she made these two statements one after the other: “The unions had too much power back in the 80’s” and “I liked Joh Bjerke-Petersen, he did a lot of good for Queensland.” With a bit of post-talk research, “good” is a bizarre phrase for “corrupt police state”.

Joh was the Premier of the state of Queensland for almost 20 years (1968-1987), and the only reason he didn’t spend his latter years (he passed in 2005) in prison is because a judge deemed him ‘too old’ for a retrial. A simple Google search revealed the man’s legacy to be one of authoritarian measures, implementing a police state with a crackdown on peaceful protestors and union workers, and corruption (both within the police department, his own private business affairs, and as a politician). He was also incredibly negative towards women’s rights (abortions), LGBT people, the Indigenous, etc. Yeah, I’ll pass on the “good for QLD” motto – gerrymandering does some odd things.

The crazy part wasn’t so much that this person – and surely others too – liked Joh (I’m sure if you looked at the type of media those people consumed it would look remarkably like a Murdoch brand). It was that they were so strongly opposed to the union movement, with reasoning that had absolutely nothing to do with what the union movement was fighting for. “They brought the country to a standstill”, was the complaint, as many couldn’t get to work with demonstrations taking place fairly often.

Dare I suggest that civil disobedience and protest is, by definition, supposed to be disruptive – just look at the Yellow Vest protests in France at the moment, or the Extinction Rebellion in the UK. It generates discussion and garners support, which in turn is targeted at the political and business spheres to pressure for change. Now, if people turn to violent actions during such demonstrations, then they are not representative of the whole and should be condemned. But there is a vast difference between calling out a few opportunistic vandals and setting the police onto crowds of people.

Joh essentially tried to drive the union movement underground and prevent any kind of march or call for working rights from occurring. If you support that, then you obviously had privileged socioeconomic status and were therefore indifferent of the plights faced by the working people, or you simply do not have an understanding of the movement and its importance.

Today, the Coalition demonises the union movement and has run two Royal Commissions into “corruption” – where they found a single person guilty. It sure shredded the unions’ reputation though, and allowed them to cut back the power they had. Now we have seen penalty rates cut, a massive increase in work casualisation (a neat tool for skewing employment statistics), and almost no considerable wage growth. Combine that with the cuts to Medicare, education, and other public services and you are left with a society that wants to mirror America’s broken economy.

Many of the rights and protections that workers have in this country were fought for by unions and strong union membership. Instead of looking to people and parties that place the interests of multinational conglomerates before the general population, take the time to learn about how unions have improved your working conditions. Rather than speculating that maybe cutting down unions was a bad idea, acknowledge that it was an incredibly backwards step and consider how you can help rebuild it.

If you work in a specific industry, join your relevant union. If you are eligible to vote, vote for parties that support workers and unions (Labor and the Greens). All of these battles are fought at the grassroots level – it is a rare business that will willingly set aside increased profits to instead benefit their workers. It is unions, and not Scott Morrison and his rich donors, that are fighting for a fair go for the average Australian.


Liked this? Read No Cure for Ignorance, Only Better Ignorance

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