Rediscovering purpose: rebuilding the union movement

December 14, 2015

14 December 2015

I want to talk to you today about the starting point for rebuilding our movement which is the rediscovery of our purpose.

In recent times I’ve seen some heartening signs that the labour movement although perhaps not the Labor Party getting its act together in the face of profound changes in our economy.

That economy is changing. There’s no doubt whatsoever about it.

Massive, crushing pressure is building on the Labor movement as a result.

The editorials are all carrying the same message, delivered in the same vicious, arrogant, dismissive tone:

  • Unions are corrupt, backward-looking, irrelevant and unnecessary.
  • The old men who run them as a protection racket for the lazy and uneducated working class should get out of the way and leave workplace relations to zero-hours labour hire websites like Airtasker whose young inventors wouldn’t dream of driving down wages and conditions. God forbid!
  • Australians, they tell us, are over unions. Everyone is free to be their own boss and bid up their own wages.
  • So stop whingeing. Get out of the way, give us the GST on food and education, you losers!

That could have been any AFR or Australian editorial of the past fortnight. I’ve got to stop wasting my time reading them – it’s bad for the soul.

Now, there’s a temptation to be taken in by this. After all:

  • Many more people ARE self-employed than ever before.
  • Young entrepreneurs ARE making billions in paper money after listing on NASDAQ, even if they don’t seem to employ anyone or no one seems to know what they produce.
  • And some unionists HAVE BEEN behaving appallingly – absolutely appallingly – giving the movement a bad name.

But we can’t be taken in by it. Because the idea at the heart of it all “that inequality isn’t a problem and that unions and labour laws aren’t needed” is a lie.

Two things I’ve read recently brought this home to me.

The first was a report in the New York Times of a study by Angus Deaton, the 2015 Nobel economics laureate, which found that that in the United States, white, middle-aged men with only a high school education have started on average dying younger. Life expectancy for everyone else is going up, but for working class men it is going down. They are dying younger. Not just, you know, unable to afford a house or pay for their kids to go to university, but actually dying –  of depression, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide – things that have social and economic causes, stemming ultimately from the demolition of unionised jobs.

The second thing to catch my eye was an article by Adele Ferguson in the Fairfax business pages last Friday about revelations of wage fraud, sham contracting and the sexual slavery of female hosts at the karaoke bars. You may have seen it. This is what she wrote:

Australians are becoming increasingly horrified by the level of exploitation of foreign workers in this country. It goes to the heart of human rights and it is rampant.

With 1.3 million workers on visas, which is equivalent to one in 10 workers, it is undermining the economic fabric of the country. Besides undermining the award wage system, it is potentially robbing the Australian Taxation Office of hundreds of millions of dollars a year in tax.

Sectors of the economy including agriculture, hospitality, cleaning, convenience stores and trolley collection have been exposed as some of the worst offenders when it comes to wage fraud.

Sexual slavery… I thought we’d abolished slavery. But apparently not. Maybe some optimistic young entrepreneur will engineer some software that will finally get rid of it and make the BRW Rich List.

We’ve all suspected this sort of thing for some time, haven’t we? The rampant spread of workplace exploitation. The steady build-up of a low-wage economy that’s not just illegal but immoral. Every time we go to a fast food restaurant we wonder, don’t we: “just how can they sell food so cheaply?” Well, now we know – not by cutting profits but by cutting wages. Employees are subsidising the food we buy by giving up their workplace rights. They’re doing it by destroying what it means to be an Australian. My friend Josh Bornstein and his colleagues at Maurice Blackburn law firm are leading the charge on this.

Reports like this tell us something important. In the new economy, unions aren’t needed less – they’re needed more.

Those who write optimistic editorials at the AFR and The Australian know this too. That’s why they want to destroy unions so badly.

So the question becomes: what’s the way forward for us?

That’s what events like today are all about.

The ACTU held another excellent conference on this subject called Australia Disrupted just last month.

And Dave Oliver is getting things moving discussing what all this means for the recruitment, servicing and representation of union members at a time when union density is declining.

I’m not equipped to tell you what to do about recruitment and so forth you’re the experts, not me.

But I think there’s a starting point that we too often overlook: our purpose. Getting that clear in our heads is the starting point for everything that needs to follow.

If you don’t know why, you will never know how.

When it comes down to it, the labour movement and the Labor Party exist for a moral purpose. Not a political purpose to get power for its own sake, or an economic purpose to raise productivity. A moral purpose.

We don’t exist to produce members of parliament, or influence preselections, or deliver numbers for wily senators who want to build a powerbase in the caucus, or take over other unions to build some power base to control the state Labor branch.

And we certainly don’t exist to send people like Kathy Jackson on five-star international shopping sprees.

Sometimes, listening to strategists, we think that getting out of the hole we’re in is a purely technical exercise. That it all starts with collecting email addresses and data, doing polling, listening to focus groups, targeting community-based campaigning at marginal seats, and so forth¦ You’ve all heard it. It’s been the dominant strategy of the movement for a decade or more.

And some of it is right. We can use these things. Winning elections is important, especially when WorkChoices won’t die.

But they will only really help us if we are clear about what we stand for.

I think we’ve largely forgotten. Or if we can remember, our brains are so addled by complex technical and legal arguments that we can’t articulate it.