Just as well I didn’t put any money on it. I could have sworn that the Liberal industrial relations buzz words for the 2013 election campaign would be labour productivity. But I was wrong. The buzz words turn out to be union power.
I must say I’m surprised at this. It’s not that I didn’t expect the Liberals to have an aggressive industrial relations policy. After all, deregulating the labour market and destroying the union movement are their main reasons d‘etre. And sure enough, Josh Frydenberg has come out on cue with some proposals for ‘workplace reform’ that promote individual contracts, openly attacking the award system and the unions’ central place in it. It sounds a lot like Workchoices. Frydenberg hasn’t commented further, but Alexander Downer has. And he says the reason we need this policy is ‘union power’.
So why am I surprised? Because it sounds a lot like Workchoices. And we know Workchoices is ‘dead, buried, cremated’, because Abbott told us so.
And I believed him? No, of course I didn’t. I just thought the Liberals would come up with something a bit more subtle. Something that didn’t automatically evoke ‘your rights at work’: the image of a women playing happily with her kids until she gets a phone call from her boss saying come in to work now or I’ll sack you. Remember that one? I thought they’d go for something that didn’t look like Workchoices so that it would be easier for Abbott to look less like he was lying. Silly me.
It is ludicrous to suggest that the country is groaning under the burden of union militancy. As these posts on Grog’s Gamut show, not only hasn’t there been a wages breakout, there hasn’t even been a massive increase in days lost in industrial disputes. Downer is worried about militancy in the construction industry. And yes, there was a strike by construction workers recently – the Grocon strike by the CFMEU. One whole strike! The sky is falling.
So is there really traction in an anti-union campaign? Maybe. After all, the sort of information that Grog provides isn’t very well known; when did you last see something like that in the mainstream media? Most people find it easy to dislike unions, even when they are getting the benefit of improved pay and conditions which unions have won. We regularly seem to hear of unions these days when they’re fighting to save the entitlements of union members whose companies have gone broke. And the union movement will fight an individual contract policy whatever the slogan, so the Liberals lose nothing there by calling a spade a spade. And then there’s all the bad publicity for unions, as in the HSU (real, if you mean Kathy Jackson) and AWU (made up) scandals. But even so, most voters don’t have a memory of real union militancy, which much weakens the scare tactic value. It’s so eighties.
I thought labour productivity had a much better ring to it. You can pretend that you care about the economy and the national interest. It doesn’t sound like union bashing. After all, better productivity must be in everyone’s interest. In fact, labour productivity is a complicated matter, as this further post by Grog shows. In Liberal hands, of course, it just means doing more for less – ie, fewer workers with less bargaining power, leading to poorer pay and conditions all round. It isn’t really any different to ‘union power’ and the dreaded militancy – it just sounds better.
So why go with union power? It’s partly that they can’t help themselves. Say the word ‘union’ and they see red; subtlety flies out the window. And unions do stand in the way of their cherished policy objectives. Moving even more of the share of national income from wages to profits is, as I said above, a central plank of Liberal policy – what they believe in and what their corporate supporters expect from them. And there is also a strong political motive. If you destroy the union movement, you weaken the Labor Party, perhaps fatally. (I noticed that along with the proposal for voluntary voting, the Queensland LNP wants to stop unions contributing to political parties. They say they don’t want corporations contributing either, but there’s nothing about rich individuals – go figure.) And who cares if Abbott has to back down on all that dead and buried stuff? Lying hasn’t been a problem for him so far.
But labour productivity might still get a run. It’s too much to hope that the Liberals have looked at the most recent productivity figures (see Grog’s Drum article) and concluded that they really can’t mount a decent argument on them. Or that they’ve read the Productivity Commission’s opinion that the mining boom has depressed productivity. When did mere facts get in the way of union bashing? It couldn’t be that they understand that labour productivity depends on management capability. Or that they have come to the realistic conclusion that labour productivity is a very partial economic indicator, and that multi factor productivity is actually a much more useful measure. Definitely too much to hope for. Labour productivity will pop up. You wait.