A mutual agenda

By Legal Eagle

Well, this post is probably a bit late given the stunning victory by Labor in the Federal election. But maybe it’s good to have time to mull over things. I feel nervous dipping my toe into the political quagmire surrounding unions: but here goes nothing!

On the way home from work, I drove past a billboard which for the last month or so has a poster which said “70% of Labor’s front bench are anti-business unionists.” Or some such slogan. That got me thinking. Are unions necessarily anti-business? And are businesses necessarily anti-union? Certainly, in practice, sometimes the two seem to go head-to-head in a stubborn fashion which leaves both sides looking pig-headed and short-sighted, but I think there are ways in which they can work together.

I have never been able to understand why workplaces would want to treat their employees badly. Many of my posts regarding law firms marvel at the way in which firms treat their staff. It seems quite amazingly short-sighted for firms to put money into training staff and then treat them so badly that they have left 18 months later. On the other hand, I have never been able to understand why unions would demand so many concessions from a workplace that it becomes unprofitable or inefficient. That seems like biting the hand that feeds you, from my point of view.

So it seems to me that many of the interests of unions and businesses should overlap. Both should want the particular business to be profitable and competitive. If the business fails because the company can’t afford to pay the high wages demanded of it, or can’t dismiss incompetent staff, the union members no longer have any jobs, so it is in their interests to ensure that the business stays alive and well.

On the other hand, both sides should want the workers to be happy and secure, and feel like they have a say in how the business is run. If workers are unhappy and feel like they do not have a voice, they will be unproductive, resentful, and may leave the workplace. In the short term there may be other poor sods who will replace them, but in the long term, this is a massive drain on the intellectual and monetary resources of the business. And if employees feel like they are not remunerated appropriately (while directors and shareholders line their pockets) – well, it’s times like these that I feel Marxism has a point…never forget that there would be no profit and no business without the labour of the worker. It just doesn’t make sense to treat your staff badly or underpay them.

Therefore, a scare campaign about unions did not resonate with me at all, because if they both work properly, unions and businesses are not incompatible…as long as they remember the big picture and do not enter into oppositional game playing. And I hate the politics of fear, as I’ve said before: decisions made out of fear are not good ones.

I think the Howard government failed to understand the job insecurity which faces many ordinary Australians, myself among them. I still don’t know whether I’ll have a job next year. As a consequence, funnily enough, I joined the NTEU about two months ago. It feels better to have collective might behind you. And as a member of the union, I can agitate for collective bargaining for sessional lecturers. I know unions aren’t perfect, but otherwise I’m one little lone lecturer with very little pull or bargaining power. It feels like me versus the Giant Machine. I have a vision of a little manga me facing a giant mechanical robot, like those ones Astro Boy was always battling. Wish me luck! Like Astro, I think I’ll be okay in the end…

Astro boy

(Taken from anime.com)


  1. pete m
    Posted December 4, 2007 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Unlike Howard, I don’t think unions are evil, or irrelevant. but I do see a great need to reign in their power over employers in certain places, like the wharfs and building, while at the same time retaining their good work on employee protection of wages and safety.

    Good luck with you job security concerns – being in a union will not change that in the short term, but should help get your campaign going.

    What if all the sessional lecturers decided not to work unless put on contract? If the uni sees they will lose 20% of their workforce overnight, surely that’s got to generate some shift in how you are treated. Just needs a collective will.

  2. Posted December 4, 2007 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    They should all be working towards the same end (a happy, healthy productive workplace) but it seems their individual agendas get in the way a lot of the time. I like the theory of unions and I’m sure there’s lots of instances where they greatly help employees on an individual and collective basis, but sometimes the agenda of the large unions is in direct contrast with what the employees want. Years ago I spent some time in the industrial relations section of the law firm I was working in and we acted for a large employer trying to introduce a new safety policy. Despite the fact that the employees overwhelmingly wanted the policy introduced, the union fought all the way, because of the implications on a national level. I found it hard to see how they were helping the employees they were supposed to be representing on that particular worksite, but then, maybe that opens all those questions of the “greater good”.
    I have also been at the wrong end of the baffling practice of law firms of treating their employees appallingly, and then being completely shocked when they leave! I even somehow fell into a de facto “employee representative” role and met with partners to try and address the working conditions and attrition rates. All my suggestions fell on deaf ears and I left after 4 years. As far as I know, young lawyers are still complaining about the same things and still leaving at the same rate.
    (Sorry – getting off topic, I think – its a pet rant of mine!)

  3. Posted December 4, 2007 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I pretty much agree with the above comments. Unions are a great idea in theory, but it really depends on the particular union in question as to whether it’s also a great thing in practice. I certainly don’t hate unions, but some certainly have flaws.

    Some unions do have a hold of fear over a particular industry (people too scared to speak out against what the union proposes, or union bullies who abuse their power). I’ve never been comfortable with that aspect of unionism, but unfortunately, such things can happen in any organisation involving large groups of people (companies, governments, sports teams, nations).

    Other unions don’t always look out for the interests of their members very well (like the one mentioned in Guera’s comment). I know teachers who became very disillusioned with the Teacher’s Union because they felt it didn’t look after the interests of teachers well. Some of those in positions of power in the union hadn’t been in a classroom for years, and thus had no idea what it was like “at the coalface” any more. Now there are an enormous proportion of young teachers on one year contracts, because the agreement between unions and the government allowed “wriggle-room” for this to occur.

    But the problem with the Howard government’s campaign was that it just played on fear, it didn’t really address the issues of job security and workplace safety or anything like that. It was negative.

    On another topic, Guera, law firms are a particular bug bear of mine too. When I first started this blog, I think about 50% of my posts were on that topic. I’d just resigned from my former firm… To say I was bitter was an understatement, although I think I can look at it a bit more objectively now. Maybe. I’m getting all heated up again just thinking about it…maybe not.

  4. Posted December 5, 2007 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    I think my law firm experience left me a bit scarred too. I left that job 8 years ago and the legal industry 7 years ago, yet all the details are still fresh in my mind and I get angry thinking about it all again. At least the good thing is the jobs I have had since have all compared very favourably! Plus I am finding my current job (full time mother of two) infinitely more satisfying, even though the pay and hours are crap and my “bosses” are demanding!!!

  5. Posted December 6, 2007 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    There is plenty of evidence to suggest that enterprise-level bargaining produces better productivity – but enterprise-level decision makers (i.e. managers/directors) never seem to be able to grasp this.

    How disgraceful is Telstra at the moment, by the way? Trying to force people onto AWAs before the new government gets rid of them. Some of the stories I have heard are awful, it really is being run like a bad US corporation these days.

  6. Posted December 7, 2007 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    Yes, that’s an appalling story – shamelessly trying to remove worker’s rights. That’s where the benefits of unions and enterprise bargaining becomes patently obvious.

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