Tuesday, 25 February 2014

State of the Union - there's an elephant in the room

Tonight I attended a Fifth Estate session at Melbourne's Wheeler Centre  called "State of the Union". The panel was hosted by Sally Warhaft and included John Howe, a labour law specialist and Lisa Fitzpatrick a current official from the Victorian Branch of the  Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation. (Alan Boulton from the Fair Work Commission was ill and unable to attend.)

It's a timely discussion to have, given the back drop of the Abbott Government announcing a royal commission into union corruption, the announcement of a Productivity Commission inquiry into working conditions like penalty rates and Craig Thompson's guilty verdict for misusing union members' money. The Abbott government is ideologically hostile to the idea of unions, while labelling themselves as the "best friend of workers", so bad behaviour by an individual is pounced on as justification for actions with wide ranging impact.

The conversation started with the wide question of whether there is still a  place for unions in modern Australia. The lawyer said yes on the basis that unions monitor compliance and enforce standards set in agreements and Awards. He specifically differentiated the capacity from that of government regulators by noting that unions are "on the ground" and see things that others can not.

The question to the union official was about the credibility and culture of unions. She rightly highlighted the difference between what members think about the unions they belong to and the image of unions peddled by tabloid media.

Over the course of the hour, many references were made to past successes of the union movement. The current context was framed around dwindling membership numbers of unions generally.

There's always an elephant in the room when the discussion happens: unions are still linked to single sectors or industries, a design that fundamentally ignores the changing face of where work is, how people work and what workers worry about and want.

I don't mind using myself as an example. I was a union member for over 15 years. I have spent a large portion of my working life in the union movement in voluntary, elected and employed positions. Since 2008, I have been a member of a union for about 15 months. At the time I was working in a bank part time and then full time for a few months, so I joined the Finance Sector Union. While I worked part time, I also worked for the Victorian AIDS Council. Financially, it made no sense for me to be in two unions. From a personal point of view, it made a lot of sense to be represented as a union member in both work places, but there was no way to do this.

Fast forward to now and my work situation is even more multi-faceted. Apart from being self-employed, I also work on a casual basis for a private health care organisation, several universities, professional colleges within the health sector, as well as being a freelance actor and writer working very broadly.

With the union movement still designed to align with industries, sectors or crafts, there is no relevance to the way I participate in the workforce. I'm a committed unionist and there's no space for me in the current arrangements. What about younger workers who have no experience of the good that unions can do and little connection to how they benefit from union representation at the bargaining table or in the courts enforcing their rights and conditions? Or the ambivalent worker? There is little hope of recruiting them while ever the structure is tied to old identities and has no focus on the changing needs of the workforce.

It's okay for nurses and teachers - their occupations mean they tend to work in hospitals and schools and are less dispersed across a variety of sectors. A nurse who works for two days in aged care and three days in a boarding school is still a nurse wherever s/he works, but people like me who are highly mobile and have generalist skills will be doing different things in a wide variety of places. I know that I'm not the only one.

I tried my hardest to talk about the elephant in the room when question time came. My hand was up the minute the invitation was issued, but I didn't get a look in. Four blokes in their 60's spoke about "militancy" and "the great strikes" and put positions focussed on recreating past glories, rather than asking questions. To me, this is a representation of the old ways and one of the problems with these kinds of discussions. The last question was posed by a young woman about the casualised workforce and the need for unions to appeal to these workers and I was happy the issue had been raised. 

The answers left me uninspired. The lawyer spoke about legal mechanisms to roll over to permanent employment. The union official said it was something she didn't need to consider. 

Right there is the problem - solutions reliant on things external to the unions themselves and a complete lack of imagination and strategic thinking. While ever the focus of unions is on their own survival, they are not paying attention to their potential members who are grappling with a fast changing world of work. It makes me sad because unions have an important social role to play. Ideas that people with no power or little power are able to represent themselves on an equal footing with their employer are ridiculous. 

You can listen to a podcast of tonight's discussion (and other topics) here.

What do you think about unions in the modern world? Are they relevant? What's their role? Why are you/aren't you a member? 
If you were at the Wheeler Centre, what did you think about the discussion?

I'd love to continue the conversation on this page or over on Facebook.

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