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It is time for a reformation in the entire union movement

By Brian Holden - posted Thursday, 17 May 2012

The ACTU is holding its tri-annual meeting in a state of shock caused by the inner workings of the HSU. Much needed reform will not be forthcoming as thinking is still trapped in the 1890s. It is as if the master-servant relationship was immovable as the workplace structure rather than an employer-employee partnership with a common goal.

The more militant unions can still smell a whiff of blood hanging around from 1854


I don't believe that any major policy shift can be sensibly discussed in the absence of an awareness of history. History has to be our touchstone. So, why did we get unions in the first place?

Because so much work was unskilled work until the early 20th century, a master-servant relationship was a natural development. Those who were lucky enough to be able to work with their brains exploited those who were trapped into being only able to work with their backs. Because there was no welfare outside of what churches offered, the employer derived his power from the reality that his employees' families would risk starvation without the pennies the breadwinner brought home from mill, farm and mine.

Essentially, labour unions emerged because there is no limit to what a man driven by profit was capable of doing to fellow humans. When my great grandmother was born in 1837, mine and mill owners in England had children working under killing conditions for a pittance. So, one must be cautious when criticising unions.

But, why is union-thinking still trapped the 1890s? Why is it still them-against-us? The reason is that as they grew in size, the unions became bureaucracies. That means they became hierarchical structures (with all the political intrigue that comes with that structure). And, they had become businesses needing an expanding market. The oppressed could hire them as their champions. The unions as champions thus had a vested interest in nurturing a them-against- us perspective.

I was brought up in a family of committed Labor voters. When I entered the workforce I assumed that unions were centres of goodness (somewhat like the church I was still attending). I got an insight into union-think when I was elected to a committee which met monthly with the union's executive. It was a union with 70,000 members.

The executive saw no role for the organisation outside of maintaining or improving pay rates and conditions for its members generally. On the surface that may seem fair enough - but is it fair enough that an organisation with an annual income of tens of millions of dollars stand outside of society and have no involvement in the community at all? When I broached the subject I was blankly stared at as if I was speaking in Swahili. The union was not a centre of altruism and goodness after all. It was as isolationist as it claimed the bosses were.


Then I moved into middle management with human resources responsibilities. My view was now from the top of another hill. I was now an observer of the damage done by the them-against-us attitude. Unions act like divorce lawyers. They jack-up the level of distrust between two parties to make their own role look to be a highly valuable one in the eyes of their clients. I became anti-union.

It is a human characteristic to be reasonable. But the right buttons have to be pushed. The hostile stand taken by the unions must encourage a siege mentality in management. Bringing into a workplace problem a boots-and-all union person who must appear to be a winner to impress the local members, can infuriate a management struggling under heavy pressure to match service with demand.

Ask a union member his reasoning for his annually paying a $600 fee to his union. The response will be that management will not sack a union member knowing that the union has the resources to fund extensive legal proceedings which the non-unionist has not. Therein lies the value of union membership for the individual - but only for the unskilled worker. Why is this so?

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About the Author

Brian Holden has been retired since 1988. He advises that if you can keep physically and mentally active, retirement can be the best time of your life.

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