What IR debate?

Monday, 7 November 2011 

All he had to do was indicate that he was prepared to close the airline down and I think he would have got his termination.

Doug Cameron on Lateline

Anyone who still thinks there is an IR debate going on this country should have caught last Friday night’s Lateline Forum between Doug Cameron and Josh Frydenberg. Surely if there is any shallow breathing detected on IR as a political issue it would be here between the loudest spokesman of Labor’s otherwise invisible left, and up-and-coming Liberal MP Frydenberg, friend of Peter Reith, and supposedly leading the push to harden the Coalition’s IR line.

No such luck. Instead the whole difference between Cameron and Frydenberg on Qantas is that Cameron thought Qantas CEO Joyce should have applied to the FWA to terminate the strike, Frydenberg though Gillard should have done so sooner.

If Frydenberg represents the “hard line” of the Coalition, where is it? Not only does he support a centralised government body interfering in a wage dispute, but he believes that they shouldn’t even have held back to do so. What do he and Peter Reith talk about?

Of course, contrary to Cameron’s helpful suggestion, Joyce was quite sensible in doing what he did. After all, surely it would make it easier to get the FWA to do what Qantas wanted if the government, terrified it would get blamed for chaos in the airports, was arguing on Qantas’s behalf. With an employer like Qantas quite happy for the FWA to intervene, there is no real reason why the Liberals shouldn’t be either.

One of the things ignored by those who want to talk about the terrific things unions have done for employees in this country is to remember that they were pretty handy for employers as well. It was not just the way that they helped keep wages down when employers faced increased international pressure from the liberalisation of the 1980s, they have provided employers a useful mediating channel generally to deal with employees.

For employers, this was one of the weaknesses of Howard’s attempts to push the unions out altogether after they had already been nobbled under Keating, and move to individual employee arrangements with Workchoices. It was why employers were generally quite content with the IR scene and enterprise bargaining before Workchoices was introduced – and why AWAs were so rarely used. It was also one reason why employers wanted the Liberals to dump Workchoices after they lost government.

From the unions’ side, the eagerness of the leadership to still be a player in discussions, even if it doesn’t end up producing much for their members, can still be useful for some employers. There was a little hint of this when the head of the Pilots Association was interviewed a few nights earlier, with this little revealing exchange:

ALI MOORE: So what’s the difference between Qantas and Virgin? Because one of the points that Alan Joyce made in his speech on Saturday when he was announcing the grounding of the fleet, he said that Virgin Australia, “pays less and does its heavy maintenance offshore,” but there’s no union pressure on Virgin.

BARRY JACKSON: Well, I would suggest that the CEO of Virgin is engaged with his staff and I’d contend that Alan needs to look at his staff as part of the solution not part of the problem.

Qantas pilots are very dedicated and very loyal. They – as some of my younger members have said, they want to be Qantas pilots, they want to see Qantas successful. We are a fairly engaged part of the workforce and I think we’re willing to do what needs to be done.

ALI MOORE: Are you saying it’s not just about pay? Are you saying it’s actually about how you’re treated or how you’re talked to? It’s not all the dollars?

BARRY JACKSON: Well, as I say, you know, if you engage your staff I think you’ll find that you’ll start to get the benefits of an engaged workforce. Qantas has always been innovative, but that innovation comes from staff being engaged in the business, and if they’re not, then that innovation won’t be forthcoming.

By ”engaging the staff” what is often meant is engaging the body that claims to represent them, something that is important enough that it may end up not being quite as much about pay as it should.

However, what we saw with the Qantas dispute is that some employers are starting to look for a compliant or weak government to play the mediating role, through the FWA, instead of compliant and weak unions. This may suit the employers, but unfortunately does not suit the Liberals, since Labor can clearly do this job as well as anyone and it raises the question of what the Liberals are for. This was an issue that some, like Reith and Howard, were starting to get itchy feet on, but the logic of what is actually happening at the workplace is continuing to make their approach even more irrelevant than when Howard brought in Workchoices.

The Liberals at least need to have some acknowledgement of industrial relations reality. Newspapers conducting ideological campaigns have less need to worry. The Australian’s Michael Stutchbury was trying to argue on Insiders how awful the FWA regime was, while being reminded how it managed to get the result he wanted anyway.

Others in the media, however, are starting to look beyong the phoney IR debate and pick up the embarrassment the reality is causing the Liberals. While Cameron kept on raising the Workchoices bogeyman, Lateline’s Ali Moore was more interested in pressing Frydenberg on the incongruous position that someone supposedly on the right side of IR was now pushing.

Leigh Sales did an even better demolition of Hockey on the same point a couple of nights before. The Hockey interview got some excited because it had him admitting that he knew about a possible lock-out well before it happens (as though anyone cares). But what was more interesting was the way that Sales drew out that the Liberals’ abandonment of the market was now so entrenched that it even applied to the one issue they would supposedly hold a tough line on. Listen how Hockey argues for more government action but, er, less regulation.

LEIGH SALES: Your question today implies that the Coalition wants government interference in banking. You want government intervention in the Qantas dispute, your policy on climate change is direct government action rather than a market mechanism. There seems to be mounting evidence that the Coalition is abandoning its long-held belief in the free market.

JOE HOCKEY: Not at all.

LEIGH SALES: How do you explain that you want so much government intervention in all those areas?

JOE HOCKEY: Well, it’s not direct government action that may be necessary from time to time, but it can be Government simply picking up the phone and doing something: speaking to people, asking them what they need, how they can resolve issues. That’s what a proactive Government does without the heavy hand of more regulation. And that’s what we have done in the past, that’s what we will do again.

As for the Labor left? It has been widely considered that the government’s application to the FWA to terminate the strike was a victory for Qantas not the unions. Cameron appears to have no problem with that, it was just that it should have been Joyce that did it. As far as Cameron is concerned, the only problem is what happens to Qantas’s passengers and its brand. If the unions think they have a friend in the Labor left, clearly they don’t. No wonder he wants to bang on about Workchoices and the evil Mr Murdoch in the broadest Scottish brogue possible.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 7 November 2011.

Filed under State of the parties

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22 responses to “What IR debate?”

  1. Michael on 7th November 2011 12:43 pm

    It’s also interesting that main criticism of the labour administration is one of incompetence in their spending programs. The incompetence and fraud however seems to be overwhelmingly on the part of small businesses contracted to do the work. It seems that pretty much all of the neo-liberal economic mantras have been abandoned by the coalition except the most cherished which is shifting the tax burden off battlers on 200k onto indolents on lower incomes who aren’t moral enough to have had better luck.

  2. Riccardo on 7th November 2011 5:09 pm

    Costello would agree that Abbott doesn’t have a free market bone in his body. It’s not why he went into politics – he went for Queen, Country, Foetuses and because the job was there.

  3. Alex White on 8th November 2011 8:06 am

    PS – It’s fairly clear that the Liberal Party are now simply a right-wing social conservative party aimed at representing and protecting Australia’s various corporate oligopolies. Any pretense at the Liberals being pro free-market has been jettisoned in reality and remains only as a rhetorical shield to defend the most egregious opportunistic policies announced by Abbott and co.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 8th November 2011 11:27 am

    I think the difficulty the Liberals have is that they’re not even really a social conservative party. It has been easier to be aggressive on IR than be a recognisably social conservative party such as you would find in Europe.

    So in my view IR is really all they have. Turnbull on Q&A was a reminder of how much even social small-l liberals like him need IR.

  5. dedalus on 8th November 2011 5:03 pm

    ” .. even if it doesn’t end up producing much for their members ..”

    A subtle variation on union-bashing? Starting right back from the industrial revolution, even further back than that (remember Moses?), unions have achieved pretty much everything that workers might consider of value. Job done. So now the workers leave the unions – and the commentators who should know better declare them no longer of relevence.


  6. The Piping Shrike on 8th November 2011 6:58 pm

    Australian employees didn’t leave their unions because it was “job done”, but because they singularly failed to do their job of protecting members’ interests in the 80s, and then allowed themselves to become impotent and have their “teeth pulled” by Keating in the 90s.

  7. dedalus on 9th November 2011 9:54 am

    Way too indirect a reason. How about this:

    Members leave unions because membership is not compulsory; members rate their dollars too highly to spend them on membership fees; members would rather put their money in poker machines; members are too blase as a result of all the benefits and conditions won for them by past union action; members prefer to whinge at bosses over a few beers; members secretly dream of being bosses themselves; members think of themselves and bugger everyone else; members have no sense of loyalty; members don’t realise that they’re living on a knife’s edge between labour and capitalism; members have no awareness of history; members live in a fool’s paradise; members believe that unions will come to their aid even if they’re not members;members read the Daily Telegraph; members vote for the liberal party;.. etc etc you get the idea

  8. The Piping Shrike on 9th November 2011 11:52 am

    That the unions are terrific but Australian workers are deluded crap? No, I don’t get that at all.

  9. dedalus on 9th November 2011 4:44 pm

    You can be deluded without being crap. Ask the club owners. They’ve got the workers going in to bat for the right to destroy their own finances.

  10. Riccardo on 9th November 2011 9:05 pm

    No, whether the “Unions” job is done is beside the point. The “Labor Movement’s” job is done.

    This, according to legend, was determined under the great tree in Barcaldine in the 1890s and TWO horses were set running, a political movement and an industrial movement, collectively the Labor Movement.

    One movement using industrial action (collective bargaining by threatening strikes) while the other sought seats in Parliament.

    A bit like the Greens have a political arm and ‘grassroots’ organisations that promote environmentalism, gay marriage and dadeeda.

    The political wing of the Labor Movement got there in the end, with some help from Tories like Howard. Medicare, compulsory education mostly paid for by the taxpayer (who then pays again because the social reason for govt funded education has disappeared), income support for retirement, widows, disability etc.

    Compare this with the USA where the Unions bargained medical, education etc into industrial agreements, leaving the Dems too weak to fight for these in Congress. You need an alliance of middle class and social justice/poverty alleviation in a democracy. The middle class won’t vote for health/education for the poor without something in it for them.

    Anyway the detoothing of the Industrial Wing was part of the agenda of the Political Wing – allowing people to collectively bargain but not making it the primary mechanism for wages and safety nets.

    So THAT job is done. The final piece of the puzzle was centralising away from the states, and into a bureaucracy away from the courts. This is what the Liberals gave as a free gift to the Labor Movement – courtesy John Howard and his contempt for states.

  11. Riccardo on 9th November 2011 9:13 pm

    Also you don’t have to be a Tory to see the Unions coarse, working class tone (whether an affectation or real) alienates the middle class who might otherwise be sold on the idea of joining with like (it’s not like most professions don’t have a union or association, and the doctors, lawyers and pharmacists being classic examples of this).

    What those professional groups don’t do is turn up to press conferences with “Outer British Isles” accents, ill fitting suits, loose ties and rhetoric from 50 years ago (again, it doesn’t actually matter if the rhetoric has substance).

    The Greens will be the first to admit the thing that still does put off most prejudiced voters is the perception of dreadlocks and mung beans, not esoteric ideas about sustainability or taxation for that matter.

    When David Chalke did his Australia Scan, he measured ‘redneckness’ and found at most 25% of the population were genuinely anti-environmental and the balance could generally be persuaded to implement a Green program. But few votes in tie-dyed shirts or tofu, albeit very Green members actually live like that.

    So I contend that the prejudices of the population aren’t against policies, but against personalities and sociology of other groups.

  12. dedalus on 10th November 2011 6:25 am

    Riccardo – some truth in that. You can come at this from different angles. There’s the political theory angle, the media analysis angle, the psychology of people angle, etc. What interests me is how people get duped by those who have the VOICE. The brainwashing of licensed club members is currently a glaring example of this. Many club members scoff at unions but miss the irony that they are themselves payers of compulsory membership dues.

  13. The Piping Shrike on 10th November 2011 7:43 am

    I really don’t see this as being that involved. People join unions to get better conditions and protect what they already have. When the unions failed to do that, people left. It’s fairly straightforward.

    This might be politically awkward for some, but that’s simply what happened.

  14. Michael on 10th November 2011 10:22 am

    It might be true that unions have failed to represent the interests of workers but the situation is a little more complex than that. Increased specialisation and contract positions mean that for a lot of people there isn’t a particularly relevant union to join. As the economy moves into more services many jobs aren’t really defined in terms of union affiliation. There still remains the spectre of being in a weak bargaining position with individual contracts especially in an environment of greater “flexibility”. It would be interesting to know what percentage of the electorate is comfortable with negotiating individual contracts.

  15. The Piping Shrike on 10th November 2011 11:36 am

    I imagine very few, unless in a highly specialised and sought after job. Undoubtedly individual negotiation is harder than collective. But we arrived at this “flexibility” of individual and enterprise bargaining because of both the failure of collective bargaining and its abdication by the unions in the 1980s and early 90s.

    Again changing work place practices do not explain the decline of the unions, they have been neither that dramatic, nor necessary to explain it. Many office jobs can still lend themselves to collective negotiation. It’s just that the institutions that would do that are no longer capable of doing the job.

    There seems to be a lot of beating about the bush on this.

  16. Paul on 10th November 2011 12:30 pm

    Although its a weak generalisation, I dare say that the level of union representation in Australia is directly proportional to level of process-oriented jobs (ie, blue-collar, manufacturing, etc). As the percentage of the process-oriented work-force has declined, vis-a-vis the increasing percentage of service-oriented jobs, the influence of unions has waned.

    Another aspect of this dissolution of union power is the sale of government-run organisations to the private sector during the 1980’s. Think public transport, electricity, water, even the PMG!

  17. The Piping Shrike on 10th November 2011 9:00 pm

    Again, as an alternative to simply admitting that unions weren’t doing their job, using workplace changes as an excuse for their decline doesn’t really work. The workplace was far more individualised than it is today when employees took the initiative to form unions and when they reached their height of influence.

    The workplace was also far more privatised. In fact you could argue that the privatisation of industries would have made the job of unions easier when their main opponent to take on was a private employer rather than a nice Labor state government. But of course the unions are pretty well incapable of taking any employer on these days, private or public.

  18. Michael on 11th November 2011 7:56 am

    Does the weakness of the unions come from a lack of widespread support, the union officials themselves through ineffectiveness or because they fear they will lose if their resolve is put to the test because the deck has been stacked against them? Would wages and conditions be better if the accord hadn’t happened?

  19. The Piping Shrike on 11th November 2011 11:53 pm

    The unions would have still carried some weight at the time they agreed to the accord; otherwise their agreement would not have been important. Their agreement to it and its impact on their members’ earnings seemed more a political problem than anything. It also suggests that they wouldn’t have been that hot in defending their members’ interests even if they hadn’t gone along with the accord.

    I think the evasion still on-going about this period is interesting, especially now that everyone in the media and political world seems to be hankering after the Hawke/Keating days in contrast to the dog days of the two-party system now. Few want to make the connection between the two – with ones like Tanner preferring to blame the current state on the meeja instead.

    Even those who do admit what happened at the time, want to de-politicise it; turning it into a technical problem of “globalisation” or “liberalisation”. Company earnings went up during the 1980s. There was no reason that employee earnings shouldn’t have done the same.

  20. Alex White on 12th November 2011 8:26 pm

    PS- sounds like you’ve got a lot of opinions about “unions”, their problems and their members attitudes without knowing a lot about any specific union…

  21. The Piping Shrike on 13th November 2011 5:39 am

    I don’t have a lot of opinions on the unions. They’re largely a spent force, so not much need. What does get me going are those who want to mystify why they are a spent force.

  22. Riccardo on 14th November 2011 4:42 pm

    Will the Gen Y and below decide to spontaneously reinvent a concept of a union to replace/fill the gap created by the decline of the 100 year old union movement?

    I doubt it, but it is the question.

    I had to laugh at the idea that the international pilots need a union (very high paid job) where the unions covering the working poor (Eg office cleaners) only get the ‘safety net’

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