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Union officials victimised by fear campaign

  • 31 October 2007

Confronted by a resurgent Opposition and persistently poor opinion polls, the federal government has responded by targeting the Labor Party's links to the union movement. The premise of this campaign is simple: paint trade unions as mindless economic vandals, and the Labor Party as beholden to them. Fear among the electorate will do the rest.

The business lobby paid for a similar media onslaught in the weeks leading up to the election campaign. One commercial featured an abandoned store with the slogan 'CLOSED DOWN DUE TO UNION BOSSES' daubed in paint on the front window. Another depicted three heavy-set blokes in archetypically working-class clobber storming into a workplace and switching off the lights as a prelude to imposing iron-fisted industrial tyranny. Now the Howard government is asserting that 70 per cent of a potential Rudd Labor frontbench would be comprised of 'anti-business' union apparatchiks. 'Anti-business' is code for 'bad for jobs, interest rates, and inflation'. In other words, elect Labor and you elect the union movement; elect the union movement and the country goes down the economic drain.

This campaign evokes the 'bad old days' of the BLF and the Ship Painters and Dockers Union, of Norm Gallagher and Craig Johnson. Never mind that an ‘anti-business' union official is, in fact, an oxymoron. Or that it was a Labor state government that deregistered the BLF. Or that it was the Hawke-Keating Labor government that began the process of industrial deregulation that first allowed unions to be sidelined, and has lead the nation directly to Workchoices. Fear speaks louder than history.

It is thus tempting to dismiss the Howard government campaign as an empty propaganda exercise. Except for the fact that it actually does a grave disservice to the union movement and the role it has played in creating a system, unique among industrialised nations, that balances the profit imperative against the right to dignity in employment.

Anyone who has spent any time working in the union movement knows it too well to succumb to sentimentalism. Unions are flawed, like any human institution. They have their share of corrupt, incompetent, and irresponsible officials. But the same is equally true of business and politics. The Costigan Royal Commission, which started life investigating organised crime on the waterfront, ended up exposing the corrupt financial practices then flourishing in the boardrooms of corporate Australia.

More relevantly, the trade union movement has been responsible for the progressive improvement of working