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The Coalition's special disrespect for unions



The raid on the offices of the Australian Workers Union by the Australian Federal Police demonstrates a disrespect for trade unions contrary to the Catholic tradition. Since the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891 Catholic Social Teaching has recognised the right of workers to join together collectively in unions as an important element of the search for the common good in a market economy. The political theatre indulged in by the Employment Minister Michaelia Cash and the Registered Organisations Commission is especially worrying for the deeper attitudes it reveals.

Employment Minister Michaelia CashThat such a raid was deemed an acceptable way of going about government and police business is a clear statement that unions are fair game in a way that other organisations, like business, charities, and churches are not. No organisation should be treated that way in a democratic society. Unions are clearly disrespected.

We read daily of apparently criminal behaviour by organisations like banks and other large corporations, the RSL in NSW and the Catholic Church, but none of them are treated to a visit by a squad from the AFP. Only suspected terrorist cells are treated this way. The other matters of misuse of scarce police resources and tip offs to the media by ministerial staff are ultimately of secondary importance.

Trade unions have a lowly status, lower than for many years, and consequently union leaders have a weak voice in national public debate. Sally McManus, the relatively new Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, is treated in an offhand way by the media. She is given her say but is rarely treated with the respect accorded to others in similar positions, like business leaders. Her status outside the tent is painfully clear.

This conclusion will be hotly contested by those who would point to the special relationship that unions enjoy within the labour movement. Union affiliation with the Labor Party does give them special benefits at the federal and state level. Unions cement that relationship through generous election campaign donations, and union leaders consequently have privileged access to parliament.

However, they are condemned by their special relationship with Labor to suffer exclusion from power and influence when Labor is out of office. They made that bargain more than a century ago and have learned to live with it. They are also regularly dragged into political power plays between Labor and the Coalition because to weaken unions is to weaken Labor as a matter of course.

They have a role to play under Coalition governments but always struggle because they are identified as too close to the Labor Opposition. When Labor leaders have trade union backgrounds, as Bill Shorten does, then that magnifies the unsympathetic framework within which Coalition-union relationships operate.


"Those figures suggest that government initiatives to curb the exercise of big business power would resonate as much with the public as initiatives to curb trade union power and misconduct."


The 2016 Australian Election Study by political scientists at the Australian National University show that public attitudes towards trade unions are complicated but not always unsympathetic. That study confirmed one well-known statistic, that the number of voters belonging to a union has continued to fall, reaching just 18 per cent. That statistic alone makes the Turnbull government confident that only a small minority of voters has such a personal stake that they are likely to be offended by government attacks on unions.

But even given the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption and the industrial regulation justifications for the calling of the double dissolution election in 2016, only 55 per cent of Australians wanted stricter laws for unions.

Australians have lost faith in institutions generally and relatively few want to join a union, but there is little evidence that faith and trust in unions has fallen more than for comparable institutions. When the election study asked about institutions with 'too much power' 74 per cent replied that big business had too much power. By contrast only 47 per cent thought unions had too much power.

Those figures suggest that government initiatives to curb the exercise of big business power, such as a Royal Commission into the banks and other financial institutions, would resonate as much with the public as initiatives to curb trade union power and misconduct.

It is both the connection of unions with the Labor Party and their potential countervailing economic and social power which motivates how Coalition governments treat them. They are disrespected because of their apparent weakness but their potential strength also puts them high on the government's list of institutions to be treated as adversaries.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and chairs Concerned Catholics Canberra-Goulburn.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, trade unions, Bill Shorten, Michaelia Cash



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Existing comments

I note that Michaelia Cash, in addition to being Employment Minister, is Minister for Women. Michaelia was certainly ferocious in attack, and defence, recently. It's true that the Unions are closely aligned with Labor and so are a target for the Coalition. That is politics and both sides indulge. Certainly, the heady days of Bob Hawke's and Paul Keating's rise from Union grounding seems to be waning. Perhaps these are times for Sally McManus to learn some valuable political lessons. And eventually become Minister for Women? Or Prime Minister?

Pam | 08 November 2017  

Thanks John for your thoughts on union persecution. Pointing out that rarely do we see the raid of premises with full media coverage other than relating to suspect terrorists is really valid. The demonisation of unions and unionists has been going on now since the Howard Era, so your article is really important.

Annette Brownlie | 08 November 2017  

Disrespect is one way to put it, but conscious policy on behalf of the interests represented by the Coalition parties is another. The Liberals have had a long standing policy of attacking unions for both economic and political reasons. Having done so everyone now wonders why the bargaining power of workers is so poor and wages growth is stagnating. They have got what they want and now the rest of society is paying the price. The fact that so many Coalition front benchers are Catholic only emphasises the inappropriateness of their policies.

Keith Harvey | 08 November 2017  

And Senator Cash, who was (as I understand) educated in Catholic schools should know better.

John CARMODY | 08 November 2017  

Individual workers have no strength in bargaining for fair working conditions and pay. Unions are their only hope and big business and the Coalition parties know this and seek to weaken and destroy them .

DAVID | 08 November 2017  

The author's analysis is as clear as it is unerring. Indeed, as an Emeritus Professor of Politics and a Catholic it would lack policy literacy were he to take another line. However, Ms Cash is no exception to the general ways in which I have found most Australian Catholics ignorant of Catholic Social Teaching as well as well-rusted on to the politics of the Right. She was no exception, during my years of teaching in her home state, to various cliched ways in which Catholicism and its construction of politics were played out in WA when I taught there. She even attended a Catholic school in which staff members were warned not to join the union and where its status as an independent school led all of its cultural practices to cleave towards those of the long peninsula on which Perth's elite schools are located to share characteristics out of kilter with the document, 'The Catholic School'. John Warhurst should know about this intimately, as his wife once served the highest body of Catholic educational policy-making in this country. I know: I researched and wrote a Master's Thesis (UWA) as well as a PhD in Education Policy (UQ) about it.

Dr Michael Furtado | 08 November 2017  

Thank you for pointing out the nexus between Catholic Social teaching on work and Unions. Public perceptions of Unions could be more positive with more instruction from the pulpit.

Dan | 08 November 2017  

thank you for articulating this serious imbalance in public discourse that needs needs to be named and addressed.

ann laidlaw | 08 November 2017  

Does Catholic Social Teaching apply to those unions that employ thuggish tactics on work sites, physically assault dissenters, turn a blind eye to fraudulent executive practice or house criminal elements?

john frawley | 09 November 2017  

Unions represent 18% of the workforce because 82% of the workforce have developed a habit of seeing no advantage in joining one. But, Michaela Cash belongs to one of three associations to which 98.6% of 15.7 million electors habitually see no advantage in joining, the ALP estimated to have a feeble 36,000 members nationwide, the Liberals 78,000 and the Nationals 100,000. Yet, between them, their hold on voter psychology was such that they collared 76% of voters for the House and 65% for the Senate in 2016. If a political party doesn’t have to be a mass party in order to flourish, does a ‘union movement’ need to be a mass movement? Like hardy creatures that find a niche and cling durably to it, the ALP and the Coalition have become unevictable from Australian legislatures, as illustrated by the Queensland ALP’s recovery after 2012. Using its ability as a registered advocate before the Fair Work Commission, etc. to speak for its shared interests with non-members, the union movement should, on the 45% who don’t want stricter laws for unions and the 53% who don’t think unions have too much power, deepen its niche in the Australian psychological terrain.

Roy Chen Yee | 09 November 2017  

Thanks John - a very timely analysis.In these days of high unemployment and worker exploitation - 7 Eleven as just one example - unions are more important than ever.

Jim Coghlan | 09 November 2017  

It represents the corporate conservative Christianity imported via think tanks from the US; not mainstream more evangelical etd.. Former NYT journalist and theologian Chris Hedges has written and discussed at length. In short he describes it as attracting some Catholics (not Hispanic) aka Bannon, its proponents in politics are unethical, it highlights 'the other's eg. SSM, immigration, LGBT, women's rights etc. and it resonates (not coincidentally) with Christianity in 1930s Germany.

Andrew J. Smith | 09 November 2017  

As the only Peace, Justice & Development Education Officer to have been appointed within a Catholic Education Office, my research shows that a major responsibility for the loss of the tradition that Professor Warhurst bemoans lies at the door of Catholic Education. The principles of Catholic Social Teaching absolutely underpin all aspects of the contemporary teaching on the Catholic School. Pivotal to this, is the Catholic teaching on the Common Good (as opposed to the Individual Good, which is favoured by right-wing politicians). When I interviewed Mgr Nestor, then Chairman of the WA Catholic Education Commission, for my research into Catholic educational policy and practice in Australia, he responded in a signed statement to my question about trade unions, that he favoured a Catholic-specific union for teachers in the form of a guild, otherwise he objected to 'divisive' forms of politics that set employers and employees at each other's throats. I was confused by this interpolation, since Mgr Nestor was responsible for the release in his jurisdiction of the Roman Document, 'The Catholic School", which unequivocally states that it is, 'first and foremost, for the poor'. It should not surprise that Australian Catholic schools, being uniquely private, serve the right!

Dr Michael Furtado | 10 November 2017  

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