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Union officials victimised by fear campaign


Union Officials

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 conditions in Australia since before Federation. From the initiation of the eight-hour day movement in 1856, to the Living Wage test cases of the recent past, unions have sought to create working conditions that not only enable ordinary citizens to earn a living, but which uphold their dignity as human beings.

And it has frequently done so in the face of bitter opposition from both business and government. Business has always asserted its right to determine employment conditions, with only 'market pressures' to ensure humane outcomes. Government has more than once argued against improved employment conditions on the grounds they would make Australia's economy less competitive. But the truth of this nation's socio-economic history is that our robust economy and advanced living standards have been built on a foundation whose cornerstone is active participation by the union movement. Remove that cornerstone, and the foundation collapses.

And the foundations are collapsing. Australians may be wealthier than ever before, but they are also more stressed, more insecure, working longer hours, and acutely conscious of the absence of quality of life. And it is union officials who are frequently on the pointy end of this dichotomy, helping employees cope with their grief and rage when they fall victim to the vicissitudes of the globalised economy.

Far from being industrial thugs, union officials are all too often the only support mechanism standing between stressed Australian workers and human tragedy.

Christ taught that the labourer was worthy of the hire. Implicit in this teaching is the assertion of human dignity over considerations of profit. By resorting to stereotypes in its quest for electoral survival, the Howard government improperly denies the dignity and humanity that are the ongoing endeavour of trade unionism itself.

Brendan ByrneBrendan Byrne spent nearly two decades in the union movement in various capacities. He is undertaking a Bachelor of Theology degree at the United Faculty of Theology, Melbourne, and was recently accepted as a candidate to the ordained ministry in the Uniting Church in Australia.



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Existing comments

This aligns very strongly with my view. I would never claim that unions are perfect either, but their role is important for the vulnerable and will be much more important when economic conditions turn for the worse as they probably will at some time in the future.

Geoff Preece | 01 November 2007  

I have been quite disgusted at the portrayal of unions in this election campaign. The demonising of these people is outrageous. Thanks for the article.

Steve Nash | 01 November 2007  

Great article - i am appalled by aspects of this campaign. Great to hear Christ, not just religion, mentioned in the same article concerning the election.

Peter Bartley | 01 November 2007  

Congratulations and thank you to Brendan Byrne for his article on unions and the fear campaign against them being waged by the Howard Government. How easily people, non-unionists as well as union workers forget and dismiss the advantages they have gained over 100 years of union action for fair and decent work and social conditions. I recommend a DVD 'Constructing Fear' available to download or purchase from www.constructingfear.com.au
It gives a chilling insight into the effects of union busting on ordinary working folk in WA

Margaret Hinchey | 01 November 2007  

I am a nurse, currently teaching in the TAFE sector, but 12 months ago I worked for the Nurses Union, albeit in the Training Unit. However I saw what Howard's IR laws have done - in Aged Care, where qualified nurses were made redundant so that the bottom line could be achieved. I supported workers on a picket line at a carpet factory, who stood to lose all of their entitlements. Unions are often the only advocate for the workers. I often think of the writing on the wall that is in the Book of Daniel, which is applicable to this federal government "Mene,Mene,Tekel Upharsin -You are found wanting and are in the balance". I hope the average Australian worker causes that to happen on election day

Wayne Pelling | 02 November 2007  

And there was a time as well when unions, to the absolute fury of conservative politicians and managers, flouted managerial authority to act on what they saw as improper use of unionist's labour.

One example will suffice: in 1975 the then Cortaulds factory in Newcastle was manufacturing 'razor wire' for export to Indonesia and subsequent use in occupied Est Timor. It was early days for the use of this product. Maritime unions, in disgust that such an inhumane product should be manufactured and exported out of Australia, refused to load or ship the cargo. It sat on the docks for years.

Now, that is democracy at an industrial level in action. It is what unions can achieve with good social leadership.

It is not just wages that emplyers and conservatives want to keep down. It is the possibility of organised, ethical and moral leadership from working people.

Good article.

Anthony Nolan

Anthony Nolan | 03 November 2007  

I have read with interest the article by Brenden Byrne, and to some extent I agree with what he has to say, but if you listen to what most union organisers have to say about those for whom we work (that they will cheat you at every opportunity), and they demonise employers constantly saying that they all are no good; when this has never been the case. I believe that that the addage "a fair days work for a fair days pay" works both ways, and is in the interest of both parties. Mat 20 (1-15) works for me.

Ken Warland | 03 November 2007  

From my own experience the unions went through a transformation in the 1970s and 80s. Before then some union officials demanded more than companies could afford. There is no point in employees going on strike if the result is that the company goes bankrupt and the employees lose their jobs. On the other hand hand we have seen companies purposely strip assets, go insolvent and deprive employees of their entitlements and then re-open under a different name. A company's best assets are their staff who should share their prosperity and good will.

john ozanne | 03 November 2007  

I agree with Brenden Byrne. Unions have been portrayed as ogres,who are all bad for the economy. Unions have been supportive of the workers and have been there when required, to fight injustice. Liberals have big Business on their side, who support the Liberal Party with massive cash donations. Business try to get rid of workers and send most Australian jobs overseas, where it is performed for a pittance. I don't see any adverts that show all the Union Members in the Liberal Party, John Howard's advisor is a Union Member. Labour should point this out in their adverts. Also who brought interest rates down from a massive 22% when John Howard was Treasurer. How many more lies will the nation have to bear, just because this Party craves power and will do and say anything to achieve it

Rex Manuel | 04 November 2007  

Brendan Byrne should be congratulated for saying positives things about the unions in Australia, the day to day activities of union officials paid, in the office and unpaid on the job where men and women advocate and represent their fellow workers is the real stuff of unions and is the reason so many people will not see them destroyed, as I believe is the intention of the present federal government. I hope Brendan is able in the coming years to continue to defend the union movement.

Kevin Vaughan | 04 November 2007  

Well written Brendan. It's unfortunate we have a Federal Government which has proven to be the most dishonest, misrepresentative, uncaring and power driven in our history. Unions have been at the forefront of making Australia the great place it is. Howard and his cronies have done more harm than good for Australia in the 11 years they have corrupted the office of Government.

Steve Kelly | 19 November 2007  

my partner has been elected as vice president of a labour union. My question is do you feel he is limiting his future employment prospects?

noreen jensen | 18 March 2008  

Thank you to Brendan Byrne for this important article and Eureka Street for posting it online. It is good to hear an alternative analysis that gives some understanding of what unions try to do to improve the conditions for ordinary working people in Australia and overseas.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 27 June 2016  

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