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Unions personify collective humanity

In two days time we will know the result of the federal election. One of the key issues to dominate the race so far is industrial relations and workers' rights. Today we'll look at a couple of readings to help us look at these issues from some different perspectives.

The first is taken from John Paul II's 1981 encyclical Laborum Exercens or 'On human work'. Its principles are long-standing Catholic principles. It speaks of how work unites people. Indeed, many spend a third of their lives at work. A large percentage of people meet their partners at work. Many have strong friendships with workmates.

Work unites in times of trouble. It was Brant Webb and Todd Russell's workmates who helped dig them out of that Beaconsfield mine shaft. At times of death, work colleagues often form a guard of honour at the funeral providing comfort to grieving loved ones.

Of course work is what pays the bills, keeps food on the table, clothes and educates our children, helps us save for retirement, maybe provides some luxuries, and helps us give something back to our community. Many people build their self esteem around their work. It gives them a sense of identity.

The Pope went on say that workers unions are 'a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people'. In 1986 when he visited Australia he added: 'Australia has a long and proud tradition of settling industrial disputes and promoting cooperation by its almost unique system of arbitration and conciliation. Over the years this system has helped to defend the rights of workers and promote their wellbeing, while at the same time taking into account the needs and the future of the whole community.'

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church is generally considered to be conservative. However, on the issue of unions and dignity at work, the church's position is neither extreme nor arch conservative. It is merely responsible.

The international community has also adopted fundamental principles supporting workers' rights and the role of the union movement.

In 1948, the member states of the UN unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is clear and powerful in its simplicity. Article 23 is the second reading for us to consider. It says: 'Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.'

The union movement in Australia has fought hard to achieve this. For example, the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union (LHMU) represented childcare workers in the Qld Industrial Relations Commission (QIRC) in a pay equity case. So underpaid were childcare workers that the QIRC ordered a series of substantial pay rises. They were to be phased in over a couple of years.

But the Howard Government's WorkChoices legislation came in mid-way. It overrode the state decision and childcare workers in Queensland are now up to $70 a week worse off.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights goes on: 'Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for themselves and their families an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.'

Unionism is voluntary. Unionists share one core philosophy: We believe we are better off when we act together, rather than alone.

Indeed this is a core human trait. It's why we have relationships, form families, join clubs or go to church. It's why team sport is so popular. It's why the majority send their children to school rather than educating them at home. As humans we are better off together than alone. We are better off sharing than hoarding. We are better off connected to community than cut off. And in the workplace, we are better off as a collective.

We've been told the government has listened to our concerns and introduced a Fairness Test to ensure no one is worse off. That means it has read the polls. However, the test does not guarantee workers will get full financial compensation for losing penalty rates, overtime, public holiday pay, leave loading or other conditions. It does not take into account all conditions to determine if an individual contract is fair. It does not restore the independent role of the Industrial Relations Commission or protection from unfair dismissal. It does not ensure workers have a right to collectively bargain, even where that is what a majority in the workplace want.

Of course the government will say anyone is free to join a union. That is technically right, but at the same time they are attempting to destroy the ability of unions to act on their members' behalf. They hope that if they kneecap unions, people won't join and unions will collapse.

The spirit of individualism thrives on fear. It thrives on turning one against another. It thrives on keeping secrets in individual contracts and keeping workers looking over their shoulders.

There's nothing about that in what Pope John Paul II had to say about working life and unions. There's nothing like that in the Declaration of Human Rights. And there's no hint of it when Jesus said: 'Whenever two or three of you gather, there I am with you.' Something special happens when humans gather and work together.

But this government understands collectivism very well. In fact it supports it. It seems it has no problem with the Australian Medical Association, a collective for doctors. No problem with the Law Society, a collective for lawyers. No problem with the Business Council of Australia and Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, both collectives for Australian business.

So, there's not a problem with collectivism as such. It's just a certain type of collectivism that the government doesn't support. Collectives for ordinary, everyday working people. This government must be told that collectives, dignity and fairness must be shared by all and not just the few, or they have no meaning.

Collectives work. That's why union workers are paid on average more than those on individual contracts. That's why about half the new AWAs have been found to be unfair, even by the government's own unfair standards. Collectives work because we are human beings. We do our best work when we act together. We always have and we always will.

Chris PerkinsChris Perkins is a former Secretary of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance and a public affairs consultant with a number of unions among his client list. The above is an edited transcript of his Remembrance Day homily.




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Existing comments

As a dairy farmer I poured five days milk (profit) down the drain because of a transport drivers union strike!

Peter Kerrins | 22 November 2007  

that's terrible to hear. But you then have to ask the next question. Why was there a strike? Was it because the workers just felt like five days off without pay? Were they striking over a silly issue? Or was the employer behaving unreasonably? Under Rudd I really hope that workers do regain some of their lost power. They need it. And we need to know that the power balance in the workplace is fair because the next worker to be ripped off may well be us or one of our children.

michael crosby | 22 November 2007  

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