How Howard (Accidentally) Saved the Union Movement


The Liberal Party obviously thinks there’s something very worrying about unions, with campaign ads focusing heavily on the relationship between unions and ALP front-benchers.

The pitch is an attempt to capitalise on attitudes to unions that have seen a decline in union membership from 51 per cent in 1976 to 23 per cent in 2003. But perhaps the unwanted outcome of John Howard’s WorkChoices legislation has been a rallying call to the union movement and it may even help membership levels in the years to come.

Whatever the ‘facts’ of the effect of WorkChoices on the labour force, the widespread perception is that it is overwhelmingly bad for workers. And it is a perception that no amount of sticky notes could have papered over. Whenever WorkChoices is mentioned, ‘worms‘ tend to dive. Furthermore, if there wasn’t already a level of suspicion regarding the new laws, the union movement’s multimillion dollar campaign spelling out the negatives of the legislation would not have gained any traction.

The WorkChoices legislation has followed a global trend in labour market policy   introducing greater flexibility and encouraging individual workplace agreements over collective arrangements. But it is useful to consider where this trend leads. In the US where 15.8 per cent of the population does not have medical insurance, medical costs are prohibitive and contractors make up a high percentage of the workforce it is a recipe for income vulnerability. While it is an extreme, the US experience does bolster the suspicion among Australians about WorkChoices.

And regardless of current low unemployment levels domestically and internationally workers may be left vulnerable in the future when conditions are not so favourable. The 2007 OECD report on employment found that the globalised economy in particular, the rapid increase of imports from non-OECD countries and the expansion of international production networks has become a ‘potentially important source of vulnerability for workers.’ The report suggested that greater competition reduced job security for workers, particularly in lower skilled industries.

If WorkChoices was an attempt to further limit the role of unions, the Howard Government may have miscalculated the response to the laws. It was vulnerability and exploitation that led to the rapid growth of trade unions during the Industrial Revolution, and it is conceivable that increasingly vulnerable workers might return to unions.

Image thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

In the US there is some evidence that the decline in union membership may be leveling off, although it is yet to increase. Jeff, a construction worker from Grand Junction, Colorado, recently joined a union despite never having been a member in the past. He described the frustration of being laid off every November as the work dried up, only to be re-hired by a different company after the winter. ‘Now I’ve joined the union so that hopefully they will keep me in work through the winter.’

The irony in the Government’s continued campaign against the ALP’s union links is that WorkChoices has given the labour movement a shot in the arm.

Of the former union leaders vying to enter Parliament at the 2007 election, Greg Combet and Bill Shorten have successfully raised their public profiles in opposition to WorkChoices. Both are well-spoken, highly educated and presentable candidates, rather than the stereotypical, thick-necked thugs preferred in the Government’s negative advertising.

The unions’ ‘Your Rights at Work‘ campaign has been able to raise funds, mobilise volunteers and dictate the Government’s advertising agenda in direct response to the legislation. If it weren’t for WorkChoices, the Government’s fear campaign against unions might be more effective. And if it weren’t for WorkChoices, the unions would not have such a clear voice and cut-through message.

Part of the Coalition’s electoral success has come from winning the votes of traditional Labor voters. But while the scare campaign about unions may speak to the fears of the business community, if it doesn’t keep the votes of the traditional working class with the Coalition, then it will have failed entirely.

The success of Howard’s 2001 and 2004 campaigns was to communicate the ‘strong record of achievements’ of the incumbents versus the ‘risks and uncertainty’ of voting for the Opposition. In failing to test the WorkChoices legislation in the electorate in 2004, the Coalition has introduced uncertainty to its own record. In an election where the policy choice between the two Parties is increasingly slim, John Howard may well have set the agenda for his own defeat by alienating the voters that have been so influential in his success.

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