Is Paul Howes’ resignation from the Australian Workers Union a good or a bad thing for the labour movement?
In one sense, of course, the correct answer is: none of our business. Like anyone else, Howes has a right to make a decision he thinks is the best thing for his life and his family. After some challenging years at the helm of Australia’s grandest labour union, Howes has earned the right to a break, and perhaps a change of scene.
Some, like Fairfax’s Mark Kenny, are lamenting the departure of this talented young man. “Talent and outspokenness are the perfect agar to grow contempt,” Kenny argues. “While Howes has a reputation for self-promotion, he has had a lot to work with – his talents are considerable.”
There is a grain of truth in this analysis. Howes’ well-known enjoyment of media attention and his apparently glib demeanor have nurtured plenty of resentments among unionists and fellow travellers on the left.
One unionist New Matilda spoke to mentioned his “unbelievable vanity” and his habit of wearing TV-ready make up. The manner of his departure has hardly allayed those concerns. Howes’ resignation was covered lavishly in the newspapers; Sky News gave him a half hour interview.
But it’s also true that Howes does possess real talent, talent the labour movement sorely needs. To say that he is precocious is understating matters. The departing AWU boss is only 32; at his age, Bob Hawke was yet to hold any union office.
Howes has a rare gift for political communication, an ability to convey complex ideas in simple language that ordinary citizens can understand. He is as comfortable in front of the television cameras as he is at a union meeting or backroom committee (some would say more comfortable).
He has also shown that he understands some of the pressing challenges faced by the union movement if it is to survive, let alone thrive, in the hostile environment of modern capitalism. The Australian left is hardly overblessed with up-and-coming talent; Howes supplies it in considerable measure.
For all that, Howes’ legacy as leader of the AWU is decidedly mixed. His time as National Secretary of the AWU has largely coincided with the Labor government of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Judging by his book, Confessions of a Faceless Man, his energies seem have been directed more towards party politics and factional warfare inside the ALP than on the bigger picture issues relating to the representation of workers.
The Rudd-Gillard government’s achievements in the labour market were modest. Yes, WorkChoices was abolished and much of the worst excesses of the Howard years were rolled back. The labour market was re-regulated with the Fair Work Act.
But the overall trends have continued to move against organised labour. Union membership has continued to decline. Wages growth remains constrained, while corporate profits are sky high. The intellectual and moral environment of the nation continues to slant towards the forces of capital, and away from the representatives of labour.
These are big-picture macroeconomic problems that threaten labour unions across the world. It may be that there are no easy answers to the problems of organising labour in an increasingly global world. The problem is, Howes doesn’t seem to be looking for any.
Howes’ speech to the National Press Club a month ago was an excellent case in point. Far from grappling with the problems of representing workers, Howes seemed to spend most of the speech siding with bosses.
“Labor has always been the party of the free market,” he proclaimed, in a remark which suggests he understands depressingly little about the history of his own party.
Proposing a kind of “grand compact” between capital and labour, Howes ended up merely underlining the increasing impotence of labour in the face of global capital. Grand bargains can only be struck by those in a position to negotiate, and in 2014, unions are less and less able to do that. If trade unions really were in a position to negotiate grand compacts in the Australian labour market, we’d be seeing much faster growth where it counts: in real wages.
Despite 21 years of continuous economic growth, Australia does not face a wages break-out. Rates of pay for most workers are in fact constrained, by any measure. The latest wage price index figures from the Australia Bureau of Statistics saw wages rise by only 2.5 per cent for the year to December 2013. In the same period, gross corporate profits were up 9.5 per cent.
A powerful union movement, of the sort Australia used to possess, would use its industrial muscle to force companies to share more of those profits with workers. It’s not a zero-sum game, because after all the whole economy is growing. But in an economy in which labour is disorganized and weak, the net result is that growth ends up being redistributed to shareholders and investors, while wages for workers stagnate. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen in countries like the United States, where union power is anaemic and corporate profits are sky high. Australia is not far behind.
Meanwhile, business groups and the Coalition government seem to be gearing up for another attack on conditions, including penalty rates for weekend work.
None of this is the responsibility of one man, but it can't be said that Howes has done much to grapple with these problems.
Perhaps that’s not where his ambitions lie anyway. There are some suggestions that the real reason Howes is leaving is that he’s lost control of his own union. In the wake of his failed bid for a Senate spot last year, one Labor source suggested, Howes may be leaving before he is pushed.
“He was kept out [of the Senate]by stronger forces than he could muster,” the Labor insider told me. “Maybe he's just genuinely taken the hint – which admittedly is a bit far fetched.”
Paul Howes is leaving the AWU at a time of union weakness, rather than strength. His undoubted talents have not translated into a strong legacy. He will mainly be remembered for his role in bringing down Kevin Rudd, and for his steadfast support of a doomed Julia Gillard.
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