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Wither goes the labour movement?


Trade unions emerged from the 19th century in Australia as organisations committed to defending working conditions and improving wages for their members. They created the Australian Labor Party as the parliamentary wing of the working class movement. "Class" was a real thing back then. The idea of socialism was very real. Class struggle was real. Such ideas were spoken about in the streets. There was no doubt "which side are you on" had meaning for everyone - workers, bosses and owners. Combined with a liberal set of values, the parliaments of Australia set about mediating this struggle with statutory rights for workers and shareholders, legal protections for people and property, and systems of conciliation and arbitration that allowed disputes to be resolved without direct action or bloodshed (in most cases).

The 20th century saw a great transition in workplaces across Australia away from rural and manufacturing employment towards services and office work, especially in the latter half of the century. From the bush towards the city. From traditional class issues towards a mix of middle class values, consumerism and populism based on mass media. By the beginning of the 21st Century trade unions found themselves holding an imaginary line against employers and conservative governments. The Labor Party moved to the Centre and then to the Right of social activism. The conservative parties moved further to the Right while continuing to contest the Centre. It was a seismic shift in who we were, and what drove us as a society. Everyone moved to the Right. Law and order, a comfortable life, certainty and predictability became all important.


As a result the trade unions became more and more irrelevant to the broad mass of people at work. They seemed to represent a bygone age. Their attempts to create "organising models" failed. People moved away from trade unions just as they did from organised religions and community groups. Only the volunteers sector thrived. People gave their time out of work to fight bush fires, feed the homeless and run football teams for kids on the weekends. The workplace was seen as separate from the rest of society, and "class" was an idea taught in History at school (maybe). In this environment trade unions struggled to make themselves heard. Some ended up fighting each other for a smaller and smaller patch of jobs in specialised areas e.g. the local maritime sector. Other unions rested on their laurels and waited, allowing some officials to become self interested and self serving. Members became secondary to political careers and personal benefits. The decline in membership accelerated during the 1990's and 2000's to the point where we now stand in the 21st Century at 12% union density in the private sector and 40% in the public sector. In 1970 the numbers were 55% and 70% respectively.

Yet trade unions still have a great deal to offer people at work. As someone once said: "they have a great product and they market it really badly". Protection of wages and conditions through collective action remains the core of union business. Without their focus on jobs and pay there would be a million people at work in Australia on lesser conditions and minimum incomes. Employers are under pressure to increase their bottom lines, and they are ruthless when it comes to cost cutting and savings. This not a moral judgement, just a statement of fact. Employers/bosses/managers - however you categorise them - report to higher ups. In a global economy this often means someone somewhere overseas in a head office with little or no connection to Australia. Trade unions can try to combat this global management through international actions, but at the core of the economy there are social values and mores that drive people away from collective action. "Selfies" on mobile phones are popular for a reason. The media bombard people with images of self worth, self esteem, celebrity status and all of it is external to the individual and the community. Fashion and on demand shopping dominate peoples' lives. The organising model for unions is a joke in their world.


Unions to survive have to offer services, comfort and style to those they are trying to attract. A few web sites, smart phone apps and You Tube videos won't do it. Engaging with "the wider community" won't do it. "Servicing" unionism won't do it. They need to offer individuals credit cards, insurance, superannuation, banking, leasing, health funds, legal advice, training, counselling; as a package to bind people to them. Making collaborative partnerships with mainstream service providers is critical. Paying experts and advisers to ensure the best outcome is critical. Sheer force of will and dedication to the cause is no longer sufficient. Backing the Australian Labor Party is no longer sufficient - in fact it is almost irrelevant to the everyday needs of people on the job - "no matter who you vote for a politician always gets elected". Government does not change society. Society changes government. Changing social movements in the 21st Century requires innovative actions, new business models and most of all a winding up of past institutions that no longer serve the diverse mass of the people. Trade unions as we have known and loved them may very well be such an institution.


The connection between people is now at the local level. It is neighbourhoods and families, communities and friends that matter. Collaboration, sharing and cooperation have to be reinvented in unions, learnt again. Members are the lifeblood, but they bleed for different reasons these days. Unions have to offer safety and mateship as well as improved wages and conditions. Officials need to be close to the workplace as in the old days. Smart university graduates have a role to play in unions, but not as some kind of elite who see their next role as a parliamentarian once they have cut their teeth in the union movement. The time has come for unions to reinvent themselves or die. A hard core will survive no doubt, but it is as a mass movement that working people achieve social goals, not as bit players in the existing system. In the words of the old parody - "the working class can kiss my arse, I've got the foreman's' job at last". Or the Secretary's job. Or the parliamentary job. It's all the same these days.


There is of course the call to arms as a last resort. There seems to have been moments in labour history when the general population had enough of the bullshit and rose up to change things. Not recently though. Bread and circuses 21st Century style dominates the population - fashion rules OK!, tightly controlled media, economic systems that tie you up and then keep you down, or make you contented with your lot, extreme sports, weekends at the beach, segway tours of Paris, weekends in the wine country, and don't forget MacDonald's, Hungry Jacks, COSCO, Aldi, Woolworths and Coles. All the food that's fit to eat, just not eating to make you fit! Sugar in the drinks, drugs in the blood and endless reality TV shows. It's just one episode after another. Now before we all give up, or walk away, let's not forget that external historical forces still have a role to play. Climate change (that inconvenient Truth), growing social and economic inequality and the reemergence of nationalism and tribalism may yet drive us back to working class basics. History tells us that in the absence of intelligent discourse, a World War or Great Depression can get our attention. Interesting times. We need to pay attention.