Ideals may tell us something important about what we would like to be, but compromises tell us who we are.The tide will turn against you eventually, but when you have a big win you have two choices. You can coast along, collecting and resting on laurels, or you can knuckle down and do some work. When the tide turns, will you have anything to be proud of, anything to show for your efforts, anything to hand on to those who come after (just as those who came before handed over to you)?
- Avishai Margalit
It is not only the incumbent Federal government that is in this position. The Australian union movement built and surfed the crest of a wave with its Your Rights At Work campaign. It got rid of legislation it didn't like, and with it the government that proposed it. Union membership even went up a bit back then, but has since declined (and no, unemployment can't be blamed for that). Greg Combet went into Parliament and was replaced by someone who had all the hallmarks of a governance nerd. Jeff Lawrence maintained the status quo rather than put the boom on a sustainable footing (a criticism that can be made of others holding high office) but the answer to their problem is not another swaggering dickhead - an equal-but-opposite of Tony Abbott - but someone who knows that union activity depends upon a well and tightly run administration. It might not be sexy, and it might not get the adrenaline pumping like standing on a picket line yelling at people doing work you've refused to do, but without sound administration no union activity is possible.
The most successful unions today get this. The Shop Distributive & Allied Employees' Union (SDA) is not extravagantly run but its watching-the-pennies administration make its two major functions possible. First, it acts as a consultancy for the two major retailers to manage downward employee expectations of wages, career paths or even any jobs at all. Second, it enables the leadership to proclaim that its tens of thousands of members all share and support their preoccupations with Pellite Catholic teachings (i.e. a focus on abortion and euthanasia and a blind eye to sexual abuse). The Finance Sector Union and the AMWU are also in the business of managing decline, and the AWU is a conveyor belt for ALP machine men. The CFMEU seems like a make-work scheme for the ABCC.
People who get involved in unions from the shop floor up generally have little interest in becoming directors, yet this is what will increasingly be required of those who would take the union movement forward. The language and history of unions has been that workers are passive creatures to be "organised"; that the union exists for the worker ("your union") whether or not the worker chooses to join it, and they may not choose to join a union other than the one designated to "cover" them. This attitude is in stark contrast to the more inclusive rhetoric of other service organisations. One could overlook this as some harmless eccentricity if unions were better able to make their case to workers in industries that did not exist 40 years ago, or to those whose tenure in a job (or even a particular industry) is tenuous and shifting. The people who built the union movement in the decades before the First World War would have been able to work through this dilemma, but the managerial class that the unions built for themselves over the past quarter century are as stumped as the bewildered former blue-collar workers who preceded them.
Unions, like other organisations, require leadership and administration and some degree of stability. Unlike other organisations, unions have to allow for the possibility that members will rise up and demand something different than what the managers/administrators want. This frisson of democracy might be part of the excitement of the idea of unionism but it isn't something that union administrations need worry about on a day-to-day basis, any more than corporate managers do with shareholders. Those who dread the accountability of union members being equal to that of company directors can take comfort from the patchy record of enforcement by corporate regulators.
As ACTU President and Prime Minister, Bob Hawke took on the Builders' Labourers Federation, because the operations of that union only fed every anti-union prejudice. His successor Simon Crean took on the similarly noxious Painters and Dockers. Ged Kearney's Presidency of the ACTU has been one of small wins, with welfare workers; and the whole Help yrSelf Union (HSU) thing certainly clouds, if not overwhelms, that legacy. Kearney does not have to accept whoever her constituent unions throw up, she should take a more active role in shunting out unsuitable people and intervening in unsuitable unions.
That legacy of all-inclusive timidity and inaction leaves you with no defence to this. I stand by the claim that Abbott won't become PM but putting union leaders under the same scrutiny as company directors is the sort of thing that will be introduced by the next Coalition government, whenever and under whomever it comes to office. Thanks to inaction on the part of those who run the union movement, there is no answer nor any alternative to that proposal. Labor will introduce something half-arsed along those lines and the next Coalition government will complete the job.
Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten could do for the professionalism of union leaders what he started to do for financial planners, but he's been sidelined by this. It has derailed his ability to disguise as a concern for unions as a whole what is really a long-running factional spat with Kathy Jackson. Those of us with a relatively long political memory remember Abbott doing the same thing to John Howard, Peter Costello, Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull: he denied hearing the exact words but protested his undying support for the leader. Journos lapped that up, or at best let it pass, but for some reason Shorten has copped all at once the consistent scrutiny that might have done for Tony Abbott before it came to this.