Jeez, you’d have to really hate being a union rep right about now. Seemingly everywhere you look there are examples of how the union movement’s relevance is plummeting, while its questionable behaviour is ramping up. Just in case you haven’t noticed, here’s a selection: 

  • The alleged involvement of bikie gangs and underworld figures with the CFMEU at Barangaroo.
  • The fight between the AMWU and Toyota, which continues even though Holden and Ford have fled after facing similar battles.
  • The negative influence unions have had on productivity and labour costs at Qantas.
  • The finding that former union boss John Maitland is corrupt over the granting of coal licenses that made him millions.
  • The prospect of a royal commission into the alleged corruption and criminal conduct of key players in several unions.
  • And, of course, needing no explanation, the ongoing saga of Craig Thomson and his former buddy Michael Williamson at the HSU.

Those stories, and others, were brushed off in an op-ed by the ACTU’s Ged Kearney yesterday, as people doing the wrong thing “from time to time”, with the Abbott government embarking on a “trick” purely for political purposes. That may or may not be true, but surely a judicial inquiry would deliver benefits to union members by airing the crap and eventually clearing it out. How could any union leader tasked with protecting workers be against it?

This toxic trend demonstrates the ways in which unions have morphed into the businesses they so despise. What they’ve spent so long opposing – the ruthless and greedy nature of the big corporates – they are now themselves guilty of, which is perhaps a reason why less than one in five people trust them to be their representatives at work.

Unions are unequivocally businesses – some are Big Businesses – selling themselves to potential consumers (industry workers) in return for a service (potential support). They engage in product development and marketing just like any other business, earning substantial revenue while paying their staff generously, much more than the workers they represent. They are, through and through, as much a product of capitalism as the organisations they oppose.

What makes this downfall tragic is that unions have historically been hugely successful at making this country great, significantly lifting the standard of workplaces across Australia. But that standard is now maintained by solid industrial relations legislation and intense competition for quality workers, the combination of which advantages employees irrespective of union involvement. Just because unions were useful in the past doesn’t mean they’re still useful today.

If anything, their existence and characteristic obstinacy are a hindrance to the workers they’re supposed to protect. When unemployment is increasing and the economy is stagnating, it’s essential for labour costs to be relaxed so that employers have an incentive to hire more people. When the situation reverses and the economy is booming, then those costs can rise once again. Unfortunately, trade unions seem to prefer higher wages even if it means fewer people are receiving them.

The economy aside, the irrelevance of trade unions is most evident inside organisations where poor-performing employees are frequently defended by union representatives seeking any opportunity for a contest against a leader. What unions don’t understand is that the poor performer’s colleagues are just as pissed off as the supervisor. Sick of being paid a similar salary for doing twice as much work, they too want the slacker gone.

There’s a great Wizard of Id cartoon that sums this up nicely. One man asks another: “Do you know how to tell when the highway department is on strike?”

“How?” replies his mate.

“Instead of shovels, they lean on placards.”

Are unions still relevant in the modern workplace? Why, or why not?

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