Category Archives: Industrial relations


The Australian’s editorial (“Workplace reform must be on the 2014 agenda”, 31/12) demolishes the absurd socialist notion that workers’ wages should be enough to support their families, because that would mean some of them may become unemployed, and thus unable to support their families. Worse, penalty rates make it hard to get a table in restaurants at the weekend.

This argument is made even more convincing by quotations from authorities on the subject – two of The Australian’s own in-house columnists. Is there an echo in here?

Obvious answer

Judith Sloane (“Leaning Left by association”, The Australian, 17/9) may have intended to be rhetorical by asking “When did associations representing qualified professionals become public advocates of progressive causes?”. But the answer is rather obvious: when those objectives are in the interests of their members, or accord with their values. Sloane may find it amusing, for example, that doctors organise for peace; but doctors who have treated battlefield casualties may not see the joke.

Despite the efforts of the anti-union brigade, freedom of association is still at the base of our democracy. Sloane is therefore not prevented from forming her own rival professional associations which, say, oppose social progress, or support market libertarianism, or whatever she chooses – if she can find anyone to join.

Illiberal plan

Des Moore (“Workplace pendulum”, The Australian, 23/8) uncritically accepts predictable industry complaints about labour costs under the Fair Work system.  The big picture tells a different story: over the past 30 years, real GDP has risen by about 80%, real wages by only about 50%. This makes claims of decreased profitability due to wage costs incredible, and represents a market failure to share increased wealth with those who create it; a direct consequence of the decline in collective bargaining.

Eric Abetz’s illiberal plan to forbid “lazy” companies from willingly sharing profit through wages will only worsen this injustice, as will Moore’s proposal to weaken Fair Work.

Strength through suffering

Judith Sloane believes that “Work Choices has, contrarily, been a boon for the union movement”, by providing it with something to campaign against (“Work choices ‘fear’ a boon for lifting union ranks”, The Australian, 29/6). For the same reason, she argues that “a Coalition government may help the trade unions organically rebuild their membership base”. Accepting that adversity is so salutary, it is tempting to make the complementary suggestion that business efficiency be stimulated by, say, a stricter tax regime!

Her new-found concern for union viability prompts Ms Sloane to offer the following advice: “Rather than rely on favourable laws, regulations and appointments, they will do this by offering relevant and valuable services to members”. What she has missed is that winning those very laws and regulations is one of the most valuable services that unions provide, not only to their paid-up members, but to all other Australian workers for free.

Trickle-up effect

The 2.6% tweak received by Australia’s lowest paid workers on Monday is barely commensurate with inflation, but still too generous for Judith Sloane, who would prefer them to fall ever further behind (“Extended freeze would protect the poor”, The Australian, 4/6). She asserts that this is for their own good, citing cherry-picked research linking bottom-of-the-market wage rises with unemployment.

Economists are far from unanimous on that narrow topic, but it is unnecessary to decide whether Sloane’s view is correct. In the bigger picture, the real driver of employment is productivity, which has risen about 85% in the past three decades, while real wages have grown only around 50%. This “trickle-up” effect demonstrates that continuing unemployment, and downward pressure on wages, are due not to labour unaffordability but to employers’ unwillingness to share the increased wealth that their workers have created. Worse, dwindling union membership means fewer are in a position to insist on a fair share.

Unions passé in Fiji

A recent slew of opinion pieces in The Australian declares that union involvement in politics is somehow inappropriate or even passé; but be careful what you wish for. History shows what happens when such notions have free rein, from the Polish Communists’ failed suppression of the Solidarity movement, to the recent edicts of Fiji’s military dictators.

Labour rights are inherently political. Despite decades of legislation aimed at fragmenting and disempowering the workforce, unions remain a mass movement founded on freedom of association. Attempts to stifle the natural political expression of this fundamental right are anti-democratic.

Rugged individual

With new-found enthusiasm for Fair Work Australia, The Australian (Editorial, 10/8) trumpets the Qantas decision as upholding “the right of any company to run its operations as it sees fit”. Presumably this means Alan Joyce is now free to exercise the same management style he used to run Ansett into the ground, typified by his histrionic lock-out last year which stranded thousands of passengers without warning or purpose, and which the editorial incorrectly attribute to the TWU.

Joyce’s combative approach has earned him the ire of every segment of his workforce from pilots to cabin crew to engineers to baggage-handlers, and of his shareholders, who have recently seen their their stocks plummet and their first losses in twenty years. But as long as one rugged individual is free to do exactly as he wants, I’m sure it’s all worth it.


In Judith Sloane’s pre-emptive defence against the Howe inquiry into the casualisation of the Australian workforce (“Nothing casual about our diverse workforce”, The Australian, 21/12) she argues that a) there is no casualisation, and b) “many” workers benefit from casualisation. I am reminded of the defence of the bungling burglar who claims “I wasn’t there, and even if I was, I didn’t do it.”

The elephant in the room, apparent from the figures and also to anyone actually engaged in the workforce, is that massive casualisation has occurred in the last decade, and that this is of benefit primarily to employers.

Not that Michael Moore

“No right to secure jobs”
23 Apr 2012

Michael Moore (The Australian, Letters, 23/4), the secretary of the anti-labor think-tank H. R. Nicholls Society which thought Work Choices too soft, argues that there can be no right to job security because it “depends essentially on the efficient performance of each [worker], and of the business itself”.

This is a self-serving misapprehension held by many employers, who overlook the definitive distinction between themselves and their employees: the latter are not co-investors in the business. They have not chosen to undertake entrepreneurial risk, they do not stand to share in the profits and therefore should not be subject to the losses.

Let’s make a deal

James McDonald (The Australian, 20/10) graciously allows that “unions could still be part of the future” provided they submit to Judith Sloane’s proposed legislative regime designed to break them up (19/10), and further that they eschew any involvement in political life. This somewhat defeats their purpose, but perhaps we can get it to work if we can persuade employers and big business to stay out of government as well. Deal?