You call ‘em thugs, I call ‘em foot soldiers of democracy
We’ve had factional thugs and faceless men, dishonourable rats and bloodsuckers, slap-downs and sabre-rattling – union officials have hit the front pages over the past week in all their rhetorical glory.
We’ve even declared war on shiny arses, although I have to admit I’m still not entirely sure what a war on shiny arses is.
But the most startling thing to me is that these exchanges have made front-page news. A bit of argy-bargy between union leaders, politicians and bosses is fairly standard practice in Australia. And some colourful language in the mix is nothing new. It’s called open, democratic society.
The thing about unions is that they are highly democratic organisations. Every few years, every union official from workplace health and safety representative to national secretary has to go to the membership and make the case for their re-election.
Sometimes there’s a fierce contest for positions. Other times the challenge is to find someone willing to do the job.
The bread and butter of union work is extremely important, but decidedly unglamorous. It involves negotiating workplace agreements that make sure workers get proper lunch breaks, pay rates, redundancy entitlements and skills classifications; and that proper safety systems are in place and adhered to.
Having said that - the big picture matters too. That’s why union officials sometimes take to the public stage to advocate for government policy that affects the lives of working people. It can concern tax, work laws, investment in public services – or it can be to expose shameful corporate behaviour.
In these cases they are doing their job: vigorously representing the interests of the people who elected them.
A drive to increase worker representation by unions at the local aluminium-making operations of Rio Tinto is stock and trade for unions. Over the years, Rio Tinto Alcan has systematically denied workers access to and representation by unions.
The result is that many employees at the company’s smelters are paid as much as $30,000 a year less than people doing the same work at other companies. And just last month, the company was ordered by the Tasmanian Supreme Court to allow workers at its Bell Bay smelter in northern Tassie to meet with the Australian Workers’ Union to discuss their genuine health and safety concerns. Rio fought that case all the way.
A worker’s right to representation by a trade union is a basic, democratic right. Unions give individuals the collective opportunity to fight government and corporate agendas that would otherwise be vastly more powerful than theirs.
If you need convincing of the worth of free trade unions, just take a look around the world. A strong feature of oppressive regimes is an intolerance of independent trade unionism.
Egypt’s ousted Hosni Mubarak wasn’t keen. Under his regime, trade unions were under strict government control. It may have safeguarded government ministers from being called ‘dishonourable rats’, but it didn’t do a lot for workers’ rights.
Independent trade unions formed outside of the closely-controlled government were a key driver of the movement that led to Mubarak’s downfall. They will undoubtedly play an important role as a democratic society is built.
In Mexico, the independent miners’ union is coming under attack for demanding safety reforms in the extremely dangerous local industry. Members of the union are regularly harassed, persecuted and bullied for standing up for their rights.
Members of independent trade unions risk their liberty and life in countries like Iran, the Philippines and Colombia – where advocacy of basic work rights is considered such an intolerable threat that unionists are regularly locked up and killed.
We should never take our free and independent trade union movement in Australia for granted. Over the years our unions - and their sometimes colourful representatives - have contributed enormously to public life; to fair working conditions, to safer workplaces and to our healthy democracy.
I’m glad I live in a society where ‘union thugs’ can engage in robust public exchanges with ‘slick shiny-arses’, without getting locked-up.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…