The Future Role Of Trade Unions

The Future Role Of Trade Unions

Expanding role of trade unions in terms of the new developments in trade union interests and activities. Address By John Halfpenny to the 1976 Trade Union Training Course.

I choose this approach, because, as I will endeavour to point. cut, it is the interests and activities of the trade union movement. which are expanding, rather, than their fundamental role as a force for change in our community.

 

It is fashionable, these days, to put made unions under the microscope in an effort to defect what is new about the interests and activities, of the working class in Australia. This, of coarse, is teat a uniquely Australian phenomenum, it is almost universal. Many engage in the exercise of discovering and identifying what is new are often disappointed when their examination reveals that the newness represents, in the main, a quantitative: rather than a qualitative change.

 

I no runt suggest that there is nothing new, and that trade unionism has stood still during the past 120-odd years. I do however, want to :indicate clearly that the aim of the trad union movement to acquire political and economic power remains now as it did at, the beginning the. principal objective of the trade union movement. Therefore, the role of the trade union movement is to achieve that objective.

 

It is true that the Australia of the t9iU`s is a very different place from than, in which early trade unions developed, In particular, industry and employer organisations have become more highly integrated and efficient, They have not, however, become more generous or changed their aim of keeping political and economic power in order to use to use it in their own interests. The events of -recent months in particular, have provided ample evidence of what I am suggesting:

 

The political turbulence which struck this nation in the back half of 1975 was all about power.

 

Trade unionism owes its beginnings to the economic changes brought about by .industrialisation. Workers were required to organise collectively to protect, themselves from the new social and industrial by capitalism.

 

Today, workers still need trade unions to protect themselves from the social and industrial conditions created by capitalism.

 

I have dwelt initially on what is aid rather than what is new because too often it is suggested that today trade unions in Australia have a different rate and function to perform than those of the past, I reject that notion, because while capitalism remains the role and function of trade unionism will remain, essentially, unchanged. To deny that facts is to abandon the aim of seeking to win political and economic power which is the only way by which the working class will end exploitation and change society to achieve an equitable redistribution of wealth and social justice.

 

Having conveyed to you the basis of wry- attitude, I want to stress that. I believe that the role of the trade union movement should be performed in an imaginative and creative manner, i,e., it is no longer sufficient to cling to the old conservative and institutionalised attitudes and forms of the past. The trade union movement must now and into the future, reel: to develop new interests and activities.

 

If the trade union movement is to fulfill its role in society, then its interests and activities must expand. They must expand because of taro major factors -

 

1. The increasing complexity of social; political industrial conditions which have been created by modern capitalism.

 

2. Because of a general disenchantment with the results achieved through a reliance on separation of industrial and political objectives to achieve what are often referred to as political and social aims and not. industrial aims of trade unions.

 

Now I want to turn to two specific question which I regard as being vitally important to the future of trade unions One is the question of trade union power, the other is worker involvement, a term which I will define a little later.

 

Today the challenge facing trade unionism is a challenge to the expanding interests and activities of the union movement. Questions raised are “Do trade unions have too much power?” , “Should they have power at all?”, “Who runs the country?”, “Should trade unions confine themselves to what has been regarded as their traditional role.?”

 

It is not the existence of trade unions that is challenged, but What they do, and the criticism against; trade unions is usually this thing called "power". Power is not a sinister phenomenum, exercised only by tyrants, subversive militants or others. Poser is a real and living thing, Power is the ability to make decisions and the capacity to take actions which have s decisive effect on our lives. There is no argument about the existence of power, the necessity for it, or the exercise of power as such, The arguments start when the absolute power of one section of the community is challenged by another.

 

In the 19th Century, the period from which today’s anti Union forces take their ideas, those who dominated tile master and servant. relationship between employers and workers exercised total power. Ali time progressed, Governments began to intervene, because someone had to administer the taws under which the masters began to devour each other.

 

Life and economic development then forced a three-way split in society; with tile employers and their representatives Governments in control, but with the Trade Unions beginning to interfere.

 

The attacks oil Trade Unions and the demand to curtail their power and influence is as old as Trade Unions themselves. The attacks are a product of 19th Century mentality which is produced by the desire to restore the master and servant relationship

 

The way in which trade union power is exercised will very much determine the future of trade unionism.

 

If we accept that power is the capacity to make decisions, to influence events which affect our lives, then I see nothing wrong with the Trade Union movement demanding some of the power in this, or any other society. After all, the union movement in total represents two and a quarter million wage and salary earners, who along with their families comprise the majority of the people.

 

Trade Unions have emerged on many occasions as advocates of wider sections of the community concerned with apathy, inefficiency, bureaucratic Government instrumentalities, and private enterprise, in face of rapid social and economic changes

 

Trade Unions today are claiming no the democratic right to participate in resolving issues which concern the welfare and well-being of large sections of the community. This claim to the right to participate results from growing awareness of the need to involve people in planning and decision making about matters which affect their lives, their health, their security, their future.

 

This growing awareness is not confined to Trade Unions or trade unionists. It embraces many other people in our community who are also involving themselves in the planning and decision making processes which operate in our society,

 

Trade Unions are part of the community, and not separate from the community as many people would have you believe. The Trade Union movement has the biggest membership of any organisation or association in this country. Trade Unions are well established community organisations, with effective communications capable of not only reflecting what is occurring in the community generally, but also capable of developing community interests and activities to a higher level.

 

It is therefore only just and equitable that Trade Unions have the right and the duty to play an active role in decision making processes at a national, State and local level.

 

I believe that the Trade Union Movement, by and large, has become disenchanted with this separation of roles.

 

In my view it is democratic for Trade Unions and other sections of the community to take their place in the planning and decision making processes which have a vital bearing on the well-being of the people.

 

Contrary to the view of our opponents that it is “undemocratic” for Trade Unions to directly participate in the decision making processes, I contend that there is no conflict between Trade union involvement and the fundamental democratic principle of majority participation.

 

The conflict arises only as between them, as advocates of the institutionalised ruling elite, and the vast majority of people who should demand the democratic right to determine their own vital interests. It is a conflict between the rulers and the ruled.

 

Our present political system has changed the principal values of democracy. What we have is not democracy but “elite competition for power”.

 

In our political system, Parties compete for the right to rule. Irrespective of which Party you choose, you choose the good with the bad. It is an “all or nothing” arrangement, and once having been elected, the successful group takes for itself the mandate to rule.

 

It is this that is called “representative parliamentary democracy”. It is government by representation, not by participation, and even representation has been distorted. By this method, elitist minorities in the form of Governments make sure that people remain apathetic and disinterested.

 

For all the reasons I have outlined, I consider the Trade Unions, along with other sections of the community, have the right to exercise power in such a way as to influence the planning and decision making in our society.

 

Now to the second factor, which I mentioned earlier, that of worker involvement. There are two primary points of view –

 

1. The trade unions and worker organisations should establish themselves as countervailing force to balance the growing power, and domination of national and multi-national monopolies.

 

This view point supports the concepts of worker participation involvement and integration.

 

The other view to which I subscribe is that trade unions and worker organisations should develop their role as forces for radical social change, and therefore, resist participation and integration into a system which has to be destroyed if the welfare and well being of the people is to be protected.

 

In every decisive area of life, be it economic, social or political, there are two sides. There are those who own and exploit, and there are those who work for those who own and exploit, and there is not real community of interests between those two sides.

 

The decisions and actions of those who own the means of production only coincide with the interests of the working class by accident, or if they are placed under pressure.

 

Worker participation schemes, co-determination schemes, which are now widespread in a number of countries, foster the illusion that there is a community of interest between labor and management, and that togetherness is the way forward to social progress.

 

I subscribe to the view that workers have a right to determine all events which affect their lives, but that cannot be achieved by participation, it can only be achieved by workers developing independent organisation and taking in those decisions of management which are against the best interests of workers and/or other sections of the community.

 

This stimulus for greater concern about workers involvement is coming from various sources. Some workers, and even some trade unions, may be interested, but the main stimulus is coming from the Government, the political parties, and a crop of social scientists.

 

In Australia, social scientists have had the major impact, and have been responsible for a stimulating interest in worker participation.

 

Of course, the question of worker involvement is not new, but stretches back many years to the days of Federick Taylor in the United States, who sought to find more efficient ways of performing work that became known as the Scientific Management School.

 

It is perhaps important to note that while the social scientists make efforts to improve the quality of working life, they make no real contribution to the question of income distribution or other inequalities in our society.

 

The experiences of workers and their unions in worker participation schemes has perhaps been greater in West Germany. In 1951 an Act was passed called the Works Constitution Act, which specified that workers should have one their representation on supervisory Boards of Companies.

 

More recently a new Act was passed, extending the field of participation both in tis scope and in the number of representatives that workers had on the participatory Councils.

 

From the evidence available to me, the results of those experience are best summarised by Ernest Lueck, the Chairman of Ford Worker’s Central Plant Council, and a members of the Supervisory Board, and his view is that on the question of investment and profits, for example, “I don’t get anywhere. I am in the minority. We state our point of view, but we always lose the vote. The two worker directors on the 6 man Supervisory Board almost always call for cutting the dividend and either ploughing the funds back into the Company or paying them out in higher wages and benefits for the workers, but what happens is nothing. Usually a member of Ford’s management says with a shrug – 4 to 2, that’s the vote, that’s the end of it”.

 

Management in Australia has tended to be rather slow in coming to grips with worker participation and co-determination, not just because management in this country has a tradition of conservatism, but more importantly because they don’t have to respond to the same sort of circumstances as apply in say West Germany or the United States.

 

The scene, however, is changing, and widespread interest is being generated amongst management in worker participation.

 

Management is not involved in promoting worker participation or co-determination because it seems to be a good idea They are compelled by technological imperatives to seek worker involvement in the achievement of management objectives.

 

What I am saying is that the changing production processes require on the one hand a certain involvement by workers, while on the other hand they lead to mass alienation.

 

For example, the operators in an oil refinery control room react only when instructed to do so by some superior officer, and it becomes an essential requirement for the satisfactory operation of the process that the superior officer be always in attendance and know precisely what to do.

 

Moreover, it assumes that he can be fully aware of all aspects of the operation at one time, and with modern plants this may be somewhat difficult.

 

A far more satisfactory approach from the point of view of the employer is that he has a self-acting team of workers who will make the appropriate responses to faults of diverse kinds as they occur.

 

I do not reject, rather I fully subscribe to and encourage, worker involvement to the extent that they meaningfully contribute to the processes of determining their own destiny, but that objective is not fulfilled by participation. Rather, it will only be fulfilled by workers realising that there are two sides – labor and management – and that labor must organise independently and interfere in managerial rights, and not be conned into believing that more people have social, political and economic equality.

 

John Halfpenny, Address To Trade Union Training Course, Friday, 5th March, 1976.