As bleak as the late 1900s were for unions the vital signs of the Australian trade union movement are improving argues ACTU Assistant Secretary Richard Marles in this address on the 80th anniversary of the Barrier Industrial Council.

Broken Hill’s Industrial History

On the 24th May 1901 Jack Edwards, a Broken Hill miner, died here in the South Mine. He was one of six people who died in this particular incident. He is one of more than a thousand Broken Hill miners who have died as a result of mining in Broken Hill.

Jack bears witness to the incredible history of this place. Australia has one of the richest industrial histories in the world and this place surely has the richest industrial history in Australia.

And so it is an absolute privilege to be speaking here tonight on behalf of the ACTU at this the 80th Anniversary of the Barrier Industrial Council.

This is a place which first had a strike, before the 1890’s, on 7 November 1889 about unionists who did not wish to work alongside non-unionists. Tell that to the employees of Broken Hill Proprietary Ltd in the Pilbara and they would remark about how much things have stayed the same over the course of more than 100 years.

In 1882, 1909 and 1919 in Broken Hill there were three of the largest strikes in our country’s history.

In the 1892 strike on 3 July, 6,000 people gathered at a mass rally at Central Reserve in Broken Hill.

The 1919 dispute resulted in a 35 hour week for miners in Broken Hill at a time when the Federal Award standard was 48 hours per week.

But industrial organisation was obviously not confined to miners in Broken Hill, for during the 1909 miners strike there was a much less publicised strike. The South Broken Hill Methodist Church Choir went on strike because their soloist brought along her own accompanist, clearly not a member of a union. Matters were inflamed when the church Minister, the Reverend CE Schafer, engaged a “scab organist” to fill the breach. Broken Hill is obviously a very tough place. Not an inch is given in this town.

Jack Edwards does bear witness to this history, and of course you here now at the Barrier Industrial Council are the custodians of it.

And so it is against the backdrop of this history that I want to spend a bit of time tonight talking about where the Australian Trade Union Movement stands today … how we are travelling.

Life on 1 June 1999

I want you to cast your minds back to 1 June 1999 and think about what you were doing on that day.

Union Density

Because on that day the Australian Trade Union Movement had just endured 25 years of consistent decline in union density. Indeed, 1999 was one of the two worst years on record in terms of loss of union members.

Political Landscape

The political landscape was pretty bleak. There were Liberal governments across the entirety of main land Australia with only Queensland and New South Wales having Labor governments. And, of course, the Federal Government was then, as it is now, a Coalition Government.

These were not just conservative governments, they were utterly hostile anti-union governments. For example the Kennett Government in Victoria was surely the most anti-union government in that state’s history. And it’s fair to say that the Howard Government is the most anti-union government in this country’s history.

Employer Hostility

It was around this time that BHP was starting to heat things up amongst its workforce in the Pilbara, where there had been settled relations with the various unions for many years and where a number of negotiated collective agreements had been reached. But at this time the collective agreement was to be renegotiated and when the unions went to BHP to do this they were met with a brick wall. BHP refused to negotiate a new collective agreement and instead offered individual contracts across the entirety of its workforce in the Pilbara. Unfortunately from a union point of view 45% of the workforce took up these individual contracts.

The significance of this dispute was that it was the first serious attempt by an employer to use anti-union laws – that is a legislated scheme of individual agreements – to try and de-unionise its workforce. Of course CRA/Rio Tinto had tried this tactic before in the late 80’s and early 90’s with some success from their point of view using common law individual agreements.

BHP was not the only company offering individual agreements in 1999. Telstra, perhaps in a more sophisticated way, was offering individual agreements across the entirety of its 60,000 strong workforce. The following year the Commonwealth Bank of Australia offered individual agreements across its workforce of 25,000.

These were three companies which had traditionally settled relationships with unions who were all in their own way attempting to get rid of unions through the use of individual contracts. Together these three companies employ 5% of the Australian trade union movement. And so together this was the single biggest employer sponsored de-unionisation push in Australia’s history.

Our Darkest Hour

And so I think future generations will look back to the late 90’s as being the Australian trade union movement’s darkest hour. And I put it in these terms intentionally because I do believe things are getting better and I will talk about that in a moment. However, it is worth thinking for a moment about how our darkest hour came to be.

Union Density

Don’t let anybody ever tell you that the cause of union decline was a lack of relevancy of unions to their members. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Put simply, there has been a decline in union desnity because there has been a dramatic restructuring of the Australian economy.

Economists talk about there being three ages of the economy. There was the industrial age, and then around the late 70’s and early 80’s there came the services age and more recently there has been the revolution of the IT age of the economy.

The fall in union density essentially accompanied the transition from the industrial to the service ages in the economy. And it was an international phenomena. There was union decline in the UK and Canada and in the US and New Zealand at around the same time for exactly for the same reason.

To give you one concrete example that of manufacturing: in 1973 1.4 million Australians were employed in manufacturing and comprised 25% of the economy. Now there are 1.1 million Australians engaged in manufacturing and they represent 12.5% of the economy.

This is union heartland. This is the “union economy”. And in this particular instance the union economy had shrunk by half over that period of time as a proportion of the entire economy. As the union economy shrunk so to did union density. However, if you were to look within the union economy you would see that union density improved over that same period of time.

So maybe we could argue that the decline in union membership was not our fault. But this doesn’t help. Because whoever’s fault it was it is certainly our responsibility that there is union growth in the future.

Political Landscape

The effect of having Liberal Governments at that time was not that it was a significant contributor to union decline. However, we do need to recognise that Liberal Governments have to potential to inhibit our future growth and we need to think of ways around that.

This is particularly the case at a federal level were we operate under the harshest set of industrial laws in the developed world. Not one of the harshest set of industrial laws, but the harshest set of laws in the OECD.

For example, in Australia there is not collective bargaining right. You can have 100% of the workforce in a union wanting to negotiate a collective agreement with their employer and it is quite lawful for the employer not to give a moment of its time. It can simply shut the door and indeed offer the entire workforce an individual agreement as BHP did amongst their workforce in the Pilbara. The only way we get enterprise agreements in this country is through our industrial strength.

And that is not how the rest of the world works. Indeed the only other countries which do not have a collective bargaining right are the Gulf States – such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman. And so if you’re a unionist in Paraguay, Indonesia or Swaziland you have a better collective bargaining right than you do as a unionist in Australia.

In those countries as indeed throughout the rest of the world if a union achieves a certain membership threshold within a particular workplace it entitles those workers to negotiate in good faith with their employer for a collective agreement. The employer is under a legal obligation to come to the table and to start bargaining and to try and reach a collective agreement. And that’s fair. That’s the way is should be. Because its only with a collective bargaining right that you can start to address the inherent power imbalance between employers and employees in the workplace. And indeed Australia, through the ILO Conventions to which it is a signatory, is obliged to provide a collective bargaining right to workers in this country – but of course the Federal Government has not done this.

Employer Hostility

The significance of the BHP, Commonwealth Bank and Telstra push in the late 90’s, I believe, was an attempt to import a US culture of industrial relations into Australia.

In America the culture of industrial relations is not so much adversarial as it is utterly hostile. The problem is that from an employer point of view it produces results. American employers would argue that it is this culture which contributes to the American economy being by and large the most productive economy on the planet over the last 60 years.

But while there are undoubtedly winners in the American economy there are many losers too. I know that as a unionist I don’t want to see an American culture of industrial relations because I know that it will be workers who end up being the losers. But I also don’t think its good for the country either. Because for all the wealth that the United States economy has generated the US has the greatest division between rich and poor in the OECD.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. It is not for example the European way. In Europe they have a much greater tradition of cooperation between companies and unions. And they have this tradition with very productive economies. Indeed in the last three years the French economy has surpassed America’s as being the most productive in the world.

And I don’t believe that it is the Australian way either. Australia by and large has had a consensus between labour and capital over the last hundred years. And it is this consensus that the Commonwealth Banks, the Telstras and the BHPs of this world are so desperate to break down.

Life on 21 February 2003

So let us return to the present and think about how we are travelling on this the 21st of February 2003. For although the situation may not be dramatically different I believe the tendances out there are radically different.

Employer Hostility

There has not been a big push by a large Australian corporate to de-unionise since August 2000. I don’t want to overstate the significance of this but at the very least it is a breather.

Political Landscape

The political landscape is dramatically different with Labor holding government in every state and territory in the Commonwealth. This is a situation which should give us hope. I think it is a major contributor to there being a less hostile environment out there from employers toward unions.

But all is not good. John Howard remains strong and the Commonwealth Government is a critical player in the industrial relations scene. And while Labor’s federal IR policy is in my opinion very good; and while Labor state governments have done a good job protecting their own jurisdictions, I do believe more could be done by Labor states working together to help the trade union movement at this point in time.

Union Density

But perhaps the most dramatic change in tendancies is in relation to union density.

In 1999 the ACTU published a document called Unions@work. It was a plan or an agenda to try and unionise the “non-union economy” – to unionise the service industries. It’s pretty simple stuff. It says that at a grass roots level we need to explain to people who have not had great exposure to unions that when two people go to their employer with a problem hand in hand they do so with more power than one. It’s about urging unions to devote more resources to recruitment and growth. And it is an agenda that we have been pushing for four years now in great earnest.

Is it working ?

Well the drop in union density appears to have bottomed out. Indeed, in the last two years there has been growth in absolute numbers of union members in Australia – by about 30,000 more union members. This is the size of a not insignificant union. I think the Textile Clothing and Footwear Union is a union of about that size. And so if there is any statistic which gives you hope for the future it is this.

The Future Looks Bright

And while our adversaries are still out there in the public asking the question as to whether or not unions remain relevant in Australia in 2003 all you need to do is think back to Jack Edwards.

Alf Palmer a Broken Hill poet wrote a poem at the time of this disaster. He described the heart wrenching suddenness of Jack and his mates’ death in the following terms:

Far down ‘neath the sunlight fair, ‘neath the flower-scented air,

Timber structures, mullock, ore in chaos rushed, And six men who left in health to unearth the buried wealth.
In the morning well and strong, are buried, crushed

Already this year, more than a century later, less than two months into the year, more than six people in this country have left their homes ‘in health’ to earn their employer’s ‘wealth’ but have not returned at day’s end.

If you ever need to convince yourself of whether or not unions are relevant in the year 2003 all you have to do is think of Jack and all those, 100 years on, who still meet Jack’s fate. This state of affairs alone is reason enough to continue the fight.

And so I believe that the vital signs of the Australian trade union movement are improving and at the same time our cause remains strong.

And so as bleak as the late 1900’s were maybe standing here in 2003 looking forward to a new century we might just be on the verge of a rebirth of the Australian trade union movement. And while, as unionists, it is of course our job to make sure that that is what we are about to experience. If in fact we do experience the rebirth of the Australian trade union movement, well then what a fantastic time it is to be involved in unions.

Congratulations again to the Barrier Industrial Council on it’s 80th Anniversary.

Thank you very much for having me.