An Indestructible Union (Part 4)

There has been a qualitative shift in the employment relationship over the last 30 years that has placed severe pressure on the representative Union structure. Colloquially, this is known as the disappearance of the job for life. Like most instances of remembering historical relationships the notion of the job for life, is based on a combination of mythologising the past and the real life collective experience of the Australian working class.

First to the mythology. In reality, there was never such thing as the job for life. Exploitation and labour market turnover (voluntary and forced) was a part of life in the post-War Golden Age. Overall statistics for both the Australian and British labour markets suggest that there has only been a slight decrease in average lengths of tenure since the 1980s.  However, like most global statistics this slight decrease tends to hide rather than reveal that which is actually going on. First, there has been a marked increase in job tenure for women over this period as more have entered the workforce and some have obtained relatively privileged positions within the labour market. Second, there has been a divergence in the labour market between those already occupying permanent positions of privilege and those just starting out (or restarting) going through a series of temporary/casual positions.

Some academics such as Guy Standing have argued (see The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class 2011) that this divergence is so great that it is forming a new class in the making, the precariat. While I agree with the overall phenomonem in terms of labour market insecurity and its real/potential political impact, I’m far more scepitcal about labelling the precariat as a separate class. It tends to ignore Marx’s analysis, in Capital (Vol. 1), of capital’s tendency to create a reserve army of labour that could be brought in and out at a momement’s notice to not only fulfill seasonal/contractual obligations but discipline the existing workforce and lower the overall price of labour.

This labour market divergence, however, is particular marked in Australia. Overall, 40% of the Australian workforce are in temporary or insecure forms of work arrangements from labour hire, fixed term contracts, through to direct casual (to name but a few). This constitutes one of the highest rates of temporary work in the OECD, period. Unsurprisingly, as this graph from the most recent Australian at Work report demonstrates, Australia has a significantly lower length of job tenure than EU countries:

The financial incentive to get rid of the so called job for life for employers is greatest in those sorts of roles that are both physical and deskilled, sectors such as manufacturing and general warehousing. It allows you greatly increase the rate of exploitation on the job to maximise your profits, and then easily toss the broken workers back onto society to bear most of those other inconvenient costs. It all leads to the attitude expressed by one worker and participant in the Australia at Work study:

…Like you don’t have a job for life. Or a right to a job for life, y’know, if they feel that you’re not needed…Oh I think that’s the way of the modern world. …. Got to accept it and move on (Male, 54 years).

If you want to get a really damning assessment of how our country has changed for working people, get a group of 40 blue collar workers who have all started work at different times in the last 40 years and ask them three things. How were they employed in their first post-school job? How are they engaged today? How has their work changed since they started? I’ve tried it, and would call the exercise “why Marx is right”.

This qualitative change in the labour market over the last 30 years has been particularly devastating to representative Union. Why? Because, being part of a representative Union is predominantly about getting together with the people you work with, at your employer, and have a union act for you in contract negotiations. This results in a two-fold difficulty for representative Unions. First, increased labour turnover lessens the appeal for workers to stand together at their existing place of work. This is because both the potential pay-off is decreased (I might be leaving soon anyway if I can get something better?), and the barriers are raised (a lot of my workmates might not care because they’re looking for something else/I’m a casual the boss might just tell the labour hire company to stop giving me shifts). Second, because the very structure of the Union (in both form and function) is tied to the employer when you leave it you leave your job. For example, you’re probably in the union because it makes your existing job/workplace better, and you have your Union contributions deducted out of your wage. So when you leave both you end up leaving the Union anyway, as well as leaving behind the primary reason you joined in the first place. This makes it very more difficult for representative Unions to recruit and retain members. Thus, members of a representative Union tend to be those occupying the more privileged positions within already unionised industries (the skilled tradies in a factory, the forklift drivers in a warehouse or the nurses in a hospital). As a general rule, union members on average have job tenures of 10 years as opposed to 5 years for non-members.

So unsurprisingly, the main reason in Australia today a worker will leave their Union (but by no means the only reason) is labour market mobility, which is either a change of employer, work location or industry (or a combination of any three of those factors). As such membership in a representative Union structure faces a dual challenge from the increased resources required to represent workers a particular workplace through ‘decentralised bargaining’, and greater labour market turnover. Some on the left today may subscribe to the view that the relatively weak state of the Union movement today is due to continued and concious consiprarcy by a parasitic class of collaborationist union officials. Maybe this was true once, but I’m afraid the contemporary truth is far more banal. The union movement today is largely populated by organisers and officials with good values who have no great love for either the Labor Party or the employers they deal with, but are largely too overworked by the bargaining and recruitment treadmills in the representative Union structure to have that much energy left to strategically change approach.

In the next post, I will go through how membership should be structured within a direct Union, turning current labour market tendencies into an organisational strength rather than a weakness for working people.

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4 Comments

Filed under Just how stuffed the world is today

4 responses to “An Indestructible Union (Part 4)

  1. Jacob Richter

    On the subject of private-sector collective bargaining representation, why not advocate a public monopoly by some independent government organization? This achieves the “universal unionization” pined for by Euro soc-dems in the post-war period, but doesn’t tread upon freedom of association concerns (mandatory membership).

    “Some on the left today may subscribe to the view that the relatively weak state of the Union movement today is due to continued and concious consiprarcy by a parasitic class of collaborationist union officials. Maybe this was true once, but I’m afraid the contemporary truth is far more banal. The union movement today is largely populated by organisers and officials with good values who have no great love for either the Labor Party or the employers they deal with, but are largely too overworked by the bargaining and recruitment treadmills in the representative Union structure to have that much energy left to strategically change approach.”

    Before the valid accusations of reformism, union activity rarely gets political in the first place. It must organize the progressive-minded worker as well as the reactionary-minded worker on common labour issues.

    “In the next post, I will go through how membership should be structured within a direct Union, turning current labour market tendencies into an organisational strength rather than a weakness for working people.”

    I hope you’re not suggesting a revival of craft unionism, because that is precisely what Guy Standing advocated in his book without calling his proposal such.

  2. Jacob Richter

    I look forward to more details on direct unions. I wonder, too, what similarities they might or might not have with what Tom Walker calls “labour commons”: http://p2pfoundation.net/Labor_Commons

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