What have the unions ever done for us?

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Sunday, 26 October 2014 18:30 by 2353

Monty Python’s Life of Brian was recently shown on free to air TV. For those that haven’t seen it, the story revolves around Brian, who lives in Palestine during the Roman occupation and somehow is involved with a group of people that want to overthrow the Roman occupation. The movie ends with Brian and others on crosses singing ‘Always look on the bright side of life’. Some Christian churches protested when the movie came out that it was a parody of the life of Jesus. The line from the movie ‘He’s not the messiah, he’s just a very naughty boy’ probably didn’t help!

The point of ‘Life of Brian’ for our purposes, however, isn’t a determination of the wisdom of the parody argument: it is a well known scene in the movie where there is a meeting of those who are trying to overthrow the Roman occupation. In the scene, ‘Reg’ is decrying the Romans by asking what have the Romans ever done for us?



So with apologies to ‘Reg’ (and the Monty Pythons in general), how about we change the question slightly to ask, ‘What have the unions ever done for us?’ given the generally declining number of union members in Australia.

The New Yorker magazine recently published an article entitled ‘Dignity’ that describes the fight by people who work for McDonalds and other fast food restaurants to get a living wage of $15 an hour. There are stories of intimidation and loss of shifts affecting those who are mobilising (most fast food workers are apparently casual); and resistance from the franchise owners and the corporate headquarters of some fast food retailers to a movement to increase the minimum wage in the fast food and other low paid industries across America. Traditionally, these employees are immigrants and not members of a union. Union membership is actively discouraged by a number of the employers — although the article does give examples of other businesses in the fast food industry that do pay considerably more per hour, produce better food and still make a profit.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics tells us in a paper released on 14 June 2014 that:

The survey also shows that 17 per cent, or 1.7 million employees were trade union members in the main job, this being the lowest proportion in the history of the series. That proportion follows a general decline in trade union membership over several years.

It goes on to say:

Of employees without paid leave entitlements in their main job, 6 per cent were trade union members, compared to 22 per cent for employees with paid leave entitlements. Trade union membership was higher in the public sector, with 42 per cent of all employees being members, compared with 12 per cent in the private sector.

So there seems to be a correlation between union membership and paid leave. Wikipedia lists the annual leave entitlements in a number of countries around the world. It is interesting to contrast countries with a history of union membership versus individual bargaining — such as Australia (20 days per annum), the UK (28 days per annum – including ‘bank holidays’) and France (25 days per annum) versus the USA (0 days per annum). There isn’t a direct correlation between any of these example countries: the relevance being that in the USA, there is no legislated minimum — it is up to the employer and employee to agree to paid annual leave.

In Australia there are 10 National Employment Standards. They include the right of paid annual leave for permanent employees (including part time workers). The ACTU’s Australian Unions website will tell you that the Union movement negotiated paid annual leave for the printing industry in 1936 and other industries subsequent to then. Full-time employee annual leave entitlement has risen from two weeks to four weeks in the past 50 years.

Traditionally people retire from active work at some point and rely on savings or contributions from others to help them live. Most Australians who are employed have one or more ‘Super’ accounts that hopefully will provide a reasonable income in retirement. In Australia, employer contributions to superannuation accounts are mandated (although the Abbott government recently determined that the next employer increase should not be made). There is also the availability of a payment from the government for those who have retired provided they can demonstrate they meet certain age or financial requirements (the ‘old age’ pension).

In the USA, superannuation (known as ‘pensions’) is a part of the ‘benefits’ package but, as The New Yorker article linked above points out, a considerable number of the low paid fast food and similar industry staff are not in receipt of any benefits over and above their wage. The USA does provide ‘Social Security’ but the USA Social Security system pays a benefit on retirement based on your income. So someone who works 30 hours a week for $8.50 an hour may only get $500 per month — depending on age and age of retirement. Remember they don’t necessarily have ‘super’ or ‘pension plan’ to fall back on. In contrast a full Australian Age Pension (in this exercise we are assuming that the person has no real savings or assets) is entitled to $854.30 per fortnight plus health care card and other concessions.

Some would say there is a ‘glass ceiling’ for women in corporate Australia. That is a discussion for another time: the issue here, however, is that up until 1969, women were paid up to 25% less for doing the exact same work as men. While there is still a gender gap in the average wage of Australians, two people doing the same work for the same company in Australia should be getting the same pay, regardless of gender. The Australian system is not perfect but it is better than the USA where its Senate in September 2014 (yes — this year) voted down a bill to legislate gender equality in wages paid.

While ‘Life of Brian’ is not an accurate portrayal of life in Palestine around two thousand years ago, there is a list of worthwhile achievements (roads, sanitation, wine etc) that were delivered by the Romans when they invaded the country. The humour behind the skit is that, after a while, these things are taken for granted and the consensus of opinion is that everywhere is the same.

The comparisons made here are only a few of the benefits of living and working in Australia. Don’t forget that the ‘centre left’ ALP and the ‘right’ LNP went to the last federal election trying to out-do each other on Paid Parental Leave (a worthy idea but the execution seems to be lacking at present). The Australian Unions website claims some of the credit for the implementation of the clearly superior annual leave, social security and ‘equal pay for equal work’ benefits enjoyed by Australians over and above those in United States — the ‘land of freedom and opportunity’. The Australian Unions website also lists a number of other achievements that were driven by the union movement, such as sick leave, long service leave and health and safety monitoring.

Not everywhere is the same. Australia has had equal pay for equal work for close to 50 years — the USA still doesn’t. Australians retiring in the future will have some form of savings that bolster (or, if they are fortunate, replace) their mandated pension entitlement: Americans won’t unless their employer decides to do it. Australia has a living minimum wage in comparison to the USA.

The ‘Dignity’ article in The New Yorker magazine demonstrates that collectivisation is still a valid tool to gain real improvement to workers’ rights and wages and, while Australians are leaving unions, it seems their employers are retaining their membership of organisations that promote the rights of business over their employees (as they are entitled to do). The problem is when employees can only find casual work (which eliminates the right to pay while on holidays for a start), they have less ability to protest when stripped of their penalty rates for working ‘unusual’ hours, when workplace health and safety measures are deliberately ignored or when compensation payments for forced redundancies are limited or eliminated by regulation (and if the employee is under 30, they may, if the current Government’s wishes are implemented, then have to wait up to six months to be eligible for unemployment assistance).

The union movement has demonstrably been a part of creating the environment that Australians enjoy. The Howard government met its downfall when it tried to take away workers’ rights, that those in other countries still don’t have — and the union movement contributed significantly to that shift in the Australian public’s attitude. While the union movement is not perfect, neither are similar organisations that protect the interests of business (Kathy Jackson and Arthur Sinodinos are examples here — one from each ‘side’). The other way to look at it is this: if there was nothing for the political right and employers to fear from the unions, why are the same groups still trying to neuter the unions’ ability to campaign and protect the perceived interests of their members in 2014 while ‘unions of employers’ are encouraged?

What do you think?