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Were unionists not outlaws

By Col Harrington - posted Tuesday, 17 July 2007

It is with a growing sense of anger and frustration that I have watched the union movement endlessly maligned by the Howard Government, business figures and the overwhelming majority of newspaper columnists and opinion writers.

I’m mystified at the lack of outrage by my fellow Australians and I keep waiting for someone somewhere to get up and say “Hang on a minute, its trade unions we’re talking about here not a bunch of gangsters”. Well that hasn’t happened so it seems to have fallen to me.

I have to start by declaring that I’m inordinately proud to be a trade unionist and rank and file member of the BLF/CFMEU. I hold no position of power: I just work, pay my dues and support the union that supports me. I’m fortunate to be working for an enlightened company that pays the union-negotiated rate of pay which I know, despite all the lies you’ll hear in the media, is far superior to the rates of pay that are being struck on AWA’s.


My rate of pay leaves me with a sense of gratitude and satisfaction. Gratitude to the company I work for and gratitude to the union for negotiating it on my behalf and winning a good deal for me and people like me. As someone more than satisfied with what I earn I’m smart enough to realise that it’s in my own best interests to give value for money. With more than 25 years experience in all areas of building and construction I, like most union men I know, have picked up a whole range of skills and qualifications. Most of these came from union-run training courses.

I can use my knowledge, experience, skills and qualifications to fulfill any number of extra roles on any given day to provide maximum flexibility to the work site to keep things moving along.

I’m no one special: I’m the product of an educated workforce that union leaders had the foresight to start providing to the industry years ago. Union leaders could see that it was necessary to up-skill thousands of union members to benefit both members’ future employment prospects and to provide employers with the skills they required to allow industry to keep growing, adapting and improving productivity.

I, for one, bitterly resent the implication that union members are somehow less efficient and flexible than their non-union counterparts. Since Prime Minister John Howard introduced his unfair IR laws (it is a lie to call them a “reform”) we have seen the alleged “efficient companies” with their teams of non-unionised “contractors” coming into workplaces where previously they wouldn’t have had a look in.

There are now companies out there winning contracts at a cheaper rate no doubt. But if their workers are poorly paid, poorly trained and poorly managed then nobody gains. Year after year, before these new IR laws were introduced, we seemed to get more done with less workers. Now the opposite is true.

In times past the camaraderie between workers made going to work a pleasant experience. We’re not blueing yet but there are times when the tension between the union men and the non-union men is clearly evident. Their non-union rate is based on our pay. Where will their future pay rises come from if there is no union to deliver ours? Why should they enjoy benefits we’ve fought for and won over generations without contributing to their upkeep?


Even a cursory glance at the ACTU website will remind detractors of the long list of achievements that organised labour fought long and hard to obtain. These include a shorter working week, annual leave, maternity leave, penalty rates, compulsory superannuation to name just a few. These rights and conditions seem standard today but were always met with fierce opposition by conservative politicians and business groups at the time. Why do people have a blind spot for all the good things the union movement has done?

Conservatives talk endlessly about the freedom to not be a union member and to sign individual AWA’s. In the building and construction industry the individuality of the AWA is a misnomer. The AWA is an all in, one-size-fits-all, set hourly rate where all the extras are bundled up (more or less) into something approaching the union rate. But for some strange reason it’s always less. So instead of collective bargaining we have the employers’ collective bastardry without a word of condemnation from the nations’ increasingly conservative media.

I believe the union movement has been an overwhelming force for good in this country and throughout the world. I can’t think of a country that has ever benefited from not having a strong trade union movement. The political parties they’ve inspired have ensured the majority of people were able to share in the benefits their individual labour did so much to bring about.

In Australia the trade union movement, and the party its members formed, is at the heart of the wealth we have all enjoyed and which has consequently been shared around more equally.

No amount of the Howard Government demonising unions, backed by big business, conservative commentators and opinion writers, is ever going to change that: no matter how many half truths they spin and how many other aspects of the industrial relations debate they leave out.

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About the Author

Col Harrington is a Brisbane writer and member of the BLF and the ALP. He is employed as a Workplace Health and Safety Officer.

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All articles by Col Harrington

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