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The pursuit of self interest

By Des Griffin - posted Friday, 24 October 2008

Industrial relations in essence connotes a system of procedures and relationships describing the manner in which economic exchanges will take place between capital and labour, the dealings or relations of an industrial concern with its employees, with labour in general and the administration of such relations. A dictionary definition adds that its purpose is to maintain goodwill for an industrial concern.

Such arrangements, in the view of the owner of the commercial entity, are intended to achieve efficiency leading to profit. But over the longer term that surely becomes achieving effectiveness and therefore a task of management, indeed a responsibility of leaders. If so, then we might seek examples of correlations between management practices and effectiveness.

We would conclude that issues of trust and training and skill-development are highlighted and that conditions would be conducive to retaining employees who are at least satisfactory because they represent an investment which can hardly be considered merely a sunk cost. And so on. The employee, at his or her most basic level, agrees to give fair work in exchange for being treated decently. That is where the agreement is broken.


When I was growing up I was taught much about the evils of the capitalist world by a father who was active in the union movement; and in the peace movement as well for which he was imprisoned for daring to suggest that Hitler constituted a threat to the World. Like many others I retained concerns about human rights and the dignity of persons, or thought I did, but rejected the proposition that business should be always treated with at least suspicion. Sixty years on, I am forced to the view that what I was taught was right.

Unfortunately, for centuries, best practice, even common sense, has not been pursued. Rather practices which emerged after the cessation of tenant farming and the industrial revolution have persisted. Those seeking to maintain the dignity of labour have been pursued as jeopardising the inalienable rights to make a profit by those who have often contributed no more than the capital to support the operation, sometimes not even the knowledge or skills.

To have these views is not to be against democracy. But it is to acknowledge that concern for human dignity and human rights by unions is not to be confined to the workplace but quite properly extends to the workplace in another country, to the vast cattle stations where Indigenous people have been exploited and so on. Yes, those practices of business which typify the worst, which we have seen again in the last year as increasing shareholder wealth has become the rationale for business instead of the provision of needed goods and services, are not universal.

Too many examples of gross violations of human decency have been exposed. The lessons of what constitutes good management and leadership have been ignored by those who simply are too lazy to put in the hard work of genuine organisational advancement, whether they are in government or business.

Much of the worst practices of industrial relations are to be found in the USA, though the clay workers of Wales, the coal miners of France buried alive and those of Harlen County, USA choked by coal dust, the asbestos miners brought down by cancer, the waterside workers and mariners of many countries and the building labourers falling off buildings or the assembly line workers crushed by machinery are never to be forgotten.

Two recent reviews crystallise these thoughts for me. Though the situation in Australia is not as bad as in the US the lessons are relevant nevertheless. In “Night comes to the Appalachians” in the New York Review of Books for September 25 2008, Michael Tomasky (Editor of Guardian America) reviews three books about the coal industry and coal mining in West Virginia.


They are stories of capitalists and industrialists who took most of their profits to Baltimore or New York; of bigger and bigger machines taking the tops off mountains; open cut mines thousands of acres big; and dumping the chemically contaminated waste in impoundments in valleys eventually making sick the citizens in nearby towns. Of doing everything possible to de-unionise mine sites; the bribery of politicians and judges; the alarming amounts of dust released into the air; of terrible accidents killing hundreds of miners; and of ongoing actions by mining companies to deny any responsibility.

Above all, over the decades rules intended to protect workers and citizens have been put into legislation but those rules are seldom enforced, particularly by the Bush administration.

In “Time for a New Deal” in the same issue of the New York Review of Books Jeff Madrick (Visiting Professor at Cooper Union) reviews The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker by Steven Greenhouse. It is a story of “how the nation's businesses have illegally, callously, and systematically abused their workers in a time of increased global competition and technological change, while government protection of workers' rights has significantly weakened. [Of] factory employees and retail clerks, truck drivers and store managers, computer technicians, middle managers, and engineers ... all [facing] similar difficulties: they have lost their places in what was once a secure and confident middle class.”

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About the Author

Des Griffin AM served as Director of the Australian Museum, Sydney from 1976 until 1998 and presently is Gerard Krefft Memorial Fellow, an honorary position at the Australian Museum, Sydney.

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