History Of Unions And Their Relevance In Today’s Australian SocietyThe Maritime Union of Australia is at present involved in a dispute with Patrick Stevedoring Company who have rented wharf space to National Farmers Federation who wish to avoid the crippling costs and inefficiencies of the Stevedoring industry.
New Zealand companies have successfully introduced waterfront reforms and productivity has increased. Patrick Stevedoring have been crippled under pressure of the Maritime Union and rumours are ride about sacking of employees of the company.
It appears that the Federal Government are support the NFF. The Australian this week reported News of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings came yesterday as John Howard hailed farmers attempts to set up a non-union Stevedoring operation as a ‘great defining moment in history’. The Queensland State Premier Mr Rob Borbidge also has support the NFF and invited them to establish a non-union dock in Brisbane.
We hope to be able to expedite their involvement in more open competition in terms of the port of Brisbane and their may be other ways that the Government can assist Following the lead of Britain from where many of the original settlers came, workers in various occupations banded together to form unions. Ship writers, boat builders, tailors, bakers and carpenters were among the first craft unions form in Australia before 1848.
By forming an association workers could obtain better wages and working conditions. However the employers wanted the highest profit margins so wished to keep wages low and spend little money on the working environment. The law of supply and demand in the labour market often determined which group was dominant.
A third factor in the balance in Australia was the government. A successful strike by newspaper workers in 1829 for better wages and conditions resulted in the Masters and Servants Act being implemented which discriminated against the workers, who could be gaoled for minor revolts.
Early in the colony, skilled labours were in short supply but in the 1840’s after active promotion of emigrants by Britain this improved and a depression forced wages down and jobs were lost. With the discovery of gold, prices and wages rose, labour was scare and licenses imposed on miners and the Eureka incident occurred. Bust and boom economic conditions paroled surges recessions for unionism over the next few decades.
The industrial union formed in the 1880’s as a grouping of workers within an industry and across colonial and the Shearer’s Union and small bush workers unions became the Australian Workers Union. Unions then looked to represent workers in Governments and the 1890’s major strikes were held and the Labour Party was formed.
With coming of Federation compulsory arbitration – settling of disputes between employer and employee by a third party – encouraged unionism, with unions representing the workers. The labour market and demand for goods has been influenced by world wars, depressions and recessions. In the 1980’s ‘national reconciliation’ initiated by the Government, aimed at resolving some of the conflict between workers and employers.
Strong leaders among workers of various occupations over the last two centuries, have been gaoled, sometimes killed, starved, abused, seen their families suffer for better working conditions.
At the beginning of the industrial revolution, employers knew their workers and felt responsible for them. After the industrial revolution gained momentum they employed more people and lost empathy for their staff.
Working conditions were 12 – 14 hours, without breaks, child labour was employed, accidents were rife and wages were low. Overcrowding in unsanitary conditions resulted in epidemics of disease. Workers were not allowed to vote and the employers were represented in Parliament.
Unions mobilize the full industrial strength of workers and as history has shown conditions of workers have greatly improved due to unionism. Unions have earned workers minimal wages forty hour working week, an eight hour day, annual leave, long service leave, accident and illness benefits, and workers compensation.
Voting rights have assisted better legislation to protect workers which decrease the relevance of unions in today’s society. Compulsory unionism has a contention issue as has non secret voting or ballots. Compulsory unionism has been negated to some degree but after employment clauses state that preference will be given to union members.
In today’s workplace the same worker may be eligible to belong to various unions. Sometimes these unions are in conflict and may vie with each other for members. Some workers feel the benefits do not justify the cost of union membership.
Harassment of no union workers can be intimidating even violent, as in the example in Canberra a few years ago when union members trashed property. Pickets to prevent no union workers from fulfilling contracts has been a part of strikes. The use of ‘scab’ labour has caused violence in strikes and the conflict has disrupted companies and industries.
State and Federal governments have been involved in labour reforms and during the last few decades industrial unrest has been lessened as the arbitration and negotiation machinery had become more sophisticated. Fines imposed on unions and more accountability for unrest and strikes on union leadership has tended to moderate demands made by workers.
Workplace reform has improved safety conditions for workers and accountability of directors and employers. As the change from external inspectors to ‘duty of care’ of employers and co-workers increase the role of the unions in improving working conditions tend to decrease.
In the 1990’s enterprise bargaining is part of the Workplace Reform process. In the past unions were the bodies which were involved in negotiating conditions for workers. Today although the unions have fought to keep that role, many employees are not using unions as they negotiate on their own behalf. This is especially true in smaller workplaces and as unions membership continues to decrease, becoming more important in larger workplaces.
The philosophy of a ‘win-win’ situation compared to the ‘win-loss’ is in the past as a resolution of conflict also softens the influence of unionism.
As the world moves to a global economy, the worldwide influences in the labour market also impacts on Australia.
The industry is now going through a massive change on an international scale – a change that our Federation can not prevent or slow down. We can resist the change but then we must eventually lose. The argument must therefore be considered on the basis of do we resist change, or do we take from change the maximum that is possible to take, having regard for all of the circumstances,
-Maritime Worker 1967 April Edition
The global nature of unionism has also resulted in international campaigns where strong unions in Australia have assisted in the establishment of unions in developing countries and supporting industrial action by unions in other nations.
Stevedoring and waterside workers unions are an example of this support. In 1985 Australia, Japan, United States and New Zealand Stevedoring union representatives met together and agreed to form a mutual defence pact. In 1993 the Waterside Workers Federation amalgamated with the Seaman’s Union of Australia to form the Maritime Union of Australia.
, Mr Borbidge is reported as saying in the Courier Mail this week.
The paper also reported But it is understood that the Howard Government has begun preparing a waterfront restructuring package to help facilitate redundancy funding and ‘reduce excess labour’ in the industry.
The Government is advocating workplace reform of the waterfront to enable it to compete in the international arena. At present the lack of productivity and high costs places, Australia at a disadvantage among other nations.
The MUA has notified the Industrial Relations Commission of the dispute after Patrick failed to give an undertaking its workforce would not be sacked. The union plans a four day strike at the Port of Brisbane.
Many Australians feel that breaking the crippling hold of the MUA would be good for the Australian economy and lead to reform and increased productivity.
At a meeting of the full council of the Business Council of Australia, a statement was issued reaffirming its view that radically improved productivity and efficiency in waterfront operations remain one of the major reform challenges facing Australia.
The conflict between the MUA and NFF may be long and bitter with many casualties, Patrick among the first, but with the present federal and state governments prepared to become involved. Changes will take place soon.
Changes is fundamental to our life and unions have evolved over the last two centuries and will continue to change as global and reform issues rise and ware. Their significance will be determined by their ability to adapt to the needs of workers and society as the workplace changes.