Breaking ties the best option for this union

Breaking ties the best option for this unionLET us not become overly sentimental about possible outcomes of the current calls by Labor MPs to break, or at least markedly weaken, ties between unions and the ALP.

Those who should most welcome such a rupture are union members and bona fide union leaders.

For too long many union leaders have clung to Australia’s 19th century institutionalised monopoly relationship between the industrial (unions) and political (ALP) wings of the so-called labour movement.

If it were broken, both sides would be better off – especially employees – so the sooner it happens the better.

Unfortunately, many in each wing still believe this monopoly arrangement should be maintained.

Like the wooden beer barrel, valve radio, and typewriter, its days have passed.

An amicable divorce is what’s needed.

If Federal Labor leader Simon Crean, a former ACTU chief, cannot pull-off what British Prime Minister Tony Blair did, the main losers will be employees.

The major drawback of the present relationship is not what several outspoken Labor MPs, including former WA Premier Dr Carmen Lawrence, have advocated since November 10.

They claim that each wing should go its own way because of the disproportionate influence unions have over Labor candidate pre-selections and its platform.

As valid as that may be, it’s certainly not the best reason for a divorce.

Others say the political wing needs to broaden its appeal across the electorate, and the union wing hinders it doing so.

Though examples to back this up undoubtedly exist, this again isn’t the main problem for employees, the people who count.

The major drawback of the cemented union-party link is that employees and their representatives are institutionally isolated by effectively having to deal with only one political party – the Labor Party.

Unionists would be better off if their duly elected workplace leaders were institutionally and otherwise free to make separate deals on behalf of employees with all parties – Labor, Liberal, National, Democrat, Green, One Nation.

Currently, Labor MPs have a cozy relationship with union leaders.

So cozy that if a union made a comprehensive deal with, say, the Liberals before an election and went on to recommend to members they vote Liberal, they’d be howled down.

But imagine if the Labor Party’s institutional hold on unions, and vice versa, was broken.

As State or Federal elections approached, individual union leaders or combinations of unions could enter into bread and butter negotiations with each of the six parties.

And, at the end of such talks, union representatives could decide as a movement or individually on what to recommend to members.

They’d be in a position to publicise what had emerged from such talks on wages policy, workplace conditions, superannuation, profit sharing, or any other issues canvassed.

Such talks could be broadened to include taxation policy, or whatever else they believed affected the welfare of members.

All the political parties thus would be confronted with hardheaded negotiators as a matter of course come election time.

Duly elected union leaders and party leaders would have to confront this experience.

This would bring the welfare of employees to the forefront of political considerations.

Instead we presently have an institutional arrangement devised after the great strikes on the east coast in the 1890s, which have little relevance today.

Under a competitive relationship between worker associations (unions) and all political parties, union members could have those parties bidding for their votes.

Today we have nothing of the sort.

Most Labor MPs take union leaders largely for granted.

The most important reason for this is the fact that so many union leaders are in their jobs simply to gain Labor Party preselection for a cozy parliamentary seat.

The last to benefit from this blatant, on-going, brazen careerism are the employees.

Our parliaments have too many ex-unionists with little understanding of business, economics, science and technology, and other disciplines relevant to a modern world.

Modern unionism should see unions being hives of activity where negotiators, accountants, financial advisers and other experts are employed for the benefit of their voluntary members.

If the present century-old link between unions and the political wing were broken, this process, which undoubtedly is under way to a limited extent, would be hastened.

There would be nothing stopping such union leaders continuing to co-operate with the social democrat side of politics, a New Labor Party, if this was seen as benefiting members.

And the conservative side would finally be exposed to hearing the aspirations of employees within a specialist union movement.

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