Kobelke move to strangle modern unions

DOES WA have a first class union movement? Or is it second class; or third, or fourth? Or perhaps fifth rate?

It’s an important issue because the earnings, thus well-being, of some 900,000 workers plus their dependents, are at stake.

WA is a world leader in many internationally competitive endeavors; including iron ore, gold and bauxite mining; dry land farming; construction of state-of-the-art, big and fast ferries; specialist engineering design, certain hi-tech areas, and others.

So why not in labour market relations, which essentially means worker-share of an enterprise’s output?

It’s especially pertinent now, because new Labour Relations Minister John Kobelke is hell bent on reversing the progressive 1993 reforms made by Liberal predecessor Graham Kierath who liberalised and diversi-fied employer - employee relations for workers.

The crucial thing those reforms did was open this area up to workers themselves.

In one fell swoop unions found they no longer had the labour relations field all to themselves; they were no longer monopolists, as they’d been for a big slice of last century.

No longer were employees solely beholden to union officials to negotiate and enter into pay and conditions agree-ments with employers.

Workers could now do the negotiating themselves or else hire a specialist to negotiate confidential individual and registered workplace agree-ments for them.

This meant union officials were deprived of monopoly power over workers. Little wonder Mr Kierath was disliked.

But it’s important to note that his reforms didn’t lockout unions; if workers wanted negotiating done by their union officials, so be it.

These officials, like busi-nessmen, naturally prefer being in a monopoly position where others are barred from competing, but neither should ever have such powers given legislatively.

Unions justify their yearning for such power by claiming they have to look after the collective, meaning they are essentially group not individual oriented. Some say obsessively so.

They claim this gives workers real power, even if better performing employees must go with less, rather than more, which they could get if permitted to individually negotiate.

This dogmatic fixation with the collective, the group, means unions have failed to explore a large range of expert services to advise workers individually, such as profit sharing or share issues in enterprises which seem only to go to senior managers and directors.

Union expertise could also provide employees detailed assessments of company perf-ormances.

Unions could become cent-res of a great deal of relevant business and labour market information if only they fund-amentally re-oriented them-selves to become specialist service providing voluntary organisations for diverse individual labour market needs rather than simply thinking in collectivist terms.

Unfortunately, Mr Kobelke’s mind isn’t focused in this modern non-monopolistic Kierath direction. He’s basically set his sights on repealing the 1993 reforms, to replace them with what previously existed — an old-fashioned reactionary response.

And Mr Kobelke has indicated he’ll have second and third legislative rollback waves if Labor and its union backers feel they’re needed to further tighten the union monopoly grip, ensuring competitiveness is strangled.

Recently a former public sector union workplace dele-gate, Michael Warby, now a Fellow of the Melbourne-based free enterprise think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs, assessed some developments within WA’s labour market and published his findings.

His paper, titled, Fit for the West: The Western Australian Approach to Labour Market Relations, contains telling points, ones union officials could give thought to as Mr Kobelke sets about winding back WA’s labor relations clock.

“Union officials have increased their collective significance within unions – from 1968 to 1996, the ratio of full-time officials to union members trebled,” wrote Warby.

“Union membership fees also rose at a faster rate than wages (which would make union fees unusual among most services and would indicate ‘market power’ by unions in their market place), from 0.25 to 0.33 per cent of average wages in 1971 to 0.39 per cent in 1989.

“Career paths within unions are limited, typically consisting of a large number of organisers, a small number of industrial officers and one national secretary.

“The natural career paths direct officials’ attention away from service delivery and the health of their union towards post-union jobs, while leaching unions of experienced people.

“This institutional factor may do much to explain the failure of unions to retain the loyalty of members.”

Mr Warby said a notable factor of WA’s labour market since the Kierath modernising reforms was the acceleration in the collapse in union coverage of the workforce, meaning workers voted with their feet.

Union membership fall-off since 1993 was 30 per cent, a measure of the failure to adjust to new labour market needs of workers as individuals.

Rather than threading the reactionary backward collectivist path Mr Kobelke’s so determined to do, it’d be better if he studied Mr Warby’s findings and urged unions to reshape themselves to become first class expert service providers within a vibrant competitive environment.


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