18/11/2014 - 04:59

Political plays diminish unions

18/11/2014 - 04:59


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Unions ought to consign bullying behaviour to the past.

Political plays diminish unions
HEAVY: Power and influence are at the heart of many industrial disputes.

Many years ago, when I worked at a different newspaper, I reported on an internal power struggle that was preoccupying employees and officers of the State School Teachers' Union.

Some of the tidbits I picked up were complaints from one side of this divided workplace about the tactics employed by the other side in this rather vicious battle.

That included car tyres being let down and faeces being put in people's letterboxes.

It gave me little joy to think these were the people purported to represent those with the incredibly important task of teaching the next generation of Western Australians.

I can't recall what the dispute was over, but even if there was an ideological background to it we all know what the fight was really about – the spoils of office. At the very least that involves the jobs they give themselves or their supporters and, no doubt, their potential for future advancement in the Labor Party, while taking a salary to work their way up that ladder.

And that is without even suggesting there was a slush fund they could use at their own discretion.

This nefarious behaviour clearly disturbed one union employee who revealed it to me; they were probably quite frightened to find themselves in such a situation.

It is bullying behaviour of the highest order and, if employers ever tried just a fraction of such nastiness, the union leaders involved would have been baying for blood.

So, a quarter of a century later I was not entirely surprised to read of similar abuses inflicted against fellow unionists by members of the Maritime Union of Australia, according to a bullying claim before the Fair Work Commission.

In a report on the claims made, we heard that an experienced manager familiar with the Melbourne dockyard where the alleged bullying took place called it "Lord of the Flies on water" and "the rule of the mob".

Faeces, it seems, was also part of the ammunition used to intimidate colleagues who had failed to toe the line – the union version of the mafia's Omerta, or code of silence.

I could not help juxtaposing that kind of treatment of people in the workplace, by unionists and their leaders, with the content of our feature this week, which looks at the growing focus on employment environments where an emphasis is shifting from the physical to mental health.

If, as the statistics suggest, so many people are predisposed to mental health issues, few things could be worse than workplace bullying.

Fortitude in the face of such threatening behaviour is tough enough for the vast majority, no matter what your mental state. And the mental cost is not just on those forced to concede to such hostility. Sometimes the strain of successfully standing up to a bully can come at a high price.

We hear often enough of such bullying perpetrated by a manager; in fact, it is considered the stereotypical example. But it is possible such behaviour from colleagues is worse. The group is generally more threatening than an individual. Instead of solidarity, the individual becomes the outcast.

Having to consider changing a job you love, or need, potentially risking your family's future, is a tough decision for many people. To do so because someone put faeces in your shoes, car or letterbox is simply beyond what any person ought to have to deal with during the normal course of their working lives.

Then again, unions are tailor made to incubate bullying behaviour, whether subtle or aggressive.

Firstly, let's face it, unions were established to protect workers' rights in a day and age when employers were often the bullies. Collective power was not always enough to hold employers to account; sometimes union leaders had to be aggressive to fight thuggery and bullying. Many learned well from their former masters and in some industries, even today, not all employers have consigned such 19th century tactics to history. But I mainly hear about the Neanderthal behaviour of union leaders on construction sites and wonder how people operate in the normal world.

It is not the individuals who have failed to evolve. Despite a century or more of development, unions have failed to develop due to the constrained environment in which they operate successfully as monopolies. Those who want to work in dockyards, for instance, or represent the industrial needs of teachers have little choice but to do so through the unions specifically recognised for that task by government instrumentalities. They can't start their own union to offer alternatives; they have to work within the structure that exists with a leadership, enlightened or not, that is often firmly entrenched.

Unions are also political conduits and the spectrum of typical political behaviour involves plenty of what could be described as bullying or its kin, be it in public or behind closed doors. We'd like to think of debate in our parliaments as robust, but the truth is few civilised people in the outside world would find such demeaning behaviour comes so easily.

What happens on the parliamentary floor provides just a glimpse of the skills that have helped many of our politicians rise to the top. It is highly unlikely to be the nastiest place in the political game. Behind the scenes, however, you'd expect it to be more robust, especially when it involves political powerbrokers and those who will never have to face an election.

Union members, employees and leaders are not all bullies and bullying exists outside union organisations but their structures, the laws that protect them, their particular role and the political ambitions of many involved mean that special attention ought to be given to stamping out this appalling behaviour.


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