Labor no ‘U’


When Boethius was a much younger, and fitter, sage, he entered the workforce direct from spectacularly failing first year Arts at a well known University by obtaining a labouring job in an abattoir. The work was mundane and smelly, and the comrades uncouth and uneducated, but Boethius is a true small ‘l’ liberal and overlooked the excessive expletives, questionable jokes, and smoke filled lunch room, and politely disagreed with his workmates that the perfect night out involved getting into at least one pub fight, some form of body piercing and / or a tattoo, together with a visit to a brothel.  One thing the young philosopher was not prepared for, however, was the Meatworkers Union. In the youth of Boethius, the majority of Australian workers actually really did belong to a union (this is true and can be verified factually, as incredulous as it seems today). Membership of the Meatworkers Union was not optional. Everyone joined upon being employed in the abattoir, one’s fees were automatically deducted from one’s pay, and one did not ask any questions.

Boethius the Younger had no interest in these routine matters until the day he arrived for work to find his workmates gathered around a blazing forty-four gallon drum at the front gates of the abattoir, which had been bolted shut, and were being guarded by bearded boners (* a word describing an actual occupation in an abattoir), who were refusing anyone, including management, access. The only living thing looking somewhat pleased with this situation were the cows in the stalls beyond the gates, whose life expectancy had suddenly risen by a few hours, if not days.

Before too long, the shop steward arrived with some slabs of beer, and the mood at the picket line was starting to liven up. Boethius, being an inquisitive youth, if a little short of life experience, took it upon itself to enquire of the shop steward as to why he (and everyone else employed by this particular abattoir) were now on strike. In the back of his mind were two things – one, that there would be a very real and urgent matter requiring redress, perhaps one affecting the safety of the workforce, and two, that the longer this went on, the longer he was not being paid, and the harder it was going to be to pay the bills stacking up at home, not to mention keeping enough aside for a punt on the horses and a drink at the local on the weekend.

‘Boner turned up (* no pun intended) without his boots today,’ the shop steward explained. Boethius waited patiently for further explanation, of which none was forthcoming. It transpired, several slabs of beer later, and after some nasty exchanges with what appeared to be menacing looking accountants in pin striped strides seeking entrance to the workplace, that what the shop steward meant was that one of the company’s best and hardest working boners (* no pun intended) had forgotten his gum boots and arrived at work expecting to find a suitable pair among the company stocks kept for such eventualities. When a pair of sufficiently sized gum boots to accommodate this particular boner could not be located, the offended employee consulted the shop steward, who called a general strike, seeing an unmistakable opportunity to enhance his standing at Trades Hall, together with his hopes for ALP preselection, and everyone was out.

They remained out for three days, even after the Manager arrived with several pairs of brand new gum boots in various size. Boethius dropped close to week’s pay, and can still remember mounting a forlorn argument with the said shop steward, to the effect that the union was surely meant to be there to ensure the jobs and livelihoods of its lowest paid members, labourers just like him. It was a naïve, and easily dismissed argument, brushed aside with a sentence that contained more expletives than vowels. And Boethius learned an important life lesson – the Union exists, not to protect and care for the low paid members doing it tough at the bottom of the social heap, but to enhance the political career of the shop stewards, and the other assorted private school and university educated careerists, who drove cars paid for by the union fees contributed by low paid labourers, and who, generally, saw a good industrial dispute, and an especially confrontational picket line, as a means of career progression, especially if some hothead did something especially violent and it made the evening news.

Sometime later, Boethius, after reading Animal Farm and brushing up on trends in twentieth century socialism, was again in need of funds, and again a member of a union, this time whilst working the assembly line at a factory in the gritty inner urban suburbs of western Melbourne. When a meeting to vote on strike action was called, just days before Christmas, and, Boethius, now a young father, saw the kids Christmas turkey was very much in peril if a strike eventuated, he publicly questioned the decision and was politely, but firmly, told that if he didn’t vote the ‘right way’ he could expect a punctured lung and some broken ribs as a best case scenario. Boethius duly raised his hand at the appropriate time, albeit tentatively, and the family enjoyed a Christmas lunch of boiled rice and bread that year. Boethius made special mention of the Union in his Christmas toast, wishing the shop stewards a dose of herpes for Christmas, and the union concerned a visit to a Royal Commission one day.

These two anecdotes are completely and perfectly true, and go some way, from the perspective of one young philosopher’s experience, to explaining why the vast majority of Australian workers today want nothing to do with unions, want them out of our lives, and are not interested in the least in outdated, and old fashioned, socialist rhetoric about ‘class warfare’ or in language evoking ‘class’ envy. There is, however, one place where the demise of the union movement has gone largely unnoticed, and where unions, and union members, are in the majority, and that is, in the Australian Labor Party. It continues to be dominated by union members, as does its parliamentary expression, with a significant number of those representing the Labor Party in the nation’s capital being well described by the term ‘union hack’ – that is, persons having no real life experience outside that of a trade union. This stands in glaring contrast to the vast majority of the voters of the nation, who do not belong to a union, want nothing to do with a union, and see no need or place for unions in the workplaces of the 21st century.

One man, well described by that somewhat derisive, if apt, term ‘union hack’, is the current leader of the federal opposition, Mr Bill Shorten. From the time he commenced as a trainee in 1994, Bill has been the quintessential ‘company man’, dedicating his talents and expertise entirely to the Australian Workers Union. Whilst most people, these days, move to a new job on average every five years, and might have at least one significant change of career direction during the course of their working life, if not more, Bill has known only the Union and the ALP. This week it has been Mr Shorten’s turn to make some hurried disclosures, and give evidence before the Royal Commission, albeit in a manner that had the commissioner, Justice Heydon, eventually questioning his credibility as a witness. On the whole, Bill seemed to see nothing wrong at all with financial arrangements whereby a third party paid for his personal campaign manager, or whereby large amounts of money were directed to his union for a variety of purposes that seemed somewhat difficult for him explain. Why would he? This is how it has always been done in that diminishing sphere of the workforce in which unions are a key, if not dominant, player. In this rapidly diminishing world, the proletariat are paternalistically signed up to a deal that is said to be in their best interests, and do not question the dear leader who brokers it on their behalf. Company’s needing a ‘favour’ (read industrial peace) become curiously keen to fund ‘workplace safety training’ and ‘research assistants’ and to deliver their employees union fees in lump sum transactions to the union concerned.

Even if the Royal Commission is a politically motivated exercise, as many on the Labor side of politics are convinced it is, for the union movement, it is clear the writing is very much on the wall. Scandals involving curious financial transactions, Union issued credit cards, and thuggish behaviour on picket lines, have wearied the public, and provided grist for the mill for those who have had the union movement in their sights, for years, if not decades. But the far more alarming reality for Trades Hall would almost certainly seem to be the manner in which unions have become an unwelcome, and increasingly ignored and largely irrelevant, presence in the Australian industrial and political landscape, and its leaders, far from being regarded the undisputed champions of ‘working people’, instead acquiring a status in the public mind that places them somewhere alongside used car salesmen, clergy, and run of the mill members of parliament, on the scale of general trustworthiness. The suspect behaviour of those former associates of one former Labor Prime Minister, Bruce Wilson and Ralph Blewitt; the former Health services Union and national Labor party President Michael Williamson, now serving time in jail; the strenuous denials of former Labor Party member of federal parliament Craig Thompson, so effortlessly exposed in court; the recent fines visited upon the CFMEU; the prior deregistration of the Painters and Dockers and the Builders Labourers Federation… these are not isolated cases but, to borrow a term from Shakespeare, demonstrate categorically that something is very rotten in the state of Denmark!

Even so, the demise of the union movement in Australia, so manifestly evident everywhere except in the Labor Party, is not fully explained by this sordid past, and recent history. Many will point to social changes and vilification campaigns conducted by vitriolic conservative commentators, but the root cause seems rather more mundane to this altogether dissatisfied past member of two unions – at some point union leaders and organisers began to resemble the sort of power hungry careerists, so despised in workplaces past by those who actually did the work, and the union members became, not the object and purpose of the organisation and the recipients of its largesse, but a means to preselection, together with a source of fees to be applied to easily misused funds and credit cards. In short, the unionists (if not the rank and file) became elitists, and if there’s one thing Australian ‘working people’ (to borrow the term so often, and so patronisingly, on the lips of Labor politicians) despise it’s an elitist wanker of any description telling them what to do, how to do it, and which way to vote.

All in all, there is a pretty short journey from the unions and union leaders encountered by Boethius in his youth, to the former MP Craig Thomson and his somewhat broad understanding of what constituted a reasonable expense to incur on his union issued credit card, to the current leader of the opposition Bill Shorten appearing before the Royal Commission into Union Corruption and having his credibility questioned in that forum. This isn’t the end of the union movement, it will probably always have its zealots and its picket line enthusiasts. More significant is the reality that, from the time Boethius first entered the workforce in that smelly abattoir, to his current much less onerous and more sanitary role today, the union presence in the Australian workforce has gone from accepted and assumed, to irrelevant and unwelcome. The question the Labor Party, and its current (former unionist) leader, must surely ask themselves is – are we, am I, on the same road?