Australia: Big union merger will shift Labor to the left
By Ben Schneiders, Â Sydney Morning Herald
November 9, 2019Â
Thanks to Ben Davis of the USW.
The two unions that have been most active in bringing attention to the epidemic of wage theft in Australia will merge on Monday to form one of the countryâs largest unions, and in doing so, potentially shift the Labor Party to the left.
The merger of the National Union of Workers and United Voice will be a bid to “rebuild worker power” in Australia and âchange democracyâ, according to the new union’s national secretary Tim Kennedy.
âIt is a radical proposal to rebuild worker power in this country where itâs really needed,â Mr Kennedy told union delegates last month. âTo help rebuild the power of workers not just of our union but of organised labour in this country.â
The merged union will be called the United Workers Union. Its creation as a left-wing union will give that faction of Labor a possible national conference majority for the first time in decades, with the old NUW delegates shifting from the right faction to the left.
The union movement has been in steady decline since the 1980s and in the private sector barely one in 10 workers are now a member.
Among the reasons for the decline are legal and other changes in recent decades that have shifted power to employers. The United Workers Union promises an aggressive industrial approach which could mean more strikes, which are at historic lows.
âThe crisis has many parents,â Mr Kennedy said in an interview withÂ The Sunday AgeÂ andÂ The Sun-Herald.
âThe reality is progressive politics in this country has not been winning debates about collective responses to issues for a long time,â he said.
Mr Kennedy said by winning industrial battles, the UWU could give millions of workers a sense of power and put them âback in the centre of the political contest in this country” and âchange the nature of democracy in this countryâ.
He describes inequality as a âcancerâ in Australia that diminishes the lives of many and stops them from living âfull livesâ. Redistribution of wealth âis a key impact we want to haveâ.
The merged unions have both been heavily involved in campaigning against wage theft in industries such as hospitality, farms and cleaning. Many of the new unionâs members are low paid and in insecure work. About a third come from non-English speaking backgrounds.
The underpayment of wages has become a major national issue after a string of scandals at big companies such as Woolworths, Bunnings, the ABC, at high-end restaurants and among labourers on farms.
The Morrison government is moving to toughen penalties for employers and is considering an ACTU proposal to make it easier for underpaid workers to make claims at the Fair Work Commission.
However, unions have struggled to transform widespread public angst around slow wages growth and unlawful wage underpayment into greater membership numbers. The surprise defeat of Bill Shortenâs Labor at this year’s election dashed union hopes of more worker-friendly laws.
The new union has also ditched more than a 100 years of union practice in Australia, abolishing the structures of state and federal branches, as part of a radical overhaul.
âThat’s not the system we are in any more, employers are national, theyâre global,â said Jo-anne Schofield, who is the new unionâs national president. âIt did require a root-and-branch review of what a union for the future might look like.â
Instead of the old structure, the UWU will set up around industries and as a single national union, Ms Schofield said. Its core industry areas include aged care, farms, food and supermarket supply chains.
Ms Schofield said the scale of the new union and its new structure would allow it to pursue a positive agenda to grow. âWeâve been in too many fights, too many defensive fights.â
The union movement went through a series of mega-mergers in the 1990s, few of which were successful. Ms Schofield said her old union, the former United Voice, had merged and amalgamated more than 60 times in its history.
RMIT professor of workplace law, Anthony Forsyth, said the merger was âreally significantâ as it involved âtwo of the best unions in the country joining togetherâ.
They had been innovative in recruiting migrant and young workers, areas where many other unions had struggled to have a presence.
âYou could view it as a last roll of the dice, if their approach and the innovations theyâve been using canât make it work, thereâs not much hope for unions.â
Nonetheless, Professor Forsyth said he had âquite a lot of confidenceâ it would be a success.
Mr Kennedy said the UWU, which has two-thirds of its members in the private sector, has set ambitious targets for growth. It wants to grow from about 150,000 to 200,000 members within five years.
There are up to two million workers eligible to join the union as it has the right, under workplace laws, to represent workers in such a large number of industries. That potential growth has implications for Labor nationally, where the factional numbers are currently finely balanced between left and right factions.
âThe new union will be part of the left,â Mr Kennedy said. âItâs not a big deal, (the union) will form views based on whatâs important to its members and prosecute them in party forums, whether thatâs right, left or indifferent doesnât matter to us.â
In the byzantine world of Labor factional politics, the move threatens to destabilise delicate power arrangements. It could tip the balance of power in the party to the left at next year’s national conference for the first time since 1979, according to senior left and right Labor sources.
In Victoria, senior Labor right sources said the contingent of seven NUW-linked MPs will remain in the right. Over time that may change as senior MPs such as minister Martin Pakula and Treasurer Tim Pallas retire and are replaced.
One senior Labor right source was confident little would change and said the NUW contingent in the Victorian parliament were âindependent of thoughtâ.
He couldnât see them âvolunteering to be a new asset of Left faction leader Kim Carrâ.