There is sharp debate between the relevant philosophies of the Left and Right on this subject. On the one side, fears of exploitation by employers, compassion for the needs of weaker workers, and faith in organisation and consensus. On the other side there is exasperation with a welfare-type wages system and strikes and stoppages; but with a faith in individual initiative and incentives for hard work, to give personal benefits and a competitive edge to the country's productive capacity.
To combine peace and productivity in the work force, these pressures need to find a balance which we would call justice - with, maybe, just a touch of mercy!
To combine these two requires a Solomon? Maybe, but if at the end of a prolonged confrontation a solution is found, basically because it must, then it makes sense for that 'must' to be the function of an agency, operating on behalf of government, to find and apply. Why endure the public angst and loss while the antagonists bloody their economic noses in heated, determined confrontation?
It seems profoundly sensible for a community problem of conflict, like this, to be able to be resolved by an independent authority with the unqualified backing of a people’s government.
Whatever is the matter with arbitration?
Why 'pussy-foot' around! The solution to industrial disputation requires positive, strong action by government. It requires democratic government action. But where is it???
Now we hear that the security guards at Melbourne airport have the approval of the Industrial Relations Commission for their program of snap strikes - it is a legal right for them to do this in their clash with the airport owner. Where do the public stand in all this? Nowhere is the inconvenience and loss of the public taken into account - an offence against public justice for all!
And a compromise will be found, eventually, won't it?
Why not find that now in the impartial wisdom of an arbitrator? Is that so impossible - if the arbitrator is impartially selected and appointed by impartial (democratic) government. Democratic? that's the rub - the real problem - to have government with the goodwill and wisdom to appoint an arbitrator with the wisdom to hand down real decisions which will 'stick' because they are fair, and because the arbitrator has the necessary authority from government.
Party governments have never been able to achieve success in the area of industrial relations. It has been truly said that, parliament, because of its partisan nature, is not suited to interfere in these matters.
But now, instead of an Arbitration Commission and Arbitration Court, we have a 'Minister for Industrial Relations' - in a quite partisan government! We've gone backwards.
Parliaments, such as we have, are inclined to be either too autocratic or too sympathetic in their industrial relations. Consequently, either justice or appropriate authority is likely to be lacking, complicating the role of arbitral bodies, and making them uncertain and weak.
Conservatives tend to have faith in employers to do the right thing, and doubt the goodwill of workers and unions while, vice versa, Labor tends to see the protection of workers as an important responsibility.
A common complaint by unions is that government does not meet its responsibilities toward the workers. One leader commented that, because of the failure of government agencies, workplaces would be far from safe without union action.
Government has failed in two ways - failed the workers in not safeguarding their legitimate concerns, and failed the people at large by allowing unions to succeed with stand over tactics. The public suffers the inconvenience, or worse, of the dislocation of services, and employers, and the economy, suffer the loss of production. These losses are never recovered. The dislocating effects are felt far and wide, through shortages and late deliveries of materials and parts, with the resulting, and ongoing, need to hold larger reserve stocks. Such effects, and the possibility of them, hobble industry, making it inefficient and causing it to lose its 'get up and go'; which has a good deal to do, no doubt, with the present malaise in the economy.
In many situations of possible conflict between two forces, there are some on either side who give good reason for the other's fears. Fear and suspicion then make each side take a jaundiced view of the other.
Enterprise bargaining has considerably reduced the circumstances for employees in the less profitable industries. The more successful industries can pay higher wages, while many industries could not. We have our share of blame. We, the public, have two hats or personalities - as consumers and as 'workers' (until retirement). We, as consumers in our super stores, accept the lower prices caused by the fierce competition in a these big industries, while the 'giants' are 'screwing' small suppliers on our behalf. The free market can be merciless.
A free market is only justified where there are many buyers, many sellers. The growth of the monopoly giants in all categories of the system - big business, big (and bigger) unions - defeats the advantages, and the equity, of the 'free market'. Free market forces are not an acceptable form of control because there are virtually no longer free markets. The rich will assuredly get richer and the poor will just as certainly get poorer, sowing the seeds of future misery.
The Coalition has introduced individual contracts for workers with some present award conditions as minimums. This has weakened workers against exploitation by some employers. While competition is desirable, many individual workers and few employers make very imperfect competition and workers acutely vulnerable - and fearful. They can thus be pressured to accept contracts. Will renewable contracts have downgraded conditions? Can workers give of their best in these, essentially slave like, conditions?
Globalisation has produced a sea change in industry, with the 'falling leaves' of factories relocated overseas. The tendency to one-sided free trade has increased the inflow of cheap goods which has helped government to keep inflation low! 'The economy is in good shape' we hear. Retail sales are up! (But what about ballooning credit-card debt?) The fallen dollar should be a big help to exporters but not all markets are in favour of free trade.
Overseas competition is uncovering our deficiencies in a much tougher world than we have been used to. We badly need government which does not discourage, but can rally our spirit to meet the vastly changing circumstances.
Mutual trust is needed. It is obvious that in countries with the best economic record all concerned pull together. Without trust that is not possible. But trust must have a basis.
We need non-partisan government to establish a new regime of trust and cooperation. As long as the party system remains in our parliaments we will not be able to progress beyond the confrontation of the past. The waste of time, energy and morale must go.
Only government which can stand against the pressures of vested interests, and has the confidence and wholehearted support of the people, can contribute justice and peace.
That kind of government we do not have.
If, as we certainly claim, the party system is indeed the obstacle to genuine, efficient, responsive, and responsible government, then its banishment from our parliaments offers the real hope for the future in this area, as in all others.
Unions and Government.
Do we need unions??? If government was doing its job of governing FOR All the people we probably would see fairness prevailing through better community attitudes and government supervision where necessary. But we don't have that luxury.
Unions exist primarily through the failures of government, and also the failures of others whose actions, of lack of them, governments should deal with but don't. Sometimes government raises the issue of the secret ballot in union meetings to enable union decisions to better reflect the views of union members.
But it is manifestly incongruous to demand that unions accede to balloting of their decisions in meetings unless parliaments accept this as normal democratic practice for themselves. Obviously party governments are weak because they do not practise the internal ballot for their decisions, and that weakness precludes them from the embarrassment of pursuing the subject with regard to union meetings.
Voting in Unions
For a long time governments have been strangely quiet about enforcing secret ballots for union decisions which affect the public. Many have commented on this apparent reluctance, as many a worrying dispute could have been settled earlier with this provision. Peter Reith, debating with Bob McMullen (Labor Shadow Minister) on Radio National, demurely defended inclusion of this provision in government plans, as a 'democratic practice! Of course it is. But many have remarked that if it is good enough for the unions then there can be no excuse for excluding this so democratic practice from the operation of our parliaments. It has been well said, over the centuries, that the more people involved in decisions the more satisfactory those decisions will be. And, in fact, decisions by parliament are minority decisions - no doubt about it.
Much has been said about the desirability of having secret ballots in unions for all decisions which affect the public. Why not indeed? The reason is not hard to see. Union leadership have not wanted them either - they would reduce their power. One Labor activist was heard to say that leadership was their real need - not democracy! Honest, at least!
In many cases the leaders have represented the views of the more aggressive members of the union. But decisions, to 'stick' in the longer term, will obviously be better if they reflect the subject the genuine agreement of the membership. (Parliament did you say? There too, obviously!)
The claim is that secret ballots are too long-winded because members would have to be given a postal ballot to encompass the whole membership. But when a decision is made in a meeting by a show of hands, there is no concern about the views, or votes, of members not present. There is no good reason why a ballot of members at a meeting should not be held, for any decision affecting the public, or for any decisions concerning the members for that matter. If the attending members are sufficient for a final decision by a show of hands, then they most certainly are also sufficient for a decision by a secret ballot in the meeting. In any case, this would more accurately reflect the actual views of the members present. And many more will attend when they know they have an unimpeded opportunity to vote in the meeting by ballot. And the new possibility of fair decisions, by ballot, would also certainly encourage the airing of dissenting views in the meeting.
The real need is for government which can achieve all-round justice in the workplace, and have the kind of public respect to enable it to successfully deal with any sticky problems which may arise.
It is clear that, when there are problems, only real democracy in our government system will enable fairness to prevail, with reasonable consideration for all aspects of the problems involved. Broad-brush decisions, made for 'political' reasons, are not good enough. Good democratic government is what everyone needs. Party government cannot produce it.
Conservative government sees unions as an unnecessary threat to important progress, and longs to curtail their power and influence. But as long as untrustworthy governments (i.e. party governments) persist, unions will be needed to protect the weak against the strong.
Using the ballot can make them both stronger and better representatives on behalf of their workers.
There is a better way.