The wrong “organising model”

Submitted by AWL on 14 October, 2014 - 5:34 Author: Bob Carnegie

In my last article I wrote about the horrors of contracting-out of civilian work on Australian defence bases, and the drive to force down the wages and conditions of the workers.

Similar processes are at work everywhere else, be it the private or the public sector.

Just recently my partner Melissa and I did a factory tour of the XXXX brewery in Brisbane, Australia, where I worked some 35 years ago as a young man. In 1979, XXXX had a permanent crew of painters, carpenters and plumbers, and a full time work force of 850. It is still a huge factory, maybe producing more than in 1979, but now has just 175, with no permanent maintenance crew .... But I digress.

As a lifetime militant and a former official in the the Seaman’s Union of Australia, the Maritime Union of Australia, and the Builders Labourers Federation, and now an organiser with the National Union of Workers, I have seen much of the bitter effects for workers of unions competing in the workplace for the same worker.

In a word, it means de-unionisation.

Currently, a large general-worker-type union, United Voice, has most of the coverage, but not the membership, on the service lines of civilians who work on defence bases.

The union I am currently working for, the NUW, has some rights of representation, but is not in the current enterprise agreement between the company, Serco, and United Voice.

Since I started working, some 100-plus workers have elected to join the NUW. Most of these workers were previously non-union, and only a handful previous members of United Voice.

Now the long-dormant and virtually useless United Voice has sprung to life with a negative campaign against both myself personally and the NUW. It is a campaign of such negativity that Karl Rove of White House fame would be proud of it.

The long-held principle of Australian union officials is that they will cannibalise each other, and the workers themselves can rot, but their coverage or jurisdictional rights are sacrosanct.

For myself, I am a believer in “use or lose it”. If a union is not representing its members, and there is very low union density on a particular site, than that union has forfeited its rights to hold a monopoly over workers.

I am looked as a bit of an oddity by the union officials because I want a real campaign launched to get these workers employed by their real employer, the Defence Department, and afford the wages and dignity they deserve. That does not fit into any union’s agenda. Why?

Both NUW and even more so United Voice are heavily influenced by the SEIU “organising model” from the USA.

The model relies heavily on young university-educated people employed as full-time organisers. The NUW has several industrial officers or organisers of that type. All of them are diligent and hardworking people.

However, at the absolute heart of the SEIU model is recruitment and the selling of union tickets. Members’ problems and concerns are somewhat down the list. That is particularly true of United Voice, but a real problem, in my opinion, with all unions influenced by the SEIU model.

Signing up members and distributing union cards becomes absolutely the most important task. The worth of an organiser is based on how many cards are signed. It turns union organising into a marketing ploy.

Maybe this approach is attractive for many union leaders because it quantifies things. Joe is a better organiser than Sue because Joe got ten signed cards this week and Sue only three.

What if Sue has been helping a worker through a work related or personal crisis that took up a huge amount of time? The “churn” lacks the human heart which I think lies at the core of unionism.

That Australian unions can be so influenced by models from the USA, where trade union density in the private sector has dropped to 6.5 per cent of the workforce, is puzzling in itself.

A real organising campaign in any sector of industry means the expenditure of resources, and, for a while, without necessarily any enumerable success. The current organising model in which workers join and leave in dribs and drabs shows immediate “practical” results, costs little, and keeps union funds coming in. It also keeps malicious employers from baring their fangs. They know the unions are only tinkering around the edges and offering no real resistance to their exploitative ways.

Some workers in the hospitality area employed by SSDS have been working an eight hour day spread over 13 hours! This is clearly in breach of their collective agreement but the workers have not had their union take it to the Fair Work Commission (Australia’s labour courts), or even argue out with management. Such behaviour makes the task of building real union representation more difficult.

As the song goes: “money speaks for money, the Devil for his own; who’ll come to speak for the skin and the bone?”

Well it should be a union, and if a union does not, the sad reality is that no-one or no organisation will. We end with workers who feel powerless and apathetic. Some still remain union members out of a sense of loyalty, and some look at their union dues as a type of insurance policy, but most remain or become non-union.

What does the union movement’s leadership want in Australia? A workforce fighting for empowerment, or a docile declining movement?

The great majority of union leaders will say they want the former. The sad reality is that by adopting flawed recruitment models, most unions in Australia are delivering the latter.

We need to deliver a fighting, progressive, politicised, inclusive and caring style of union organising, if we are to make any headway in delivering hope to the great majority of workers in Australia, and if the collapse in union membership is to be addressed in a “fair dinkum”, i.e. honest, basis.