How relevant are the unions?

Tad Tietze and I have an article on the state of the unions in the wake of the Qantas job cuts, which has been stirring up some discussion at The Guardian‘s Comment Is Free section. Here’s a preview, and you can read the full article here.

It is no coincidence that the problems started during the Accord between the unions and the Hawke-Keating federal governments. In exchange for unprecedented influence in politics, along with some increases in the “social wage”, the unions agreed to significant cuts to real wages, known at the time as “wage restraint”. They also agreed to curb industrial action in order to deliver “social peace” for the sake of an economy suffering from “stagflation”.

Ironically, unions signed up to the Accord in part because they feared the alternative would be the kinds of attacks that characterised Thatcherism in the UK. Yet they clung to the Accord as Labor drove through a full suite of neoliberal reforms — including financial deregulation, privatisations, the abolition of free higher education and deep tariff cuts. Unions not only began to lose members, but their remaining members were demoralised and passive in comparison with the confident, active members who had won better standards of living for themselves in previous decades. The decline of members and union coverage of workplace agreementscontinued in the harsher legal environment of the Howard years and was not reversed by Labor’s Fair Work Act.

Union leaders moved on to other activities to try to maintain relevance — such as running industry super funds or seeing involvement in ALP factions as a substitute for the social strength of unions themselves. Despite occasional vague criticisms of the Accord, the leaders of today’s unions show no sign of breaking from the disastrous strategy their predecessors embarked on in 1983. A movement based mainly on workers’ collective strength has become one hoping politicians and governments will deliver for it instead.

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