Labor Ignores Trade Unions And Working Families At Its Peril

Release date: 8/04/2015

There is a danger in politics in being all things to all people and ending up representing nothing. The Labor Party results in NSW reflect a party that fought their opponents on their terms instead of reclaiming what matters to working families and small businesses.
SMH, by Tony Sheldon, 2 April 2015

The Labor Party results in NSW reflect a party that fought their opponents on their terms instead of reclaiming what matters to working families and small businesses. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

The political landscape was different in Victoria and Queensland but Labor, during recent elections in these states, ran a more focused campaign and directly addressed all of the community. As a result both the newly elected premiers of Victoria and Queensland acknowledged the role working families and their representatives in trade unions played in the election win. In this state, the silence on this was deafening and therein lies the downfall.
Huge corporations and the right-wing parties they support have been allowed to set the agenda, establishing a robust rights and welfare system for themselves and a free-for-all for everyone else. Their hunger for profits has been placed above the needs and aspirations of working families.
We see this is in all facets of our society. We see it in our free trade agreements where companies are allowed to import low-paid labour and in our immigration policy where each year thousands of workers open to exploitation are brought in despite creeping unemployment and cutbacks to training for young people.
We see it too through cuts to vital public services such as women's refuges, Indigenous program and attempts to undermine our health and education systems. Yet at the same time big corporations pay less tax than the average working family. A Tax Office document this week showed 900 big firms got $25 billion in tax exemptions and paid just over 19 per cent corporation tax.
Our members are forced to live with the narrative that quality full-time jobs, which give families dignity and economic freedom, just simply don't suit business plans. Instead, companies such as Qantas have replaced these jobs with thousands of part-time and casual hire workers all kept on tenterhooks over when their next job might be or whether they might get above the 20 hours' work they have been guaranteed. We also see how giant retailers such as Coles cut their transport costs each year to suit wealthy shareholders and feed executive pay, leaving trucking companies and their drivers out of pocket and under pressure to driver faster, for longer and with overloaded vehicles.
These scenarios are not right and they are creating the kind of inequality that will drive our economy into the ground.
Trade unions in Australia have sadly become a dirty word – yet another dubious achievement by right-wing parties and their friends in large corporations. If you are a member of a trade union you must surely be corrupt, a bully and getting backhanders, so the narrative goes. But just like those who say they are all for women's rights but wouldn't dare describe themselves as feminists, people who believe workers should be treated with respect and paid a fair wage are espousing the central tenet of the trade union movement.
Labor needs to highlight this movement as a tool for lifting standards for everyone and take back this lost ground. Instead of ignoring and silencing the working families and small businesses seeking a lifeline in the tidal wave of support the government extends to large corporations it needs to address them.
The International Monetary Fund has shown that declining membership of trade unions is linked to wage disparity and a rise in incomes at the top. We in Australia are slipping into this inequality trap which has sucked the life out of societies and economies in the US and the UK. Our trade union membership over the past 30 years has dropped from 50 per cent to 17 per cent; the top 1 per cent   of wage earners have gone from taking home 5 per cent of the nation's pay to 8 per cent.  If we want to stop the slide into inequality then we must give working families back their voice and make our trade unions stronger.
This is not a battle between Labor Party factions or between Labor politicians and union representatives. This is a battle for the kind of Australia we want and who the country should be run for.
As economic indicators show our living standards are about to drop for the first time in decades, it is time now to rebalance the debate in favour of working families. Failing to do this will breed a generation of people who will come to expect poor working conditions and low pay. It is up to the Labor Party to step forward and stop this from happening.
Tony Sheldon is the National Secretary of the Transport Workers' Union.

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