TWU

Union Demise Fuels Trump-Style Hate

Release date: 21/10/2016

Daily Telegraph, by TWU National Secretary Tony Sheldon, 21 Oct 2016
 
The world is rightly terrified at the prospect of Donald Trump being elected US president next month. But Trump's rise is not the only worrying sign that disaffection is rife among electorates across the world. Populist politics has gained a foothold in the UK, France, the Philippines and elsewhere. Australia has not escaped this phenomenon.


Opponents of these movements can condemn them for the divisions they promote but cannot ignore them. They have simply become too powerful.

But there is a way to counter these movements and that is to go to the heart of the disaffection they tap into. Trade unions are the answer.
 
Much of the seeds of today's economic and political problems were sown in the US and the UK in the 1980s and 1990s.
 
Australia followed suit during John Howard's time as prime minister. So-called "free market economics" meant freedom for corporations from regulation and taxes but ultimately robbed workers of their economic freedom, making them poorer.
 
A central point to these policies was eroding the power of the trade union movement which weakened the ability of workers to fight back. Margaret Thatcher became known for "breaking" the unions in the UK while Howard tried a similar tactic with WorkChoices here.
 
Declining income and underemployment is now a fact of life for many workers, including Australians. While 80 per cent of US household incomes fell in the decade up to 2014, real wages in Australia have gone backwards over the past three years. The collapse of middle-class income worsens at the same time as the cost of goods, services, healthcare and housing has gone up.
 
Aviation employees, which my union represents, are a perfect example of the difficulties workers face today. Many earn below the poverty line since they are forced onto part-time hours while market leader Qantas with billion-dollar profits continues to impose a wage freeze. Loans for a car or a mortgage to buy a house are simply beyond what these workers can hope for. Labour hire firms, themselves run on tight margins, have meanwhile sprung up which are largely anti-union.
 
Firebrands such as Donald Trump have successfully tapped into the problem of worker disaffection, promising quick-fix solutions.
 
But for hundreds of years the trade union movement brought about major change for working people. From campaigns for the eight-hour day in Victoria in the 1850s to the way a national policy of superannuation was co-opted from industrial agreements negotiated by workers, unions have been an immense force for good.
 
You wouldn't know this from listening to Malcolm Turnbull or his Liberal Party colleagues. The federal government has spent $80 million on a royal commission and police taskforce trying to tarnish trade unions.
 
Mr Turnbull is forcing through policies that weaken the voice of working people.
This includes two bills introduced just this week, one setting up an Australian Building and Construction Commission and another to impose regulations on standards in unions.
 
The effect of both bills will be to restrict the ability of unions to fight for their members. Mr Turnbull also abolished a tribunal which held wealthy retailers to account for minimum pay rates for owner drivers and protected them when raising safety concerns. He wants to broaden plans to import migrant labour ripe for exploitation through so-called free trade deals.
 
If we are concerned about the rise of populist politics we should be promoting trade unions, not denigrating them. We should give workers greater ability to collectively bargain, to demand higher wages, to hold corporate greed in check.
 
Trade unions have proved that the changes they secure for their members benefit society as a whole. The same is true today: unions can represent disaffected workers and address the difficulties they face in supporting their families. This will tackle the inequality which plagues our societies and help to show populist politics the door.
 
Tony Sheldon is National Secretary of the Transport Workers Union.

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