A number of intriguing trajectories of argument have crossed over recently, as the Labor government continues to be under great pressure. In leaving the Gillard Cabinet, Martin Ferguson called for an end to ‘class war’ politics (see previous post by Paul Norton here at LP), soon to be echoed by the dismissed Simon Crean. Strongly opposed by current union and ACTU leaders, the two now former Ministers and ACTU presidents both painted a glowing picture of Hawke/Keating era corporatist consensus. Politically, they implied, the ALP had much to gain from adopting a similar mode of governance today.
At the same time, as with misinformation about public debt, a fact challenged debate on productivity continues apace in the business press. As Matt Cowgill showed as long ago as last December, claims of a ‘wages breakout’ had hit an evidence wall, and the employer associations and commentators switched tack to bemoaning falling productivity. Yet the national accounts show productivity rising. As Cowgill went on to demonstrate, wages growth and productivity have “decoupled” recently, with capital taking a larger share than labour income. So it’s very difficult to see that there is any substance in the calls for deregulation of the workplace.
(See also Robert Merkel’s piece on productivity.)
Yet these calls form the implicit predicate for arguments from business that the balance of workplace rights has tipped too far in the direction of employees. Such relatively quotidian proposals as a statutory right to request flexible working arrangements are met with outrage. Labor, it is said, is playing to its labour base, because Julia Gillard’s leadership depends on union support.
Now, to some degree, that is true.
It’s also true (but I would think unsurprising) that unions are tying recruitment drives to gains obtained through state action (for instance the recent improvements in wages in the child care sector).
The ‘organising’ model of trade unionism attempts to articulate grass roots activism to pressure on the state in order to demonstrate the relevance of unions beyond providing employee voice at workplace level. It’s the new political unionism – another decoupling of labour from Labor. Rather than sitting around the table with business and the government, as in the Accord era, unions seek to shape the political agenda from below, and to play clever politics as government fortunes and priorities change.
Trevor Cook sums up the reasons for this shift in emphasis, based on his PhD research, as related among other factors to union decline:
Modern union officials, the new post-Accord generation, believe that whatever the policy successes of the Accord process, it was bad for unions. They believe that union members, and potential recruits, want engagement in campaigns, and activism more broadly, rather than a union movement that pursues its policy goals through elite negotiation and public support for an ALP government. Whatever the policy achievements of the national unions-ALP relationship, it must be conducted in a way that supports the union movement’s priority on membership growth, and that means that unions must be perceived as independent of the ALP Government.
There’s no doubt, also, that this emphasis will have been shaped by the experience of unions under the John Howard government.
In some quarters, the strategic choices both unions and government face are characterised as between labourist confrontation and social democratic corporatism.
But this is not the best way of analysing either the Labor Party or the unions’ options. In both instances, what’s forgotten is the greater discursive power of business groups. Another ‘decoupling’ – that of the ‘debate’ with reality – suggests that it would be impossible for the corporatist incorporation of business interests to succeed, even if the will were there. And that’s before we even get to the consequences of a few more decades’ worth of integration between the domestic and international economies, which surely calls into question a ‘social democracy in one nation’ strategy.
Labor and labour don’t operate in a vacuum, as the shift in the share of income towards profit demonstrates. Before any of these questions can be meaningfully debated, the strategies of capital and of employer associations and business interest groups surely need factoring into any equation.
It might even be that the first step towards rethinking Labor and labour strategies is to ensure that the truth of what is actually happening in Australian capitalism and society to be recognised.