Australian Workers’ Union leader Paul Howes spoke in Canberra today and proposed a “grand compact” between unions and business to deliver industrial stability.
The country’s union movement is under siege. There are scandals involving criminal standover tactics and kickbacks to union officials, and union fees allegedly being spent on prostitutes. The federal government cited untrue claims about over-generous working conditions at a Victorian cannery in its decision to deny the plant funding.
The Fair Work Commission is reviewing 122 awards and the government wants it to take into account employment costs on companies’ decisions to hire over the next four years – basically urging them not to hand over too much in pay.
Employment minister Eric Abetz has claimed (with little evidence) that if unions don’t pull their heads in there’s a risk of a wages breakout.
Howes, whose role as head of the AWU makes him one of the powerbrokers sometimes called the “faceless men” of Labor – addressed some of the scandals in a speech that had some choice words directed at his own side of politics.
He made the startling admission that in a globalised market current Australian pay rates could amount to “pricing ourselves out of the market”, and had some scathing observations on the short-term approaches of the major political parties, business, and unions to industrial relations negotiations. Here are some of the best quotes.
On crooked union officials
1. “Any union official proven to be engaged in corrupt or criminal behaviour is a traitor.”
2. “Those who act dishonestly from within the union movement are worse than any crook boss.”
3. “They are wearing the badge of our movement and exploiting it for their own personal agendas. When that agenda is basic theft it is a disgrace. We should have no sympathy for such criminals. And when that agenda is playing out some sort of immature, Sopranos-style, tough guy fantasy – that is just as bad.”
4. “You undermine every battle we have fought – every victory we have achieved – every sacrifice that we, and the generations that came before us, have made. There is no place for you in any corner of our movement.”
On the economy
5. “For years, the resources sector has papered over the widening cracks in our job market. Well, the boom is now over. Maybe not for the resource companies, their revenues will be rolling in faster than ever. But it’s over for Australian workers. The construction phase in resources is ending and employment is drying up right across the sector. There is nowhere to hide.”
On the politics of industrial relations
6. “Some will tell you that our industrial relations system is dragging us down. And I won’t be popular amongst my friends in the labour movement for saying this – but I agree.”
7. “We seem to accept that industrial relations can be treated like a backyard game of totem tennis. We are always urging our local enterprises to plan for the long-term – but it’s near impossible when you don’t know what rules you’ll be playing under. This culture of perpetual instability means business and unions believe – quite reasonably – they don’t need to cooperate today – because they’ll be able to rewrite the rules tomorrow.”
8. “As a result, both sides engage in wild, overblown claims about how disastrous the legislation of the day is. Business senses an opportunity whenever the Coalition takes office to shift all the rules in its favour. Unions do the same when Labor gets in. And ultimately no one gets anywhere.”
On middle ground
9. “To my friends in the union movement I say this: Every worker needs a successful company. To the business community I say this: No company is successful without an engaged, energised and motivated workforce.”
On high wages
10. “Nothing throws a sworn enemy off their guard quicker than genuine concession. The union side could begin by conceding that there has been a pattern of unsustainable growth in wages in some isolated parts of the economy. The leap-frog wage outcomes in the offshore sector in particular are not going to be sustainable for the long-term – we could be pricing ourselves out of the market.”
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