Victoria Rollison

How the union movement can un-break itself

Last night, QandA discussed the damage that big business has done to the small employee. However, the unions also face work to redefine themselves in the public eye.



Labor’s Mark Butler says unions are in “deep crisis” thanks to Howard “smashing the power of organised labour”. Although the history books say that Howard’s WorkChoices policy was killed by the trade union movement and Kevin07, in reality, the biggest trick the Liberals and big business-devils ever played was convincing the world WorkChoices was dead, buried and cremated. Just when workers felt they were safe, protected by the Fair Work Act, the Liberals and big business were bringing in individual contracts and minimum rates by stealth, and finding loopholes to sabotage collective bargaining. How did they do it? By turning workers against unions. And wow, wasn’t it easy.

In my study of trade union narratives, I have looked at the way the media have framed trade unions, from the shearer’s strike, the pig iron strike, the waterfront dispute, the Hawke Accord to WorkChoices. There is a consistent theme in the coverage: unions are framed as the villains – unreasonable and bad for the economy. Employers are framed as the heroes – reasonable and good for the economy, always given the benefit of the doubt. It is no wonder, since the public have been hearing this trope for their entire lives, that they believe it.

This narrative has been so successful at winning the culture wars that workers are cutting off their nose to spite their face by opposing unions, right when they need unions most. Take, for instance, the case of Turnbull cheered on by truck drivers when promising to rid them of the Transport Workers Union and Labor Party’s Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, a regulatory body which was designed to increase truck driver pay so they could drive more safely.

Think about it for a moment. These owner-operator truck drivers were outraged that a union, of which they weren’t members, was working in their interest for free. It was forcing monumentally-profitable supermarket chains to pay them enough that they didn’t have to break the speed limit all night to make a living. Since they were all being paid at least the same minimum amount, and truck drivers provide a service the supermarkets can’t forgo, they’d still have work. So, how is it in truck drivers’ interest to campaign against higher rates of pay? Contract workers, like these truck drivers, have been convinced that “being your own boss” gives you “freedom”, when really the only freedom it gives is for employers to rip you off. The fantasy of the Liberal’s WorkChoices dream has come true, yet many workers vote for union-bashing Liberal governments again and again.

Unions need to “un-smash” the movement by countering this dominant cultural narrative in two ways:

The first is to put workers back in the frame by taking themselves out of it. Let workers tell the media their story, rather than speaking on their behalf. Remind workers that a union is just a group of workers who have every right to a say in their working lives.

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Unions need to tell the “workers are the union” story to show they aren’t just another boss, an outside influence who meddles in workplaces and tells workers what to do, duping members into giving them money to extend their political power. A union is not forcing workers to do anything against their interest. Instead, a union gives workers the tools to organise better wages and conditions for themselves. Unions are not in fact run by “union bosses”; workers vote to control the action. Enterprise bargaining agreements result from worker consultation; everyone working together to solve workplace problems.

By framing unions as power-hungry political players, the media have detached “unions” from “workers”. They have put unions in the political-establishment-bucket, where they are written off as acting against the interest of workers. Industrial disputes are framed as “boss” versus “union boss”, suits doing back-room deals, leaving workers with no voice in the story. Media reports of train strikes are about the will of “militant power-hungry union bosses” rather than stories of poor conditions for rail workers and unsafe travel for commuters.

To fix this, unions need to remind the public that workers are the true victim of stalled workplace negotiations; workers are forced to take the drastic measures of industrial action. Employers are the villains who have forced them there. Strikes happen because workers need them, not because union bosses want them.



The second thing unions need to do to “un-smash” dominant cultural narratives is to kill the mistaken belief that union-won pay increases cost jobs, with the presumption that low wages are good for the economy.

Employers have been using the cover of the Global Financial Crisis to claim they can’t afford pay rises. This is not a believable excuse. Profits are up 40% in the last four years, yet workers are still waiting patiently, too patiently, to be rewarded by wage rises. Too often workers believe their only choice is unstable, casual, low wage work – better than no job at all. Part of the reason profits are so high is because productivity isn’t being rewarded, and wages do not cost what they should. Profit-takers are laughing all the way to off-shore-tax-haven-bank accounts, while workers are left with wages that are not keeping up with cost of living.


Employers are refusing pay rises and reducing the spending power of their customers… Workers are consumers, and when they can’t afford to shop, they don’t shop. This is not rocket science.


A solution to this problem used to be collective bargaining. But since most workers don’t bother to join their union, let alone consider collective action, the employers have them right where they want them – in a position where they feel too vulnerable to ask for a pay rise. And even if workers do ask, they can be easily rejected.

Then there is the double-whammy of the Liberal-stacked-laughingly-so-called “Fair Work Commission” which has made industrial strike action virtually impossible. So, even when the brave few union members organise to push back against greedy, uncompromising employers, they are left with no option than to put up with bad conditions, or resign.

But this is not the end of the story. Employers are individually greedy in refusing pay rises, and are also collectively cutting off their nose to spite their face by reducing the spending power of their customers. With 60% of the economy reliant on consumer spending, you have to laugh so you don’t cry when groups like the Retailers Association bemoan low retail spending, in the same year as they’ve won their campaign to cut the pay of hundreds of thousands of workers earning penalty rates. Workers are consumers, and when they can’t afford to shop, they don’t shop. This is not rocket science.

Unions are in a position to tell this story – of how the wage rises they facilitate are good for the economy; how workers should be unafraid of wage rises and how employers are lying when they say they can’t afford to pay workers.

The media’s trade union narratives have helped the Liberals and big business turn workers against unions, which ultimately turns workers against themselves. Unions can help to un-smash the movement by telling new stories to explain how workers can improve their lives, and make the economy a more equal and profitable place to work, by joining their workmates in solidarity.


Victoria Rollison

Victoria is a blogger, tweep, PhD candidate in political communication, university tutor, a mother, a wife, an Adelaidian, a Port Adelaide supporter, the owner of three cats and has more opinions than is really necessary.

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