Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Public Sector Unions

Australia has a great tradition of labour politics. The world's first government by a worker party was formed here under the Australian Labor Party.

The UK and the dominions share the idea of the workers party as a "labour" party. In other places they are known as social democrats, and in the US the closest you find is the totally inaccurate term "liberal".

A key object of labour parties was always the betterment of outcomes for workers, usually by redressing the power imbalance between worker and capitalist to create bargaining power, address workplace health and safety and to improve security in old age and from risk (health/unemployment).

However, from the late twentieth century a big shift occurred. Labor governments found that the union base on which they relied was increasingly made up of unions representing public sector employees. These unions expected "largesse" from Labor governments - the worst example of surrendering to this was the Cain/Kirner Government in Victoria.

The NY Times has reported growing concern in US States with budget difficulties that there is a need to address the power of public sector unions.

This does not contradict the view of Paul Klugman that it is too early to declare victory against recession in the USA and start balancing budgets. But Klugman's call for a large scale public works program cannot be fulfilled in a society where public sector unions are in control of work conditions.

I've made reference to one Australian state Government. But the other Government now facing the dilemma is New South Wales. Treasury refused to fund the North-West Rail and instead backed the Metro project because the latter was outside of State Rail and hence existing transport unions. Meanwhile nurses are launching a campaign on staffing ratios on the eve of a State election. Their problem is that the coalition has no need to make a deal on supporting their staffing call to win the election, but the nurses are simply adding to the pain that NSW Labor will suffer.

The great progressive parties of the left need to break their union links and union reliance. The cause of the workers in general is not the same as the cause of the remnant unions, and certainly not the unions of public sector workers.

PS The only union I was ever a member of was the old ACOA, the Federal Public Service Union for clerks. Interestingly that union first became active in the late 1970s. Until that sort of era unionism was far more associated with the private sector than the government sector. That is the subject I guess for another day.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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