Published in Bruce Kaye, editor, Right and Wrong at Work: Ethical Issues in Labour Relations in Australia, New College, University of NSW, Kensington, 1989, pp. 39-56.
This paper will discuss the role of the trade union movement in Australia and examine what ends it seeks to realise or might confront. In doing so, some related issues will be briefly canvassed including the diversity of trade union work and some contemporary debates concerning moral philosophy. In discussing those themes the title of this paper, The ‘End’ of the Trade Union Movement, is a phrase deliberately chosen. An ambiguity is attached to those words: one idea is to ask ‘what objectives or ends does the labour movement seek to achieve?’ Also this phrase hints that the historic mission of the labour movement is diminishing or that the labour movement no longer has a force and presence in the community beyond the shells of institutions which seem to be gradually in an inexorable path towards decline. Decline in membership and changes in traditional trade union action does not necessarily imply eventual extinction or increasing feebleness in every area. Nor does the idea mean that that decline is irreversible, however improbable might be a resurgence of trade union membership.
From the outset it might be acknowledged that there is something unusual about referring to the ethical objectives of the labour movement. Most activists involved in industrial relations do not automatically ask themselves what ethical principles they are applying in their work (or, indeed, in most spheres of life). That this is so need not be troubling to someone interested in the virtues of union behaviour in modern communities. But the complete absence of moral force in union action might be a cause for concern. (A distinction, however, needs to be drawn between day to day activities and an ethical position which might have motivated a union official, delegate or activist to originally have become involved and concerned with the union movement). Some would argue that industrial relations is mainly about a contest between employers and employees about work rules and shares of power. G.H. Sorrell commented that:
Employers, tribunals and unions are far more concerned, each in their own way, with the realities of power, with the development of accommodative bargaining, the strengthening of the formal system and the security of the union, than they are with abstract notions of equitable rights of individual employees.1
Nonetheless Sorrell does not deny the importance in some industrial relations situations of ethical issues, especially individual rights with respect to union actions or those of an employer. How important are ethical issues with respect to labour relations? How important should they be? How has the situation changed over the years? What implications do answers to these questions pose for trade unions? All of those questions raise points relevant to the widely perceived contemporary crisis of confidence concerning the role of trade unions. That crisis even raises the issue as to whether unions represent anything more than the interests of their members. In other words is the idea of trade unions belonging to a moral movement a myth?
In its infancy the Australian trade union movement saw itself as a movement promoting social justice as well as the self-interest of its members. The founders believed that both goals were completely compatible: what was good for labour was good for society as a whole. Thus it is easy to find quotes from the pamphlets, speeches and the newspapers of the 1880s which explicitly refer to the moral principles underlying and driving organised labour. For example Benjamin Douglass, President of the 1884 Second Intercolonial Trades Union Congress, stated to that gathering:
In whatever light we regard that present system of competition, it must be obvious to everyone that it is fraught with the most disastrous consequences to the working classes and to society. It is degrading to employers themselves, it is highly injurious to a country, and cruelly oppressive to the working classes. It is a system which in reality differs very little from the slave trade of America, and, if looked at in its true light, would appear equally revolting – perhaps more so, for it assumes the disguise of humanity and justice. Does it not cheapen down men’s lives? Does it not barter their health and strength for the dirtiest lucre? Does it not induce the employer to make his fortune out of that which should preserve the working man’s family from destitution – nay, in some cases from starvation? How, l ask, are we to counteract this monster evil? Not by strikes – strikes weaken the striker; nor by coercion, both systems are pernicious; but by combination and the force of moral suasion. Union is strength, knowledge is power. Let us then combine as one man, let us be true to ourselves, and stand up for the dignity of labour. Labour has yet to learn its own strength; it does not know it. But, ladies and gentlemen, I look forward to that bright day when we shall be united in one grand bond of union, and like Aesop’s historical bundle of reeds, “United we stand; divided we fall.” (Cheers).2
A century later Douglass’ speech still sounds impressive, though his rhetoric is no longer the lingua franca of the trade union movement. Unions have always been strong on “indignation”, but the sentiment in union offices is now much more preoccupied with actual economic implications, including unintended consequences, of kinds of industrial behavior. Douglass’ words do not merely utter self-serving rhetoric, although a touch of hyperbolical indignation threads through his argument. But also present is a genuine hostility to the evil of unbridled competition and its consequences. Implicit is the view that modern life is not the good life and that something better can be achieved through moral suasion and organisation. But would anyone deliver such a speech today? Times have changed and many of the wrongs and evils identified by Douglass are now non-existent or contained. The labour movement in contemporary times, not the least because of the gains won over the years, is less certain about what direction it should be pursuing or what ethical impulses should guide it. Indeed, some commentators have recently characterised the labour movement as a movement in search of a mission. Moreover, a movement lacking confidence that any worthwhile mission might be found or invented.3
Does this matter much?
Obviously it does to the debate about the end of the trade union movement and what should be done here and now.
To what extent is it meaningful to talk about the “trade union movement”? Recently someone prominent in the ALP joked to me that it was absurd to imagine something like the “labour movement” as if that abstraction signified a united or coherent body of opinion or organisation. What it means to be labour is a difficult topic to answer. But that was true in 1890 as it is today.4 Although it might be admitted that the situation in 1890 compared to today was much starker. It was easier then to be indignant because the inequalities and injustices were much harsher. Today it is more difficult to credibly enunciate what should be done society is much more dignified and fairer; the welfare state has partly obliterated the ugliest features of capitalist society. What ought to be the correct strategy to pursue in a given situation is rarely unambiguously obvious. Nor is it possible to draw a moral sword of Excalibur to flay opposing arguments with unflinching honour. Most of us discover that acting morally requires wisdom, learning from others and ourselves, and praxis. The labour movement purports to represent not only people, but an idea that good people can transform society. That is presumably why in 1884 Douglass was cheered to the echo during the speech he delivered to the Intercolonial Trades Union Congress. He suggested that organised labour stood for a different morality than that represented by the market place. That does not mean, however, as John Dunn has intimated, that recourse to utopian moral precepts provide absolutely clear rules. Such a view can be morally dangerous.
The idea that human social, economic and political relations can be brought perfectly into conformity with our moral intuitions and kept in such conformity more or less indefinitely is excessively optimistic as a practical expectation. (The view that this will come about quasi-automatically in practice sooner or later, with the aid of a little timely violence in simply deranged.)5
Dunn is here interested in contesting the Leninist notion of a violent revolution as a sure means of achieving a good society. His point has wider application. One of the best features of trade union actions has been to challenge the arbitrary exercise of authority and to provoke a critical awareness of the logical or moral weaknesses of a particular action.
Unions require employers to genuinely bargain with their employees, to justify, explain and amend the balance sheet, to defend or overturn promotions or dismissals. In this sense a union acts to require the employer to act in a more civilised and sensible way. The successful, extensive and regular policing of that role by unions can significantly improve society, and not only for unionists. Societies are now more civilised as a result of such behaviour by trade unions. Those gains have had a surprising consequence. Trade unions are in decline in all Western societies. Peter Drucker observes in his book The New Realities that:
The labour union rose with the industrial worker; it was in fact the industrial worker’s own institution. It is falling with the industrial worker. Can it survive at all? The labour union might be judged this century’s most successful institution. In 1900 it was still outlawed in most countries or barely tolerated. By 1920 it had become respectable. By the end of World War II twenty-five years later, it had become dominant. Now the labour union is in tatters and disarray, and in apparently irreversible decline.6
Moreover the successes of the unions in Western societies, by eliminating injustices and promoting greater equality have caused the unions to be less and less relevant and appealing to potential members. There are less of the down trodden and fewer indignities to fight against:
The labour union certainly has much less to offer. Practically everything it stood for has become law in developed countries; short working hours, overtime pay, paid vacations, retirement pensions and so on. The Wage Fund, that is the part of the gross national product that goes to employees, now exceeds 80 to 85 per cent in all developed countries. This means that there is no more ‘more’ for union members.7
The successes of unions in achieving a better society are both remarkable and taxing for unions in their ability to recruit new members. Technological advances and changing work patterns mean that the workforce contains fewer blue-collar industrial workers working in large factories and workplaces. Hence the traditional sources of union support are less plentiful. The workplace in Australia is increasingly staffed by skilled white collar, technical and professional employees in the private sector, and not so many of these employees are now union members. The union movement is a remote factor in their lives. In part this represents the failure of unions to successfully market themselves; in part the problem is due to unions failing to invent new roles relevant to such employees. But also relevant is the fact that many workers believe they can easily get by without choosing to belong to a union. To such individuals joining a union is not a compelling social obligation or an interesting insurance option or the right thing to do. This does not mean that unions are inevitably bound to be irrelevant or marginal to such workers. In order to attract such employees it is likely that unions will need to become much more innovative and creative in attempting to market services and join up such employees. Such a problem leads to consideration of the question: ‘for what purpose should unions exist?’
‘What are trade unions?’ The statement that unions are organisations of individuals who group together to defend and promote their interests, is a familiar, if pedestrian definition. There are various types of union organisation, which differ on ideological and organisational principles.8 Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Laborem Exercens argues that
Catholic social teaching does not hold that unions are no more than a reflection of the ‘class’ structure of society and that they are a mouthpiece for a class struggle which inevitably governs social life. They are indeed a mouthpiece for the struggle for social justice, for the just rights of working people in accordance with their individual professions. However, this struggle should be seen as a normal endeavour ‘for’ the just good… Even if in controversial questions the struggle takes on a character of opposition towards others, this is because it aims at the good of social justice, not for the sake of ‘struggle’ or in order to eliminate the opponent. It is characteristic of work that it first and foremost unites people. In this consists its social power: the power to build a community.9
Vulgar Marxists may not be impressed with that analysis. But this definition for most people including non-Catholics, probably sounds attractive. Unions do attempt to struggle for social justice (even if this is defined narrowly) and attempt to build a community based, at a minimum, on the shared work interests of their members. What might jar in the mind of someone reading that quote from the encyclical is the reference to struggling ‘for’ the just good. This term conveys an idea about ‘the end’ of union behaviour. Does this imply that unions are moral agents?
Trade unions are not simply moral agents; they have other roles, including contesting economic benefits for their members. Some would argue that the strict distinction between contesting economic benefits and achieving social justice is too severe: both ends are simultaneously fought for. Presumably that is so depending on the character and behavior of those involved. Industrial relations, after all, involve relations between human beings. What they think, believe in, and the relationship of that and what they do for the good of society are important factors in assessing the actualities of industrial behaviour. The day-to-day activities of unions involve various conflicts, claims and attempts to resolve differences, as well as efforts to legitimately bargain for improved wages and conditions. There are sometimes conflicts between unions, between union members and between unionists and non-unionists as to what might be correct conduct.
An example which comes to mind is the November 1989 dispute over redundancy entitlements at the Caltex refinery in Balmain which threatened petrol supplies. The Caltex dispute involved a decision by management to close a small refinery operation affecting about fifty employees. The company intended to offer redeployment for some workers and a redundancy payout to others. The union argued that the employer’s redundancy package was inadequate. The union also had an interest in bargaining up the total package of entitlements for retrenched employees because such a package might create a useful precedent for the rest of the company, the oil industry, and industry generally. Strike action occurred in support of the union’s demands. What are the major issues of principle at stake here? To what extent do those issues raise moral issues? Should the union be taking industrial action which affects the community? How should the dispute be settled? Should that dispute be settled only according to the relative economic strengths of the parties? What should be the attitudes and behaviour of the parties to each other?
It is hard in this case to reason what abstract principles might readily be employed. Perhaps this example illustrates the difficulty of searching for and attempting to mechanistically apply a universal rule. Indeed it is interesting to note that in modern Australian society, as in Western societies generally, there is a good deal of confusion concerning what morality is and what rules might be applied. This incoherence is sometimes promoted as illustrating one of the strengths of modern industrial society, namely its pluralism. No doubt it is a good thing that human beings do not perish merely for professing unorthodox or unconventional beliefs. But has this pluralistic tolerance created a moral climate where moral rules are merely various conventions from which a rational being might choose? The philosopher Alasdair Macintyre observes that:
Our social order is not only an arena for competing interests; it is also one for competing views, religious and nonreligious, as to the best way for human beings to live. On the dominant view it is held that either because rational agreement on the nature of the good life for human beings cannot be reached or just because as a matter of fact it has not been reached or because it is a key part of the freedom of each individual to choose whatever he or she takes to be the best life for him or herself, the rules that constitute morality must be neutral between alternative and conflicting views of the good for human beings. Pluralism about the good is to coexist with rational agreement on the rules of morality.10
That such a notion might be unsatisfactory and flawed is a matter which has preoccupied MacIntyre in much of his recent writings.11 He is representative of many modern writers who are disappointed with the aridity of much of what passes for moral philosophy, especially the idea that moral philosophy is about the connection of universal rules to daily life. “Why should such rules be obeyed?’ is a question unanswered by assertions based on authority. Nor is the claim satisfactory that it does not matter much so long as it is ‘right for you’. A more appealing approach to moral issues is to consider what a virtuous citizen might do in a given situation. Such a person would not merely seek to implement a rule to a given situation – as if it is credible to act in such terms. Such a person might consider what virtues are favoured in a situation and such an individual would be concerned to advance by deed and word the good life. Is it realistic to describe a situation in those terms?
An analogy may be drawn with regard to the debate concerning the role of the Christian in society. Stanley Hauerwas has argued:
It is my contention, however, that Christian enthusiasm for the political involvement offered by our secular polity has made us forget the church’s more profound political task. In the interest of securing more equitable forms of justice possible in our society, Christians have failed to challenge the moral presuppositions of our polity and society. Nowhere is the effect of this seen more powerfully that in the Christian acquiescence to the liberal assumption that a just polity is possible without the people being just. We simply accepted the assumption that politics is about the distribution of desires, irrespective of the content of those desires, and any consideration of the development of virtuous people as a political issue seems an inexcusable intrusion into our personal liberty.12
In those terms it is strange that much of the debate in society about political questions is silent about how to improve the moral character of individuals. A further analogy might be drawn here with the traditional role of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission and its antecedent tribunals. What the Australian arbitration tribunals have done for most of their history has been to attempt to quickly resolve disputes. This usually involves a failure to systematically address major issues. Thus the tribunals are geared to pragmatic outcomes rather than considered outcomes. The preoccupation is with the immediate conflict rather than seriously confronting problems and issues at the heart of the matter. Is this a fair characterisation? How relevant are those points to the Commission’s contemporary role? After all, it might be argued that the Commission is nowadays encouraging award restructuring, multi-skilling of work tasks, dispute resolution procedures and many matters wider than solving the immediate issue at hand. That may be so – and recent developments in the Commission’s objectives, priorities and activities should not be dismissed as unimportant. It matters to ordinary workers that the Commission is helpful in fostering economically coherent and workable arrangements in work relations, as well as resolving disputes. A wider scope than ever before is embraced by the Commission concerning its tasks. But that scope is not so wide as to consider that the dispensation of justice is anything more than applying the ‘rules’ to particular situations.
Does the undeniable reality that unions are now struggling to justify their relevance and appeal give an indication that their end is near or inevitable? ‘Not necessarily’ seems the only reasonable conclusion. Trade unions are not the only social institution which is struggling. There are many indices of community life which indicate that many organisations are in decline. Fewer people attend Parents and Citizens or Parents and Friends meetings at schools, bother to join political parties or turn up to Rotary and Apex Club meetings; fewer people attend church. Perhaps, in part, the decline of unions is a reflection of the behaviour of most people in shunning community organisations. Does this indicate that there is less of a sense of belonging to a community? And, in that troublesome phrase, does this indicate that life for most people has become more individualistic and more atomistic, than in previous years? That would seem to be so. Perhaps in the acquisition of greater wealth, Western societies are becoming materially more secure but also, at their heart, more confused and empty.
R H Tawney in his book The Acquisitive Society observes that:
The burden of our civilisation is not merely, as many suppose, that the product of industry is ill-distributed, or its conduct tyrannical, or its operation interrupted by embittered disagreements. It is that industry itself has come to hold a position of exclusive predominance among human interests, which no single interest, and least of all the provision of the material means of existence, is fit to occupy. Like a hypochondriac who is so absorbed in the process of his own digestion that he goes to his grave before he has begun to live, industrialised communities neglect the very objects for which it is worthwhile to acquire riches in their feverish preoccupation with the means by which riches can be acquired.13
Tawney’s points apply not only to whole societies, they also apply to individuals and institutions like trade unions. A concentrated assault on the privilege of the boss, a determination to win more and more for employees without considering the wider issue of what moral questions are at stake could lead an individual or a trade union to forget what ends are being striven for. Unions exist not only to civilise capitalism or fight for fairness in work relations or subvert the blind operation of market forces. At their best, unions – despite the governing culture of society which discourages debate about moral issues in the quest for an easy sense of consensus – raise moral issues. Broad issues are sometimes at the heart of industrial situations. This can involve more than considerations as to how to create and distribute wealth, but also the ends of society and the achievement of ‘the good life’. Perhaps in the successful quest to improve the material well-being of members and the wider society, the trade union movement has both triumphed and faltered. The triumph includes the undeniable reality that Australia is a better place than the province of barter and brutality which characterised economic and work relations at the beginning of union history. But where trade unions have faltered is in their failure to seriously articulate a moral idea. Perhaps, as is often said, unions reflect no more than the views of their members. In this sense the controversy and dilemma about the modern role of unions reflects the problems of society. It is very difficult to speak meaningfully of the end of the trade union movement when to speak about the end of society would be to utter an incredible idea.
Note on Publication:
This is a revised version of a talk given in November 1989 at a seminar at New College, University of NSW, on Labour Relations in Australia: Ethical Aspects of the Question. My revisions in argument benefited from the discussion that followed my address together with the critical opinions of Michael McLeod and Tom Forrest who commented on an earlier version of this paper. I am, however, entirely responsible for any possible foolish thoughts that might be spotted in the final version.
1. Sorrell, Geoff, ‘Equity in Labour Relations’, in Troy, Patrick (editor) A Just Society?, Allen and Unwin, North Sydney, 1981, p. 161.
2. Douglass, Benjamin, ‘The President’s Address’, in MacKinnon, Hamilton (editor) The Second Intercolonial Trades Union Congress, 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 25th April 1884, Walker, May and Co, Melbourne, 1884, p. 51.
3. See Raskin, A.H. , ‘Labor: A Movement in Search of a Mission’, in Lipset, S.M. (editor) Unions in Transition: Entering the Second Century, I[nstitute for] C[Contemporary] S[tudies] Press, San Francisco, 1986, pp. 3-38.
4. For a brief discussion on this matter see Easson, Michael, ‘What It Means to be Labor’, in Easson, Michael (editor) The Foundation of Labor, Lloyd Ross Forum/Pluto Press, Sydney – forthcoming.
5. Dunn, John The Politics of Socialism An Essay in Political Theory, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1984.
6. Drucker, Peter, The New Realities, Heinemann, Oxford, 1989, p. 185.
7. Ibid., p. 186.
8. For a comprehensive discussion of various types of union organisation, see Martin, Ross, Trade Unionism Purposes and Forms, Clarendon Press, Oxford ,1989.
9. Encyclical Laboren Exercens (On Human Work), St Paul Publications, Homebush, 1981, p. 83.
10. MacIntyre, Alasdair, ‘Does Applied Ethics Rest On A Mistake?’, The Monist, Volume 67, Number 4, October 1984, p. 499.
11. See for example, After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Second Edition, 1984; Whose Justice. Which Rationality, Duckworth, London, 1988; Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, Duckworth, London, 1990. For a contrasting discussion of some similar themes, see: Taylor, Charles Sources of the Self. The Making of the Modern Identity, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1989.
12. Hauerwas, Stanley, A Community of Character. Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic, University of Notre Dame Press, Note Dame, 1981, p. 73.
13. Tawney, R.H., The Acquisitive Society, Bell and Sons, London, 1921, p. 271.
Christian intellectual Bruce Kaye, who edited the collection in which this article appeared, was sometime General Secretary of the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, and interested in philosophy and Christianity, including the theology of Australian Anglicans. I enjoyed getting to know him. His books include A Church without Walls: Being Anglican in Australia (1995) and, as editor, Anglicanism in Australia (1998).