Is the Union Movement Changing? 4

Thursday, May 21st, 2015
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This month’s ACTU conference could be a bit like the last group hug on the Titanic if unions do not take what Secretary David Oliver said in his speech to the National Press Club in Canberra seriously.

Oliver told the Press Club that “new laws and agreements needed to recognise the changing nature of work” and he questioned how the current working conditions could be enforced for contractors in a new “liquid workforce” scattered all over the world.

Oliver warned that the union movement is threatened by the rise of disruptive technologies and could face a “Kodak moment” if it does not engage with a new generation of workers.

Oliver’s reflections seem spot on, but his focus should be on what jobs he thinks future ACTU members may come from. In construction, the CFMEU seems to completely disregard this prospect. Business as usual for Dave Noonan seems to be more of the past industrial trench warfare to chase unsustainable wage claims without any eye to productivity. What the CFMEU seems to be doing best is chasing construction jobs off-shore at an escalating pace.

Construction, like every other industry these days, is becoming industrialised and global. New smart materials, construction components, sub-assemblies, panellised building and modular innovations are reshaping how buildings are being designed, sourced, fabricated and assembled. Construction on site will involve up to 50 per cent less labour and will have to speed up by at least the same amount. Central to this will be the consistent themes; better, faster, smarter and cheaper – every year.

The construction workforce is already liquid and scattered all over the world. New laws and agreements will not change this momentum. What can be changed is the CFMEU’s head in the sand approach to using its tired old practices to grind the domestic industry into the ground.

At the same time, the industry needs national political leadership and more creative responses from employers and educators to redefine what construction jobs will look like in just a few years from now if we are to stay in the game. Seems like we need a Kodak “flashbulb” moment soon on quite a few fronts.

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  1. John Smolders

    Couldn't agree more David. The unions ethos of the past is being tested by their very own actions, in particular the CFMEU.

  2. I wonder how the role of unions will evolve going forward in the construction sector. Obviously, the CFMEU needs to be proactive and responsive in the face of the changing needs of its members. and will need to do its part to ensure the industry as a whole can change and evolve. That said, I would imagine most of the core tasks of what the union does will be similar ten years from now to what they are today.

    Obviously, any warefare mentality on either side needs to change. Aside from that, I would imagine much of what they do in terms of serving their members will remain somewhat similar to what it is today.

  3. David Chandler

    Andrew, Unions will need to radically reinvent themselves just as most employer associations and the enterprises they serve will need to do. For Unions to better serve their members they will need to have a view of what type of jobs will be needed (left) in the industry on and off site, they will need to contribute to policy and academic learning to help change the learning framework that simply teaches more of the same. Construction is not a time capsule, things are changing very fast. As Daniel Priestley said in his book Oversubscribed it's no longer 2012! I would hope that your comments however are more reflective of your limited understanding of these matters than they are to mollify anyone offended in the Union movement?
    If the Unions are to play a role they are going to first adopt the rule of law and civil behavior. They will then need to accept that their constant driving up of construction costs will end in tears. My own view is that the CFMEU is now so out of control that it is probably best consigned to the BLF waste tin.

  4. Bruce Christopher

    David, Relevance for unions is still possible as long as they adapt. I'm surprised the ACTU does not advocate following some sort of platform for the various unions to use, helping them adjust to the changing competitive environment and maintain a more natural influence.

    The unions continue to take ad-hoc approaches that seem to depend on the agendas of personal characters, rather than evidence of any strategic methodology. CMFEU's more recent militancy comes across as a desperate and hopeful reaction due to not really understanding what to do; reverting to a decades old model. As you mentioned, poor direction will only feed industry wide retraction rather than serve its members interests.

    My dealings with the AMWU a few years ago showed a remarkable variation in approach by individual representatives. From the comical old school desk thumping impossible demands left over from what I remember of the 1980's, but today generally leading to the end of pointless discussion, through to some more clever negotiators who are actually able to develop sound mutual outcomes.

    Perhaps CMFEU does not care about ACTU guidance, though I expect the latter is more able to see ahead and adapt.