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.