I marched in Brisbane’s Labour Day parade today – only the second time I’ve done so. I was part of a group marching in support of justice for the group of Queenslanders who were the most exploited and ripped-off workers throughout most of the Twentieth Century – Aboriginal workers whose wages were taken by governments and never given back.
This is known as the Stolen Wages issue. It is a sad irony that a Labor government, which is intertwined with and institutionally supported by the union movement, has knowingly and deliberately chosen not to pay back those workers, or their descendants, who had their wages stolen. Anna Bligh, the head of the government which continues to deny wage justice for these workers, led the march today.
Indeed after an initial package of 55 million dollars was put forward by the Queensland Labor government in 2002, which represented a fraction of what was taken and only provided for a token offer of 4000 dollars for a restricted group of people – who had to sign away all other legal rights before they could access it – the state government has even taken back a large chunk of that money.
The union movement has achieved a lot of good for huge numbers of people over many years. In my view their biggest collective flaw is their partisan alignment with the Labor Party, which results in continual acquiesce to unjust actions by Labor governments. There are a lot of individual unionists and unions who support the Stolen Wages issue, as evidenced by the fact people were marching in support of the issue in the Labour Day parade today. The peak union body, the Queensland Council of Unions, has also voiced some support for it.
But there is a difference between just saying you’re in support of an issue and making it a major public issue, and I have not seen anywhere near enough public or political pressure being applied by the union movement on this most clear cut example of institutionalised worker exploitation. It’s hard to think of a more fundamental industrial relations issue than someone’s lawfully earned wages being taken against their will and not given back.
I readily accept that it is a very difficult and complex task to resolve all the inequalities faced by Indigenous Australians. But that makes it all the more outrageous when a clear cut and undeniable injustice like this is just ignored – indeed is perpetuated – just because there’s no political pressure to address it.
I suppose given that the union movement is usually prepared to let their own rights be significantly reduced as long as it’s a Labor government that’s doing it, I shouldn’t be so surprised they have put so little public pressure on a Labor government on this issue, but it still frustrates the hell out of me.
In the industrial relations arena, the mostly uncritical support for Labor’s misleading slogan to ‘abolish’ Workchoices has led to unions basically now accepting a set of federal laws which will actually entrench key aspects of Workchoices, including some measures they loudly railed against through the life of the Howard government.
To use just one example, the union movement strongly opposed the Howard government’s efforts from 1996 onwards to remove any unfair dismissal protections for workers in small businesses. Until 2004, the Democrats blocked all efforts to remove these protections in the Senate, probably losing some votes as a result. But the union movement have now accepted with barely a murmur the Rudd government’s decision to adopt the same policy on unfair dismissals as John Howard repeatedly tried to get through the Senate up until 2004. Regardless of views on what might be the best policy approach on this issue, I find the selective outrage hard to stomach sometimes.