It surely comes as no surprise to my reader(s) that I am a strong supporter of labour unions. Not only are they the single most important mechanism by which the working classes of the developed world secured basic rights, but they are a fundamental part of the Australian social fabric – they have been around longer than the nation, and were crucial players (for good or ill) in almost all of Australia’s most important political events. I would go further and say that all conservatives should also be strong supporters of labour unions – they are a classic model of spontaneous and organic social organization, and any conservative who respects the right to freedom of association and incorporation has to respect the role of unions in society.
Unfortunately, labour unions can also show remarkable levels of venality that can really drive me crazy. In today’s newspapers we see two perfect examples of this venality in action: the decision by the British Medical Association to go on strike over pensions, and the opposition of certain “left” wing unions in Australia to Enterprise Migration Agreements. Probably, practically speaking, the former is worse than the latter, so let’s handle them in that order.
The Doctor’s Strike
The British Medical Association plans to go on strike on June 21st over pension payments. Pension payments. The average salary for General Practitioners in the UK is 110,000 pounds, and although their pension and tax arrangements are a little weird – and kind of eye bleedingly high under the new rules – on this average salary a GP can expect a take home salary of 40,000 pounds. That’s the equivalent of a salary of just over 60,000 pounds for a standard employee. That’s the top 5% of Britain’s income scale, which puts the average British GP in a ludicrously small percentage of the world’s income earners. Incidentally, we’ll be coming back to a discussion of world income scales when we tackle the Australian unions.
So, some of you may have noticed that there have been some changes in the NHS in recent years. Specifically, a massive reorganization of funding systems to force GPs to commission health care on behalf of ordinary tax payers; and a 3% reduction in funding for the NHS in real terms over the next couple of years. The NHS is one of the lowest-funded systems in Europe, and David Cameron aims to cut some more out of it. If David Cameron wanted to find a really simple way to cut 3% from the NHS, he could probably do it by bumping GPs from the top 5% of the income scale to the top 10%. But he didn’t choose to do this – instead, the NHS is going to be squeezed in myriad other ways. Ways that impact on patient care. Yet Britain’s doctors are going to go on strike because of their pensions. That’s right, the richest 5% of the British population are going to refuse to provide you with vaccination services in June because their pensions are going to be cut. And if you miss a few days work due to sickness, on your 21000 pound a year job, with your pension in a private fund that suffers with the fortunes of the money markets, well that’s a fair price to pay isn’t it?
I think David Cameron should use this strike as an opportunity to break the BMA. Bring in foreign doctors, drag the army into it (you’ll be fine so long as you have a head injury or need an amputation!), force British doctors to work longer hours for less, like their European and Australian counterparts. Force them to back away from criticizing organizational reforms, and hand more power to nurses. When the NHS was formed, and Bevan was asked how he would quiet criticism from the doctors, he replied “I’ll stuff their mouths full of money.” That plan hasn’t worked for the NHS, and we can see with this strike how doctors’ professionalism is serving the NHS – they won’t go on strike over some of the silliest medical reforms in a generation, but touch their pensions and, well …! That, my friends, is venal.
Australia and the Big Bad EMA
Which brings me to the perennial problem of Australian labour unions: racism. I’m pretty sure that there is more than one important theorist of working class politics who has observed that solidarity with the international working class is a crucial factor in a successful and radical labour movement. Now, admittedly, it’s an old-fashioned idea, but I think it’s got a more distinguished pedigree than the White Australia Policy. In Australia recently the government announced the introduction of a system of guest workers – rare in Australia generally – to work in mining projects. This system, called the Enterprise Mining Agreement, was introduced because mining companies are having difficulty finding employees easily in Australia. Australia has 22 million inhabitants, and is experiencing an unprecedented mining boom, primarily because of China’s economic growth. It’s hard for a country of 22 million to field enough workers in a situation like this, especially since mining booms aren’t exactly easy to predict and an economy the size of Australia’s isn’t in a position to build up a surplus workforce that can be quickly and easily deployed to a new area of industrial growth – even if that sector were in the cities rather than the arse end of nowhere. And rest assured, from someone who went to school there, that when Australians say “arse end of nowhere” they mean it in a way that most other countries haven’t ever had to come to grips with. People don’t willingly move to Australia’s arse end, which is why the wages for these temporary mining jobs are astronomical – $150,000 a year or more.
So the government has agreed to allow a mining company to bring in some workers from overseas. And the unions are up in arms about it. Which begs the question – have they grown up at all in the past 30 years? I thought we’d got well past the point where members of labour unions still thought these kinds of racist barriers to the free movement of labour were either a) a good idea or b) at all consistent with the basic principles of unionism. Apparently not. This is particularly silly at the moment because the government allowing this process is a Labor government, the best friend of the workers that the labour unions can hope for in the present environment, and that government is in desperate need of good news to arrest its terrible polls. It is also simultaneously engaged in a long-term battle with the mining companies over windfall taxes and the new carbon pricing system, both of which the mining sector strongly opposes. It’s as if the government thought that by throwing the miners a small bone it could get a bit of quid pro quo going on, and reduce some of the more extreme political opposition it faces from them. So in step the “left” labour unions to piss on that bone. And why? The mining sector jobs in question are a tiny, tiny proportion of Australia’s workforce, at the very top end of the wage scale. We’re not talking migrant contract cleaners here, but extremely well-paid and well-treated people working in extremely unusual circumstances during a once-in-a-generation boom. i.e. people who are going to get rich from being in the right place at the right time. Unions are there to represent everyone in the workforce, not to damage the political prospects of a pro-labour government by sticking up for a tiny minority at the expense of people from a much, much poorer nation. Because that’s the other side of this equation: if the EMA doesn’t go through, just over a thousand Chinese labourers are going to lose the chance to move to Australia and earn more than they ever dreamed of. They may, it appears, earn only half what their Australian contemporaries will earn, but that’s still a lot of money in China.
This aspect of Australian unionism eternally frustrates me. The only way to protect rights and conditions of Australian workers in a global market place is through truly international solidarity. You don’t protect your own rights and conditions by throwing up barriers against foreign labour, but by agitating for better rights in those countries. The solution to the problems of a globally competitive marketplace are not protectionism here but development there. And one very effective path to development and solidarity is flexibility in the movement of labour. Rather than opposing a few foreign labourers in a market with strong labour shortages, the unions should be enrolling those labourers in local unions and agitating to protect their conditions, get them English lessons, teach them how to organize the Australian way – so when they go back to China they’re in a better position to extend the rights of the Australian working class locally. Who knows, one day the roles may be reversed, and Australians may find themselves being locked out of a boom in China because of mutually exclusive barriers to the free movement of labour. We won’t be on top of the economic pile forever. In fact, the only certainty in life for a country the size of Australia is that we are at the whim of the political and economic decisions of foreign powers. I thought this was a lesson we learnt under Keating and his economic reforms, but apparently some of the unions haven’t got the memo. Still. After 20 years of labour market reform and 100 years of the theory of labour movements.
What on earth would Lenin say?
A final note: David Cameron is toast
David Cameron’s Britain is experiencing stagflation, his former media advisor has been arrested for perjury, his main backers in the media are being slowly picked apart by the police and the courts, his NHS reforms are universally unpopular, Labour have a huge poll lead on him even though their leader is a pointless dweeb, the stench of corruption is hanging over his frontbench, international bodies are lining up to say he needs a change of course, there may be a drought this summer, it’s public knowledge that he thought “lol” means “lots of love” (and he said it repeatedly to a married woman who he really really should have been keeping his distance from!) and now on top of all that he faces a doctor’s strike. Even if he can rescue his and his party’s popularity, his Liberal Democrat coalition partners are clearly history, so he’s unlikely to even be able to retain the weak position of a hung parliament. Is there any conceivable way – short of a war – that he can pull back from such a situation? And does this mean that Labour will become the natural party of government in the UK? Or will the prize go to UKIP? My God I’m glad I got out of there when I did …