The 2014 Brisbane Labour Day march through Brisbane. Picture: Mark Calleja
The 2014 Brisbane Labour Day march through Brisbane. Picture: Mark Calleja

Opinion: Why I’m marching on Labour Day

EVERY year at about this time the predictable flurry of sneeringly sarcastic mail arrives.

Unions, the thrust of often abusive dirge goes, are irrelevant in this day and age; they have outlived their useful purpose and instead become empty vessels for the political ambitions of an aspiring labour elite.

What a load of utter bollocks.

I'm a long-standing and proud union member, a workplace delegate and, like most Australians I'd like to think, a believer in a fair go for all who want to put in an honest day's work.

Yes, there have been some cases of betrayal of trust and power. But to tar all unions and their members for the sins of a few is like suggesting all banks are of the lowest common denominator when it comes to appalling examples of customer abuse, or all employers routinely underpay and mistreat their employees.

That is simply not the case. Rather it is a non sequitur used by the privileged, the powerful and the partisan to smear and weaken those who may dare hold them to account.

And too often these voices of industry, or the shills among the conservative commentariat, are the ones who regularly extol the wisdom of their very own unions: the right wing "think tanks", the industry bodies and business groups that work as collective, member-based bodies to further their own interests and ideology.

It is no coincidence that rapidly rising inequality in western nations in recent years has come with the rise of neo-liberal economics, and the emasculation of unions and the counterpoint they have traditionally provided.

That is why, for me, unionism is about retaining the balance.

In Australia in the early 21st century that means not as much campaigning for rights not yet won - such as tackling the endemic gender pay gap this nation still tolerates - but too often fighting to retain the conditions we have struggled so hard to achieve over so many years.

It means standing united in the face of the increasing drive to casualise our workforce, to outsource and "offshore" what should be secure, full-time Australian jobs. It means not standing by complacently as our maritime workers are replaced by cheap foreign labour, our manufacturing workers are not summarily dismissed and invited to reapply via a predatory labour hire company on vastly reduced conditions.

It means not shrugging your shoulders and saying "it doesn't hurt me" when the incomes of some of our lowest paid workers are slashed with penalty rate cuts.

It means standing together as a workplace as the next round of savage job cuts comes through and saying no; no, we are already working harder and smarter, and can no longer physically or mentally do more with less.

It means drawing a line between what is inevitable change and innovation in an increasingly competitive world, and what are naked attempts to disempower and exploit.

I'm no socialist. I believe in personal ambition, a free market and entrepreneurship.

But there must be a balance between the power of capital and the labour that it employs. A free market should not mean some libertarian dystopia where the wealth divide ends up creating socio-economic schisms that lead down the path of civil unrest. That benefits nobody, rich or poor.

In short, unionism is about giving a collective voice where you would otherwise be on your own.

It quite literally means solidarity with your brothers and sisters, your mates; standing together when the shit hits the fan and knowing you are not alone.

That is why, with tens of thousands of other members, I am marching through the streets of Brisbane on Monday, not only to celebrate the achievements of years past but to unite behind struggles present.

It is why - despite a voice that could curdle milk - I was proud to stand and sing Solidarity Forever with some 700-odd other members at the Labour Day dinner on Friday night.

So please, appreciate both what we have achieved and are still fighting for, and join your union. Be active.

As the lyrics of that great song admonishes: "what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?"

News Corp Australia

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