No doubt many of my readers view me as a reactionary, old troglodyte (and probably with some justification) but I still cling to this old-fashion notion of the dignity of work. As I have written in many previous essays how work provides a sense of meaning and purpose for many of us.
Consequently being out of work has far broader consequences than just being without a pay cheque.
In the social milieu of today many are scrambling to manufacture a sense of identity. And I have highlighted in other essays the folly of identity politics where people contrive to feel significant because of their gender, nationality, religion or whatever. These are all rather insubstantial things to rely on when it comes to laying down a foundation for our personal sense of self.
But employment is probably an even stronger influence on identity than most of the other personal characteristics that people turn to assuage their insecurity. When you go to a party and meet someone new, you can bet that one of the first questions you will be asked is, “What do you do?” And of course the intent behind the question is not to know how you fill in your spare time but to know how you are employed.
So perhaps even stronger than those other identifiers you might use, such as I am female, I am Dutch or I am Jewish, you feel compelled to say that I am a carpenter, I am a teacher or I am a lawyer.
Consequently it must be galling in such circumstances to have to confess, “I am unemployed”.
But even then employment is not as important as the designation of “what do you do”?
One of the most fabulous musical works in the Western canon is Puccini’s opera La Boheme. When the heroine Mimi first meets the impecunious student, Rodolfo, he declares in the famous aria Che Gelida Manina, “Sono un poeta.” (I am a poet.) Of course he does not (and probably cannot) make a living as a poet but that is how he chooses to be identified.
Buddhism teaches us that with attachment comes the potential for suffering.
I remember reading years ago of a man who worked in a shipyard employed as a machinist. After working there for many years the shipyard closed down and the man was made redundant. When he was encouraged to look for other employment the machinist could not bring himself to do so because he couldn’t imaging himself employed in any other role after all these years! No doubt the man was a skilled machinist and he took great pride in the skills he had acquired over the decades but his attachment to his identity as a machinist prevented him from seeking other avenues of employment and he became very bitter that his principal source of identity had been denied him.
As Buddhism would suggest, the man suffered because he was unable to detach himself from the occupation he had relied on for so many years for a source of his identity.
But we cannot deny that loss of employment has detrimental psychological impacts way beyond its pecuniary impacts. Not only does unemployment (as we saw above) detract from a person’s sense of meaning and purpose, unemployment deprives us the fulfilment of many of our social needs.
The social interaction that comes with work is important to many of us. As an example I read the story of a cleaning lady in the UK who won the lottery but did not give up her job because she treasured the social relationships that her work provided.
So as we sit here in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and we observe the havoc that has been wrought in terms of physical and mental health and economic well-being, you can safely assume that loss of employment has played a major part in our collective distress. And appropriately the Federal and State governments have prioritised job creation and job retention in their political responses.
Now the Federal government has earned the ire of the union movement because it has proposed that for a limited period of time employers negotiating enterprise agreements designed to save employment in stressed businesses might be given some reprieve from the onerous “better off overall test” (BOOT). Under the current IR provisions an enterprise agreement can only be ratified if no employee is rendered worse off. Even if a huge majority of employees were to benefit from an agreement, that agreement can be circumvented if even one employee is made worse off. This can be extremely difficult for example when trying to rationalise employee rosters.
Of course with the Morrison Government’s ascendency in the polls, the Labour movement is casting around for opportunities to attack the Government. It suits their agenda to equate these relatively modest proposals with Work Choices which cost John Howard government.
The travesty is that in the post pandemic world where many businesses (and particularly small businesses) are doing it tough, rigid adherence to past industrial norms will cost jobs which as we saw above will impose a needless social cost on our communities.
Now part of our problem is that the union movement has undue influence on industrial negotiations. Unions have the right to negotiate the pay and conditions of those workers over whom they have “coverage” even when those workers are not union members. Only something like 14% of the total Australian workforce belongs to unions. But in the private sector it is only 9%. But the unions still have a disproportionate influence on government policy regarding workplaces.
Of course Labor Governments help the union movement by employing more public servants. Such people are more disposed to take up union membership and help augment the numbers of union members even when the trend across the broader economy is to see reducing membership. (Despite efforts to ensure that union membership is not compulsory under, Labor unions are empowered to the extent most public sector employees are coerced into membership.)
Employers probably only have themselves to blame for the inordinate influence of unions. When given the opportunity (as per Work Choices), unscrupulous employers (albeit a minority) cannot restrain themselves from exploiting workers. We need to develop other protections for workers without them having to rely on unions whose motivations are often not particularly driven by advancing the welfare of workers at large.
Unions typically fight to preserve their membership and the benefits that their members have. Statistically being a union member ensures a higher rate of pay on average.
But unions seem to have little concern for those that are unemployed. Their efforts to preserve and enhance the benefits of their members usually ensures that fewer people are employed.
They are opposed to the creation of temporary and part-time jobs. Whilst they complain about the injustice of “insecure” employment, their underlying concern is that such people are more difficult to recruit as union members. This is really an indictment of their business model which hasn’t really changed in decades and greatly favours some forms of employment over others. Additionally, unions are struggling with the notion of “working from home”. Workers who have taken up this option are unlikely to want to join a union either. Thirty years ago, when I first tried to set up such arrangements, the unions’ first response was to try and hold the employer responsible for the safety of the remote workplace (the employee’s home), notwithstanding the premises were fully under the control of the homeowner who was happy to spend as much time there as possible along with their family members! It is fair to say that the workplaces of today are far different places than those of the1950’s and 1960’s when unions thrived and today’s employees have different needs and aspirations as well. The business model of many unions have not adjusted to these new circumstances.
But if we come back to the premise I started this essay with, that maximising employment opportunities is crucial to societal well-being I would have to contend that unions are often more part of the problem than part of the solution.
Historically we have seen that the periods of highest employment and wage growth have been the periods when the productivity of the labour force increased fastest. Yet most of the efforts of unions in trying to preserve the jobs and conditions of their members tend to put constraints on labour productivity which in turn stultifies employment growth and wage increases. It’s time labour unions redesigned their business models and did more to service their members and potential members better in the 21st century economy.