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From the Desk of the Executive Director

Ken Phillips is co-founder and Executive Director of Independent Contractors of Australia. He is a published authority on independent contractor issues and directs research on related commercial and trade practices issues. Through his numerous articles in newspapers and think-tank and academic journals, Ken is known for approaching issues from outside normal perspectives and is frequently sought out for media comment.

Playing a job security drumbeat

Thursday, November 17, 2011

As unions step up their campaign against flexible employment agreements, a central focus of the crusade is the demand that all Australian workers are entitled to job security.

This is a primary demand in their Qantas attack, which has cost the airline approximately $50 million in addition to causing broad damage to related industries.

What the unions seek is for businesses to enter agreements that curtail, control or eliminate the use of casuals, subcontracting of services, labour hire and self-employment. Further, they need PR justification for attacks against these same targets by government institutions---namely the Australian Taxation Office, Fair Work Ombudsman and others. They also want changes to the Fair Work Act that would make these forms of work engagement near impossible, as well as the elimination of the Independent Contractors Act.

But is this really what the unions' members are concerned about?

The latest union PR effort, an online survey called 'Voices from Working Australians', is typical of Australian Council of Trade Unions campaigning.

The big ACTU promotional 'takeout' from the survey is that 95 per cent of Australian workers support the ACTU campaign for job security. But the survey itself demonstrates that the 40,000 survey respondents, perhaps surprisingly, don't hold this as a motivational goal in their working lives. In fact the ACTU campaign is at odds with its own survey results.

Looking closely at the ACTU survey we find it's not a survey of working Australians, but rather a slice of a specific union demographic. Respondents were overwhelming union members (98 per cent); dominated the caring services sectors of health, education and social welfare (72 per cent); were mostly women (64 per cent); and were highly educated (79 per cent diploma or higher). That is a survey mostly of female professionals in the public service or government-funded sectors.

You'd anticipate that this group would be heavily motivated by job security. But no---80 per cent did not rate job security as important to them. Of those who worked part-time the majority did so because they preferred it. There are a range of other attitudinal and motivational results that also show ACTU campaigning is disconnected from a great slice of its members.

What's coming through is that the ACTU is driven by a narrow view of life and work that does not reflect the work-life experiences of even committed union members. Rather, they have policies in need of academic justification, so they create it, then use it in their PR blitz.

This union activity, though, has newly developed corporate campaigning elements not before seen. With 1.8 million members, Australian unions have a combined core annual revenue exceeding $1 billion. This is big business. Through the ACTU, high coordination and focusing of resources is undertaken. 'On the ground' industrial activity is conducted within the framework of public relations marketing designed to position unions as the upholders of the public good. Winning the PR war is as critical to them as winning concessions from individual businesses.

If they were to succeed in mooted changes to the Fair Work Act, they would of course wreak massive damage on the Australian economy and people. But succeed they are likely to do, because of the substantial sway they hold with the Greens.

What's particularly concerning, but perhaps less obvious, is the threat to the expansion of the Australian mining sector. At least one Gillard minister has been expressing off the record concerns. He's being repeatedly advised by senior mining executives that rapid labour cost escalations related to union activity in construction is causing review of investment proposals.

If I had the financial resources of the ACTU I'd commission a different survey. I'd ask people what they valued most: job security or reliability and continuity of income. My bet is that people would vote for the second option. People don't care how income arrives, as long as it arrives. In a vibrant society, that occurs through many avenues and structures.

Meanwhile, the union war demanding permanent employment will harm all Australians by limiting our incomes.

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