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Poisoning the Waterholes

March 1st, 2013 by Viv

Viv Forbes
Written 11 April 1990

The threat by the Goss Government to legislate against voluntary employment agreements is a blot on an otherwise promising first semester report.

The ALP were rightly critical of cronyism in previous administrations. They cited cronyism in awarding tenders, provision of cheap finance, drought relief and rezoning of land. Naturally, all charges were vigorously denied.

Cronyism occurs when a trustee provides favours for friends at the expense of those he supposedly represents. Where payment is made for the favour, cronyism becomes bribery.

The threatened attack on VEA’s looks more like favours for friends than actions in the public interest. The essence of a VEA is a voluntary agreement negotiated in complete harmony by employer and employees. This allows both parties to choose that unique package of wages, working hours, overtime, and other conditions which maximises their satisfaction. It allows both employers and employees to regain some control over their lives instead of being subject to the dictates of distant arbitrary strangers.

In most free societies of the world, this would be seen as a self-evident right of free men and women. With the disappearance of legalised and unearned monopolies all over the world, even in the comrade societies, it is surely out of step for the Queensland government to propose strengthening the coercive monopoly still held by unions and tribunals. It is also an insult to Queensland workers for union czars to claim that employees are too stupid to be allowed to discuss, negotiate or decide on their own working conditions. If any employer proposes an offensive VEA, it will be promptly rejected by employees in secret ballot (as has already occurred in Queensland).

The real reason for the hysteria of the union leaders is that VEA’s pose a threat to their power and influence. For decades now, most union leaders have done everything possible to devalue the worth of their members. Smug and self-assured, they have used ideology, legislation and coercion to encourage work habits and enforce employment conditions which have eroded the prosperity of this and future generations of Queenslanders. They have systematically poisoned the waterholes while loudly complaining about thirst.

Every problem, however, carries with it the seeds of opportunity. The years of industrial obstruction and featherbedding have so depressed productivity and returns to Australian workers that there are huge potential returns available to any enterprise which can shake off these artificial shackles. Unions themselves have provided employers with the ability to buy back their workers with offers to share the benefits of industrial freedom. This is the real reason for the union hysteria. As the Cook Enquiry is finding, union leaders are made of the same clay as other men – those who crow loudest about “the public interest” are often serving a very narrow interest (sometimes their own personal interest).

VEA’s are certainly a threat to the status quo, especially to the vested interests of union leaders and to the regimented workers and owners of ossified unionised businesses. This is why the brewery giants and their union puppets are so afraid of motivated, flexible teams such as those at Power’s (where 97% of employees in a secret ballot voted for a four-day 40 hour week). In spite of threats from the unions such as “no worker here will ever work in the brewing industry again” and “no truck of malt will ever pass these gates”, 80% of Power’s employees voted for the VEA. (And to ensure the politicians are in no doubt as to their wishes, Powers employees are now seeking to re-affirm their VEA).

Graeme Haycroft, a pioneer in VEA’s in Queensland, puts the essential point clearly – “it was the Power employees who voted to have a VEA. It was the Power employees who then voted to approve the conditions in the VEA. And it’s the Power employees who not only earn substantially more than their cousins at XXXX, but much of the time, they do it in a 4-day week”.

Despite all their bluster and threats it is this desertion by workers which terrifies the unions. (At Metway Bank, after 3 months of effort, unions were able to recruit only 15 out of 800 employees). Knowing that in all but the most protected industries, they will lose any secret vote for a closed shop, unions are forced to call on their political allies for a bag of legislative clubs.

It is not fashionable these days to praise anything done by Sir Joh, but his opposition to union thuggery, and his support of freedom of choice, even for union members, struck a strong under-current of support which crossed all political boundaries. Mr Goss should ponder well before he tries to swim against this tide – even to help his drowning cronies.

Unions are to governments what the barons were to medieval kings – an ever present threat to their authority and their stability – to be met alternately with bribes or armies. It is time for Mr Goss to call up the militia – he may be surprised at the support he will get, outside the Industrial Relations Club.

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