Lyons, Tim: The Labour Movement: my part in its downfall

Lyons, Tim

The Labour Movement: my part in its downfall‘, Meanjin, Spring 2016 (vol. 75, no. 3, pp. 85-92 in hard copy)

Works backwards from the demise of the resources super profits tax in 2010 to make some important points about the historical role of trade unions. ‘Organising’, Lyons writes, ‘is systematic contact with a workforce with an aim to build collective power that enables workers to win’. He looks at reasons for the decline of unions, including failure of leadership, and the effect of this decline in weakening the Labor Party. He describes his own history of 20 years as a union official with accompanying roles in the party.

Looking at how Labor in 2010 dealt with the RSPT and the Henry Tax Review, he argues: ‘Labor failed the politics of policy, and without organised workers as ballast and a meaningful relationship about big policy in the national interest with the government, unions added nothing to the equation’. He then summarises the position of unions, putting it in a historical perspective:

As institutions, unions are in a state of profound crisis. Union membership and coverage are down to the level they were when the famous Harvester judgment created a minimum wage in 1907. Unions failed to rebuild under the last ALP government, and the latest statistics indicate that a steep decline has resumed. In the private sector, unionism, once a natural feature of the workplace order, is in single digits as a percentage of the workforce.

Lyons then looks in detail at aspects of unions and politics and makes some suggestions for reform. ‘Organised workers’, he concludes, ‘are the only social movement that can support a strong left agenda and protect its achievements’.

Tim Lyons is a former Assistant Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. An article about Lyons. Sarah Kaine in The Conversation earlier this year covers similar ground, with a couple of links to other resources. Dennis Glover on the unmaking of the Australian working class. Barbara Heaton on coal miners during World War II. Marilyn Lake on the minimum wage.

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