In China or the West - Look for the Power in Industrial Matters

“Look for the power.” I don’t know if this was the first lesson my sociology professor taught me but it’s the one I most remember. If you want to know why the world looks as it does, follow the power.

Changing the world requires a similar insight. This one I gained in the Sydney offices of GetUp!, which at that time was helping to end the effective ban on the so-called abortion pill, RU486. The then-director stood before a whiteboard. As each procedural avenue for reaching our shared goal was discussed, he would ask, “Who calls the shots?”

Nowhere is power more in play than in the area of industrial relations. Yet, in most discussions of this contentious area of public policy, the P-word is rarely heard.

Google “industrial relations” and “power” and the most prominent hit is an academic article decrying the neglect of power in industrial relations theory.

In a 48-minute ABC Background Briefing on the Qantas industrial dispute, “power” was mentioned just twice. Both references were to union power – specifically, employer anxieties that union power might sabotage corporate ambitions for a more employer-friendly industrial landscape once the Coalition returned to government.

So what gives? If power is so key to understanding how the world works and how it can be made to change, why don’t we talk more about it?

I think it’s because most of us see the use of power (defined as the ability to direct or influence others and the course of events) as synonymous with the abuse of power.

They’re not the same but where power concentrates, the age-old adage that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” will prove true.

When employers talk of union power, the image we get is of power unchecked; of thugs determining outcomes in their own interests, not the needs of the workers they’re meant to represent. Even a cursory glance at Australia’s history – indeed, its current Parliament – leaves no doubt that the perception that some unions abuse their power is true.

Regardless of whether power is sought to pursue self-interest or to organise to defend the interests of the weak or save the planet, power must be checked or corruption will follow as sure as night follows day.

What we must glean from this fact is that in the industrial relations arena, the best chance of power being used wisely and in the service of the public good is for it to be distributed fairly. This is because what has been historically true is still true today. A lone worker, especially if she’s unskilled and there’s plenty more where she came from, can’t negotiate a fair outcome from her employer because she doesn’t have enough power. One way of increasing her pull is through a union.

Anyone who doubts the importance of the role honest unions play in evening out the power imbalance between employers and individual workers should listen to National Public Radio’s expose of Foxconn, the Chinese firm that makes our iPhones. In China, unions are outlawed and workers who use the officially advertised mechanisms for redressing exploitation can be blacklisted as troublemakers.

Foxconn calls forth our own sweatshop past and is a timely reminder of what the world of work looks like when there are no laws or institutions to stop employers having it their way.

Publication history

Why we should always work out who calls the Shots  Moral Maze - Sunday Sun Herald