Better work? Low pay, trade unions and regulation in the United States and Australia

Tim Ayres

Kathie Muir, Worth Fighting For: Inside the Your Rights At Work Campaign, Sydney, UNSW Press, 2008 (256 pp). ISBN 9-78192141-077-2 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

Helen Masterman-Smith and Barbara Pocock, Living Low Paid: The Dark Side of Prosperous Australia, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 2008 (256 pp). (ISBN 9-78174175-396-7 (paperback) RRP $35.00.

Every morning, in American towns and cities, an army of working poor—nannies, janitors, home care and aged care workers, hospitality staff, manufacturing workers and labourers—stream from their homes and communities into workplaces where they are paid a pittance, work in dangerous conditions, are almost universally treated with little dignity and have next to no job security. Most are women, many are African-American or Latino, and for them, ‘good’ jobs are out of reach (Milkman 2006, p. 6). The poverty imposed upon them by their working circumstances is compounded by poor social infrastructure, particularly in America’s inaccessible health system. In a country where the minimum wage is less than half the Australian equivalent, it is hard to see how these workers manage to get to work, or get by at all.

I recently visited the United States while it was gripped with the twin preoccupations of pre-inauguration Obama fever and the emerging economic crisis. In this very different context I had the opportunity to review two new Australian books. One deals with the contemporary Australian experience of low paid and precarious work, the other presents an account of the recent union campaign to defeat the Howard Government and to restore some fairness to Australian workplaces and industrial relations. Both Living Low Paid: The Dark Side of Prosperous Australia and Worth Fighting For: Inside the Your Rights At Work Campaign make compelling reading for people concerned with the connections between workplace practices and community and family life in Australian society.

It was difficult for Australian eyes to avoid seeing the many parallels between the Your Rights At Work campaign in the lead up to the election of the Rudd Government in 2007 and the Obama campaign juggernaut in 2008. The Australian union campaign in 2007 was a ‘third party’, ‘single issue’ campaign, while the Obama campaign was a political machine focused solely upon the election of a new President, but both mobilised and engaged an unprecedented number of campaign workers, donors and activists. Among these were many uninitiated political campaigners, who went on to build momentum for change in their own communities. And, importantly, both campaigns culminated in extraordinary political victories.

The Howard Government’s WorkChoices legislation was the most radical recasting of industrial relations law in the favour of capital in the history of our country. It pulled apart minimum standards, made it easier for employers to hire and fire ‘at will’, and systematically attacked and marginalised unions and collective bargaining. The legislation built upon a decade of legislative and government hostility to collective bargaining, industrial regulation and minimum standards (Cooper & Ellem 2008). Critically, for the labour movement, the legislation followed the collapse of the Latham-led Labor Party in the 2004 election and the capture of the Senate by the conservative parties.

Worth Fighting For brings voices from the campaign against WorkChoices to life.

Researchers demonstrated the critical impact of the WorkChoices legislation on many of the most vulnerable in Australian workplaces, particularly low paid women (Elton et al. 2007). The legislation was accompanied by a secondary raft of special legislation and regulations for the building and construction industry that criminalised industrial activity, provided extraordinary coercive powers to a purpose-built building industry inspectorate, and used the government’s procurement policy as a lever to spread individual contracts and anti-union employer behaviour through the industry.

Worth Fighting For brings voices from the campaign against WorkChoices to life. Kathy Muir goes well beyond the union leaders and the political and media consultants to do some fascinating interviews with campaign volunteers. The in-depth interviews really strengthen the narrative and demonstrate the single-minded dedication of the campaign’s thousands of volunteers, the strength of their conviction about the centrality of rights at work to Australia’s democratic traditions, and the reach of the volunteer campaign into the suburbs and the families of workers well outside the traditional union base. Some of the anecdotes that fill the book’s pages illustrate novel aspects of the community campaign (pp. 117–22), but the book does much more than this. Muir lays out for the reader an account of the ACTU strategy, the role of media firms and message management, and the extraordinary structure of local campaign committees.

Kathie Muir’s account of the campaign can not be portrayed as a detached, critical view of the union campaign to defeat the Howard Government and WorkChoices. Hers is very much an insider’s account of an important moment in Australian labour and political history, and it is all the more valuable for it. There is room for more critical examination of the operation and effectiveness of the Your Rights At Work campaign, to inform the debate within the union movement about how we ‘do’ politics in the future, to develop strategy for future campaigns, and, importantly, to explore if and how the union movement might transform the momentum gathered in the campaign into a lasting political force and/or membership growth. But it would be unfair to expect an insider’s account to address all these critical debates.

It is strangely fascinating to read an account of a campaign that I was a part of and, in fact, I am sure that much of the audience for Muir’s book will be from the thousands of activists in the campaign, eager to read about their own part of history. But there is much more here for students of Australian political and labour history. The Your Rights At Work campaign was an extraordinary departure from traditional Australian union political practice, which hitherto almost universally consisted of unions delivering campaign contributions, logistical support and internal political support for the Labor Party campaign machine.

The ACTU campaign was in many respects a contradiction.

In Chapters 1 and 2, Muir catalogues some of the key forces that created this departure. One was the generation-long decline in union density and power. But the immediate context of the campaign was also important, including the ferocity of the WorkChoices legislation’s impact on union effectiveness and organising capacity and the special legislation in the building industry. Then there were key events over the life of the Howard Government, like the waterfront dispute, which shaped the poisonous relations between the labour movement and the Howard Government. Critically, there was also the scarring effect on the psychology of the ACTU leadership of the disastrous ‘Cavalcade to Canberra’ campaign against the first wave of anti-union legislation in 1996. In particular, this rally, a public relations disaster, convinced many union leaders of the futility of a campaign of resistance that centred largely on rallies, industrial action and national stoppages (pp. 40–42). The union campaign needed to reach well beyond the ranks of union members out to families, non-unionists and into the suburbs and hometowns where ‘working families’ lived (pp. 46–52). There was also a deep cynicism about the durability and strength of the union-ALP relationship amongst many union members, activists and officials (p. 16). These factors prohibited a ‘business-as-usual’ approach to the campaign to restore workplace rights to workers and their unions.

The ACTU campaign was in many respects a contradiction. It was both a centralised strategic and professional electoral campaign and, at the same time, it relied for strength and credibility upon an expanding community of activists. At its centre was a tightly disciplined campaign operation influenced by US political consultants, such as Democrat guru Vic Fingerhut and the Australian progressive media consultancy EMC who developed the central themes and messages, advertising and political strategy (p. 57). The bulk of campaign activity, though, was undertaken by thousands of unpaid volunteers, who led community activities, door-knocking, street stalls and staged community events. It was a genuine third party, single issue campaign that was well-resourced, complete with television advertising and political infrastructure in each of over twenty targeted marginal seats.

Like the Your Rights At Work campaign, the Obama campaign had at its heart an effort to mobilise large numbers of volunteers and donors, while maintaining an extraordinary level of central control and discipline. Savvy use of information technology translated into unprecedented individual donations, ‘e-activism’ and engagement into American suburbs well beyond the traditional ranks of organised labour and Latino and African American community organisations. Interestingly, President Obama has signalled a willingness to continue the life of the campaign structure into the term of his Presidency as a weapon to campaign for issues on the Administration’s agenda and against obstructive Republicans (and Democrats) on the Hill.

How will the Your Rights At Work campaign activists and the army of Obama enthusiasts respond to the decisions and outcomes of the very governments they sweated to install? In Australia, the litmus tests will be the implementation of the Fair Work Bill, the Rudd Government’s approach to re-establishing collective bargaining rights in the building and construction industry, and how Australian unions are strengthened during the early stages of the government. The early signs are mixed. As Muir notes in the final chapter of her book, there are many key figures in the government who set out very early to underplay the role of the union movement in the election, and consequently diminish the role of the union movement in the centre of Australian political life.

Three quarters of American employers hire union-busters.

Similarly, there is trepidation amongst many unionists in the United States about what the election of the Obama administration means for a much diminished union movement in that country. While there are recent signs of resurgence (US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2009), the movement has as members only 8 per cent of private sector workers and the leadership of the AFL-CIO recently split in two, with several key unions lead by the SEIU and Teamsters leaving the majority to form the rival ‘Change to Win’ coalition. None of this bodes well for a movement that needs to change much of the legal and economic framework that it operates in.

Conversely, there have been some early signs of a strong commitment to re-orienting the US government’s approach to organising rights and wages and conditions. The appointment of Labor Secretary-designate Hilda Solis heralded a very different approach to the previous regime. The daughter of a union Latino family, she has a strong track record of supporting union and environmental campaigns in her career as a Californian State legislator and US Congresswoman. Remarkably for an American (or Australian) political leader she declared ‘I will work to strengthen our unions and support every American in our nation’s diverse workforce’ in her short endorsement acceptance speech alongside the new President. In January, President Obama announced new procurement rules designed to promote collective bargaining and limit unfair anti-union employer campaigns in companies tendering for US Government work (White House Press Office 2009a; 2009b).

However, as in Australia, the real test Obama’s campaigners of the new administration’s commitment to applying the campaign’s values to the workplace will be the administration’s approach to legislative reform. In particular, Obama’s support base in the American labour movement will be watching especially closely the progress of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which is an effort to amend the current laws that govern a broken system of collective bargaining.

The current American framework for regulating work, collective bargaining and minimum standards is so ineffective that many unions organise outside it, and evidence suggests that many of these unions are growing faster than unions that operate within the confines of the 78-year-old National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) system. The NLRB was established by the Wagner Act to ‘encourage the practice of collective bargaining … Protect the exercise by workers of full freedom of association, self organization, and designation of representatives of their own choosing, for the purpose of negotiating the terms of their employment’ (Labor Management Relations Act, 29 USC p. 151). In practice, the NLRB does precisely the opposite. Over the decades since the legislation was enacted, during the post-Depression industrialisation of the US economy, the NLRB and the Supreme Court have steadily eroded the Act’s capacity to support collective bargaining and instead established virtual employer control of the balloting process, through which collective agreement making is organised.

To achieve a collective agreement American workers and their union must petition the NLRB for an NLRB-sponsored secret ballot, which inevitably provokes a series of technical legal manoeuvres by employers, designed to delay the ballot process and frustrate workers who want to use collective bargaining to change their workplace. This legalistic strategy is usually accompanied by a vicious campaign of intimidation, repression of union activity and propaganda designed to ensure that the union is defeated. Even if workers achieve a ballot victory, there is no guarantee that the employer will agree to a collective agreement.

Passing the EFCA is vital to improving the prospects for rebuilding American unions.

Three quarters of American employers hire union-busters, nearly 80 per cent of US employers force employees to attend one-on-one meetings with supervisors where they are encouraged to vote against union certification (Bronfenbrenner 2000) and one in five active union supporters are dismissed during union election campaigns (Schmitt & Zipperer 2007). Only one in seven workplaces where petitions are filed with the NLRB end up with a collective agreement within a year of certification of the election result (Ferguson 2008).

If passed by the Congress and Senate and signed into law by the new President, the Employee Free Choice Act would establish ‘majority sign-up’; that is, if a majority of employees sign union authorisation cards (rather than go through the NLRB secret ballot process), employers would be forced to recognise the union for the purposes of bargaining. The NLRB would arbitrate an agreement in ‘first-contracts’ where a newly recognised union and an employer fail to reach an agreement after three months, and the penalties for companies that dismiss or intimidate employees are stiffened considerably.

As a US Senator, Barack Obama sponsored a recent version of EFCA, and there is a strong union and civil society campaign to push the legislation through early in the first term of the new President. Perhaps unsurprisingly there is a strident, well resourced and slightly hysterical campaign against the new legislation. Television advertisements, featuring well known actors from the HBO series The Sopranos playing ‘labor bosses’ about to visit all sorts of undemocratic horrors upon American workers the very moment EFCA was passed, were a regular feature on US television over the Christmas break. There will be plenty more where that came from as the campaign over EFCA hots up through 2009.

It is perhaps a coincidence that there are so many similar strains in the proposed EFCA legislation and the Australian Fair Work Bill. Both pieces of legislation contain fairer processes for determining majority support for collective bargaining and requiring employer recognition of unions, both mandate arbitrated settlements where employers frustrate ‘good-faith’ collective bargaining (significantly, in Australia, for low paid employees) and they both fundamentally rewrite the industrial relations rules with a presumption in favour of collective bargaining. It is hard not to conclude that, even in the absence of a formal exchange of views between Labor and the Democrats on the approach to industrial relations reform, at the very least the simultaneous shift to re-regulate collective bargaining in the United States instilled a little more confidence in Australian Labor to go as far as it has on ‘organising rights’.

There is a crucial difference between the legislation proposed in the United States and in Australia. The Australian legislation, for all its limitations, is an ‘omnibus’ Act—it deals with almost all aspects of the world of work, including setting minimum standards, unfair dismissals, productivity, and the rights of workers and their unions. By contrast, the EFCA, by its very nature, is limited to dealing only with the rights of American workers who are engaged in collective bargaining, or who are likely to be the subject of union organising campaigns (Nissen 2009). In the United States, unlike the broad-based membership system for unions in Australia, unions draw their membership only from workers who have voted for and are covered by a union collective contract. Starting from a base of 8 per cent of the private sector organised into unions, it is hard to see how the EFCA represents a real hope of returning some measure of dignity and improved wages to the millions of working poor in America. Passing the EFCA is vital to improving the prospects for rebuilding American unions and the 28 per cent union wage premium does mean that a union agreement is a pathway to the ‘middle class’ for many American workers. But the EFCA on its own (without a comprehensive safety net and system of employment and occupational health and safety rights) cannot resolve the crisis confronting the working poor in the United States, particularly in the face of a worsening economic recession.

The Rudd Government should adopt a concerted strategy on low pay.

Which brings me nicely home to Living Low Paid: The Dark Side of Prosperous Australia. This book is the product of a partnership between the Liquor Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers’ Union (LHMU) and the Brotherhood of St Laurence and Helen Masterman-Smith and Barbara Pocock of the Centre for Work and Life at the University of South Australia. While the large part of the book explores dimensions of low pay in Australia and its impact upon family and community life, the concluding chapters set out the bare bones of a coherent strategy to address low pay in Australia.

The reduction in the real wages of low paid Australians and the falling wage share of national income belie the much vaunted Australian ethos of egalitarianism. The authors lay bare the contradiction between this egalitarian tradition and the development of an industrial relations system that focuses on enterprise-level outcomes:

Decent pay, secure jobs and appropriately rewarded job classifications are not natural facts: they are socially constructed by institutions, history and relative levels of worker organisation and employer power. … Production workers in car plants are not relatively well paid because they have systematically been judged as deserving, but because historically they became unionised, they have worked in a relatively profitable industry… and they are mostly men who have been able to bargain collectively. Cleaners are not so favoured by historical circumstance, gender and collective organisation. And they are unlikely ever to be (p. 190).

The authors go well beyond calls for a comprehensive safety net and a rise in the minimum wage, to set out the case for the Rudd Government to adopt a concerted strategy on low pay. The low pay strategy would have an industrial component (delivering equal pay, improving working conditions and job security, strengthening the role of unions, education for small business, and stronger enforcement and compliance mechanisms), fairer taxation treatment of low wages and second and third jobs (the book is very sceptical of income tax credits and ‘welfare to work’ programmes as a panacea), and a raft of measures around education, access to decent health care, urban planning and housing, to establish a pathway from poverty for Australia’s working poor. Interestingly—and correctly—the book singles out the parlous state of the superannuation accounts of many older workers, who have a history of precarious, low wage employment. These workers face the grim prospect of a ‘life where there is no end to their labours’ to maintain a dignified standard of living.

Getting a job is no longer any sort of guarantee of a secure future in a contemporary economy largely built around a neo-liberal model. Activists, scholars and policy makers should be deeply concerned at the corrosive effect of low wages and diminution of collective organisation upon our society. Both of these books touch on themes important to those of us who care about the future of work, the importance of quality work and fair wages in sustaining strong communities, and fighting for a strong union movement.


Bronfenbrenner, K. 2000, Uneasy Terrain: The Impact of Capital Mobility on Workers, Wages, and Union Organizing [Electronic version], Ithaca, New York [Online]: Available [2009, May 4].

Cooper, R. & Ellem, B. 2008, ‘The neoliberal state, trade unions and collective bargaining in Australia’, British Journal of Industrial Relations, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 532–554.

Elton, J., Bailey, J., Baird, M., Charlesworth, S., Cooper, R., Ellem, B. Jefferson, T., Macdonald, F., Oliver, D., Pocock, B., Preston, A. & Whitehouse, G. 2007, Women and WorkChoices: Impacts on the Minimum Wage Sector, Centre for Work + Life, University of South Australia [Online]: Available: [2009, May 5].

Ferguson, J.-P. 2008, ‘The eyes of the needles: A sequential model of union organizing drives, 1999–2004’, Industrial and Labor Relations Review, vol. 62, no. 1, pp. 3–21.

Labor Management Relations Act, 29 USC, p. 151.

Milkman, R. 2007, LA Story: Immigrant Workers and the Future of the US Labor Movement, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

Nissen, B. 2009, ‘Would the Employee Free Choice Act effectively protect the right to unionize: Evidence from a South Florida nursing home case’, Labor Studies Journal, vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 65–90.

Schmitt, J. & Zipperer, B. 2007, Dropping the axe: Illegal firings during union election campaigns, Centre for Economic and Policy Research [Online], Available: [2009, May 5].

US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2009, Union affiliation data [Online], Available: [2009, Jan 28].

White House Press Office 2009a, Executive Order, Notification of Employee Rights Under Federal Labor Laws, 30 January [Online], Available: [2009, May 5].

White House Press Office 2009b, Executive Order, Use of Project Labor Agreements for Federal Construction Projects, 6 February [Online], Available: [2009, May 5].

Tim Ayres is the Assistant Secretary of the AMWU NSW Branch (the views expressed in this review are not necessarily the views of the AMWU). Tim has a keen interest in developing stronger union organisation, industry policy and the impacts of climate change policy on energy intensive and ‘green’ jobs in Australia.