“We not I” by Tom McDonald

This is a guest post from Tom McDonald who is now in his 80s. Tom was the former Building Workers Industrial Union (BWIU) National Secretary and one of the key figures who helped amalgamate several unions into the CFMEU. He was an influential union leader from 1970-90s. For the last 20 years Tom has generously shared his wisdom with new generations of unionists in the ACTU’s Organising Works traineeship for union organisers.

From Australian Unions Facebook page
From Australian Unions Facebook page

We not I

Back in the early 1950s soon after I became a union official an old timer gave me some good advice. He said,

“Son, if you want to be a good union leader, always remember that the Trade Union Movement is a “we” not “I” movement. This is because “We” includes “I” whereas “I” does not include “We””

The old timer is supported by history which shows that higher wages for all Australian workers and every major condition of employment, as well as rights at work were won through the power of collective action “We” and not by individual “I” action.

Collective union-led action won for all employees such things as a shorter working week, four weeks annual leave, full pay when off work on compensation, higher real wages, equal pay for work of equal value, paid sick leave, redundancy pay, universal super, RDOs, paternity leave as well as a lot of other important conditions that are contained in awards.

Australian or American IR system

The old timer’s advice can help us understand the power of collectivism and the limitations of individualism.

In America ninety per cent of the work force has been systematically de-unionised.  American workers, except for the 10% which are unionized, are treated as individuals and each employer is free to do what ever they like when it comes to wages and conditions of employment of their employees.

The disempowered workers have no bargaining power and life becomes a struggle for personal survival.

Low wages have been a major reason why there are over forty three million Americans living below the poverty line.

The individualisation of the workforce helps explain why the minimum wage in America is $7.50 per hour as compared with $16 per hour in Australia and employment conditions of American workers are, on average, half what they are in Australia. Some American workers receive few, if any, conditions of employment.

The American IR system is really a “clayton” system because it does little to protect or improve wages or conditions of American workers. As a result the gap between the elite of the workforce and millions of powerless low paid workers widens endlessly.

The American minimum wage legalises poverty and denies basic human need and respect.

Australia’s IR system

The Australian arbitration and award system has delivered a uniform national standard of conditions of employment for all employees throughout Australia plus real wage increased for all employees underpinned by a decent minimum wage.

The award system treated all workers as equal subject to their skills and professional qualifications. Collective rather than individual benefits were the objective of the system.

Unions from the start of the IR system were legally recognised as the representative of all employees whether they were union members or not until recent times. The old timer would have said that each worker (I) was treated as a member of the workforce (We).

Wage and conditions of employment were determined based on a set of principles that treated all workers as equals except where fairness requires them to be treated differently.

Some of these principles were:

  • Equal pay for work of equal value;
  • Democratic and collective enterprise bargaining;
  • Comparative justice for all (i.e. the same basic conditions for all);
  • Minimum basic wage (originally based on the needs of a family of five).

Unfortunately some of the above no longer apply.

Moral Objectives

Australia’s IRC system was created to protect every employee and their family from poverty; to ensure all employees were treated as equal where it came to basic conditions of employment such as annual leave and universal superannuation and to provide a degree of protection for employees of an unreasonable employer.

The mechanisms to achieve these objectives are dealt with earlier in this document.


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