"Militant Capitalism": Paddy Crumlin's Complete Op-Ed

Paddy Crumlin's full column on militant capitalism, a part of which was published in The Australian, is reprinted here.

The past few days have seen an alarming media spasm over whether union “militancy” is a “throwback”, in the words of The Australian, to a bygone era. The union movement, does not shy from the tag of “militancy,” a term defined as vigorously, actively and aggressively pursuing goals that protect and advance the lives of our members, their families and their communities.

Carrying forward our views in this fashion established our country and society as a personification of progress around the world, democratically, socially and economically.

From better wages, safer working conditions, superannuation and health care, workers compensation and other bargaining outcomes applying new standards for wages and the length of the working week helped secure a fair quality of life for all Australians.

At the same time, every genuine union leader I have known, has been ready and open to reach rationale deals with companies and industries to improve productivity and improve our competitive position through industrial processes constructed around transparency and mutual respect. It’s when these two commitments are circumvented the situation deteriorates.

The MUA’s perspective relating to automation is instructive. We are engaged in discussions with our employers about automation based on a simple principle: automation is a reality in the workplace. But, we are firm in our position that the benefits of productivity or increased competitiveness from new technologies must also partly flow to the workers. Solutions need to be agreed to and not imposed.

Increasingly however we are confronted with face a phenomena I call "militant capitalism". It’s a mutant strain of capitalism, virulent and dangerous, one that is unsustainable. Its values are predicated upon deregulation of legislative and regulatory constraint particularly in the bargaining process, the placing of shareholder enhancement at the expense of wider social and community responsibilities. Senior executives get jaw-droppingly rich while shareholder wealth often evaporates.  

The Global Financial Crisis, and the consequential destruction to the material conditions of the lives of billions of people, is again an example of those consequences . Millions of jobs snuffed out worldwide. Trillions of dollars in wealth evaporated almost overnight.

Much of that wealth sat in workers' pension funds—hard-earned, deferred wages that people entrusted to stewards who squandered vast sums of money in the global financial casino.

Australia only got off the hook because of the combination of timely intervention of supply mechanisms by the current government, our geographical access to the Chinese market, and the willingness of workforces, including my own, to adapt to the massive drop in consumption.

Yet out of the ashes of the old militant capitalism arises the new version, led stridently by our mining companies and their industry groups. They lay their claim to our nation’s natural wealth—our ores, our minerals—while naysaying any responsibility to assist in the economic reconstruction and ongoing securing of the sovereign wealth those commodities must provide to the long term economic future of our society. No doubt their adversity to pay tax will not be complemented by any adversity to donate to their political champion Tony Abbott.

The placards of militant capitalism espouse the advantages of casual work and the fear and uncertainty that erodes those workers lives. Militant capitalism turns a blind eye to horrific deaths on roads and heavy industry workfronts including my own.  Using legal defences, they advocate far less intrusive occupational health and safety regulation and regulators. Our employers don’t want a consistent national regulation for wharfies who work the same ship from one Australian port to the next.

Militant capitalism views every tax with contempt—even if such a tax might fund a national disability scheme, better pensions or a broadband network. Redistribution of wealth is upwards never downwards, regardless of managerial performance.

When the Prime Minister or a senior minister like Bill Shorten recognise these links between Labor and the union movement, they are laying down a marker: the pursuit of an economic agenda that will touch every worker whether they live in small towns, large cities, or suburbs.  An agenda where unions, in partnership with willing political and business leaders, convert hard work into a fair go, and the economic social and community infrastructure which allows that fairness.

What a journalistic scoop it was last week at our West Australian Branch Conference: Labor Minister addresses Labour Union! The world held its collective breath for a moment until after the danger had passed.

The history of organised labour in this country and around the world has been, and remains, anchored around one certainty. Workers will form and actively and robustly participate in labour unions as long as militant capitalism and their caravan of politics and spin build their self-interest at the expense of, and with scant regard to, wider social and industrial responsibilities, particularly to their direct employees.

Paddy Crumlin is the national secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia and the president of the 5.5 million-member International Transport Workers federation.