Chapter 24 - Compulsory Unionism

Posted in The Forgotten People

Recently there has been a good deal of discussion about compulsory unionism. Indeed, there is some evidence that the Government has been taking some steps towards making it a working principle in the case of Government contracts. It is therefore necessary that you and I should have some clear and reasoned view about it.

I happen to be against it. But my opposition to it is not an opposition to unionism as such. The trades union movement has meant a great deal in our industrial history. It has represented collective bargaining. It has given strength to the workers as a group which no worker as an individual could have possessed. It has been an effective weapon against the obdurate or short-sighted employer. It has had some supreme value in the working of the characteristically Australian system of compulsory industrial arbitration. As a servant of the wage-earner, unionism has done an extraordinarily good job of work.

The movement for compulsory unionism breaks new ground. The trades union has been a splendid servant. It now aspires to be a master.

Some weeks ago I made a series of broadcasts on what I called "President Roosevelt's Four Freedoms". But there was one freedom to which the President did not refer - freedom of association.

It will perhaps be one of the ironies of history that the trades union movement which, in the days of the famous Tolpuddle martyrs, represented a struggle for freedom of industrial association, should now have taken a new turn so that it desires not that there should be freedom to associate in a trades union but that there should be no freedom not to associate in a trades union.

Freedom of association is of the first order of importance in the world of liberty. It is important that I should be free to associate with other people who think as I do. It is not always realized that it is equally important that I should be free not to associate with people who do not think as I do. That philosophic point of view is the first argument against compulsory unionism.

But the second ground on which it is to be attacked is that it is undemocratic. The essence of democracy is freedom. The denial of democracy is fascism. The whole principle of the fascist movement is authority, and the authoritarian principle of government is at the poles from the democratic principle of government.

When Mussolini set up the dictator system in Italy, he did it on the foundation of a series of lesser authorities exercised by unions and associations. He realized that the great enemy of autocratic authority is the lively minority, and he therefore determined that minorities should not count, and that the law of the majority should be a tyrant's law. Make no mistake. It is true, as wise men have said for a hundred years, that the real test of liberty in any country is the way in which minorities are treated.

Now, let us turn to another aspect of this matter. In Australia the organization of the Australian Labour Party as a party political force is founded upon the organization of the trades unions, affiliated with the trades hall. If my son is by compulsion a member of a trades union in a craft or occupation that he practises, then, willynilly, he is a subscriber to those political funds through which the Labour Party conducts its political campaign. I shall never forget one of my friends and colleagues in the Federal Parliament, who is a prominent public accountant, telling me with a wry smile that, compulsory unionism being the law in his State, his two sons who were employed in his business had the privilege of subscribing to the support of the Labour candidate who was standing against him at the next election.

Whatever may be the position in other countries, the trades union movement is in Australia the backbone of the Labour movement. It has great funds and great influence. Its militant sections make no secret of the fact that they are out to secure union control of the actual conduct of Australian industries. This means, if we are to give up the blind use of parrot cries and really endeavour to understand what they mean, that trades unionism is rapidly becoming a great vested interest in Australia - a vested interest just as powerful as that of any manufacturing cartel and, what is important at present, the only one to add immensely to it s strength during the war.

What sort of a vested interest will the trades union movement become if it has a compelled and universal membership; if, as at present, it pays no income tax on its revenues; if, by reason of reserved occupations, its full-time officials are protected from the military duties of war; if, as we have seen, it makes its wartime concessions only for compensation in the form of cash; and if, as our political history has shown, it has determined that Parliament shall dance to its tune and obey its law?

Now, when I say all these things I am getting down to a pretty fundamental issue of our time. If there is one thing that distinguishes the democratic system from the dictatorship system, it is that in our own casual and cheerful fashion we do believe in liberty. If you cross-examine any one of us about what he believes, you will probably discover that in the last resort he dislikes interference and believes that, within decent limits, he should be allowed to live his own life in his own way, provided that he does not injure his neighbour, performs his social duty, and is honest and fair in the performance of his community duty.

Liberty, as I was at some pains to point out in my talks to you on the four freedoms, is not only liberty to do something, but also liberty not to do something. Freedom of worship must involve freedom not to worship; freedom of thought must involve freedom to not think as others do; freedom to associate with Jones and Brown must involve freedom not to associate with Jones and Brown.

It is merely our reluctance to go beneath the surface that makes us toy with the idea of compulsory unionism. We say, "Oh well, unionism has been a good thing for the worker; it has got him, sometimes against the opposition of stupid employers, better wages and better conditions; and it is absurd that people who are not unionists should get the benefit of these things when they have not accepted a share of the burden of getting them." But, plausible as this may be, it will still be true that the Australian trades union, for the most part, is not only an industrial but a political organism. What would the average Australian say if he were told tomorrow that financial membership of the United Australia Party or the Country Party had been made compulsory? He would complain to high heaven. Is there any less reason why he should complain if, by compulsion, he is made a member of an organisation some portion of his contributions to which is used for the support of the political Labour Party?

There have been some interesting recent developments in this movement for compulsion. There is a good deal of evidence to show that the Government, through its contracting departments, has been requiring that contractors should employ only union labour. There is also a good deal of evidence that certain departments of the Government have been laying down the rule that, where awards are obtained, only those who belong to trades unions shall enjoy their benefit.

As a lawyer with considerable experience in industrial law, I know that technically the benefit of Arbitration Court awards is enforceable only by members of registered organizations. But it is a new doctrine that a Government which owes a responsibility to everybody - unionist and non-unionist alike - will discriminate in its payments between those who are unionists and those who are not.

Recently I spoke to you about the function and value of the capitalist system, about the value of individual initiative, not only in the preserving of the world that we now know, but in the building up of a prosperous new order which will give us strength and security in the future. The whole essence of my case was that you get the best community results when you encourage the best individual results: that you get the best sort of thing for the nation when, within proper limits of decency, you encourage the individual to get the best kind of thing for himself.

Can all this square with a system in which all employed citizens are, whether they like it or not, dragooned into highly political industrial organisations and are taught to believe that the individual does not count?

As democrats we have many times in my own life been disturbed by the disposition of so many people to pass their individual responsibility on to somebody else's shoulders - by the temptation that comes to every man to say, "What does it matter what I do or do not do? Somebody else will attend to it for me." But we have not always been so clearly conscious of the fact that true democracy requires that the individual should think for himself, suffer for himself, act and vote according to his own judgment and on his own responsibility. If this is, as I most profoundly believe it to be, a war for all the rights of democratic man, it must mean that what we are struggling for is the right of every human soul - which is also an immortal soul - to reach its full development. What you must ask yourselves is whether that development will reach its peak under a system in which men are regimented and controlled merely because they practise some craft or follow some occupation in common.

We all, at once, concede that it would be monstrous to compel people to be Catholic or Protestant, Anglican or Presbyterian, according to the will of the majority; that we should compel people to be Liberal or Conservative, according to the will of the majority. Is it any more absurd that we should adopt a system which compels people to be the industrial supporters of financial subsidisers of some political party, according to the will of the majority?

A few weeks ago I listened to a Scots Presbyterian preacher who had some good things to say to the effect that the world's progress had never depended upon ideas produced by the majority, but had always depended upon the burning faith of a relatively few men. That is something worth thinking about.

It is perhaps not untrue to say that if, in the history of the last hundred years, everybody had been compelled to subscribe to what the majority thought, there would have been no progress in the world and we should have become merely a community of dumb and driven cattle.

14 August, 1942