“I’m not a union hack.”

Jamie Parker, the man expected to become the Greens’ first lower-house MP in NSW,  recently said something very revealing that I think is worth a mention. He was charged with being a “snake oil salesman” for his previous role as marketing manager  of a natural therapies company, Naturopathica. The Therapeutic Goods Administration found some of the company’s products, which include DIETARY FATBLASTER, HORNY GOAT WEED FOR HER, MOODLIFT, PMS LESS (all of which were recalled), to be ”misleading consumers” and “exploit[ing] the lack of knowledge of consumers”. Parker of course “denied that he was responsible for any of the breaches”, saying that  “It wasn’t my role to be putting together advertising and copywriting, I was positioning the stuff in pharmacies.” “There were many directors,” he said. “I had a small team of people doing things like graphic design. Yes, I’ve worked in the private sector, I’m not a union hack.” (This is of course not limited to the Greens; the Liberals are well known for their anti-union rhetoric, and even competing candidates within the Labor Party charge one another with the “union hack” slur.)

Leaving aside the important issue of how Parker made it so high up the ranks of the Greens, his comment that he’s not a “union hack” is worrying; it reveals governments’ implicit (and at times explicit) antipathy toward social institutions that are community-based, popular movements that aim at empowering the working class, or any other of a myriad of mass actions in which people wish to take control of their own lives. Labour unions are a powerful force that allow workers to organise, discuss issues that are pertinent to them, and move for change. It is of course in the interest of governments and the corporate sector to minimise or wipe out such movements as labour unions or community organisations that agitate for social change that is based on bottom-up grassroots movements. This is because the primary goal of government is “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority” (James Madison, the fourth President of the United States). This is because it is assumed that, in the words of John Jay (the first Chief Justice of the United States), “The people who own the country ought to govern it”. Similar quotes can be found throughout history.

The anti-union rhetoric sometimes reaches remarkable heights: in his book Dear Mr. Rudd published in 2008, Mark Aarons argued that “It is not an exaggeration to say that the power exercised by some unions on the ALP has now become so pernicious that it threatens to grow into a cancer…” Aarons claims that in order to “make Labor the party of federal government” there must be “a fundamental transformation”, “radical surgery to restructure the party”: that is, “dramatically reduce the power of the union secretaries’ club and give Labor a broader base that is more representative of the wider Australian community.” Such remarks are a common feature of anti-union propaganda that charges unions with “becoming a hindrance to earning more money in our market economy”. Unions are “too powerful or corrupt”, they have been “accused of using violence, intimidation or bullying tactics”, there’s a fear that “if they gain more power it would come at the expense of local businesses and employees”. Furthermore, if political parties “receive funds from unions [they] may be influenced by this and shift the party’s focus from the national interest to the union leaders’ interests.”

The real threat of unions is evident in these remarks. The threat of organised workers influencing the policies of their own party. The threat that government policies will move away from “the national interest” (read: policies that aim to increase profits and market share) and towards the “union leaders’ interests” (i.e. the policies that the workers in the union agreed upon by democratic means).  In other words, the threat of democracy is real to governments and the business and corporate sectors, and they are doing their best to minimise the threat.

Lastly, it was understood centuries ago that “great wealth and democracy can’t exist side by side”, and this was assumed by Adam Smith along with many others in the Enlightenment and classical liberalism periods. Going even further back, Aristotle argued that “in a perfect democracy, a small number of very rich people and a large number of very poor people, the poor will use their democratic rights to take property away from the rich. Aristotle regarded that as unjust, and proposed two possible solutions: reducing poverty (which is what he recommended) or reducing democracy.”

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