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Decisions of consequence: employer strategies, union renewal and workplace activism.


* Peter Fairbrother, John O'Brien, Anne Junor, Michael O'Donnell and Glynne Williams (2012) Unions and Globalisation: Governments, Management, and the State at Work. New York and London: Routledge. pp. 239+xiv.

* Patrick O'Leary and Peter Sheldon (2012) Employer Power and Weakness: How Local and Global Factors have shaped Australia's Meat Industry and its Industrial Relations, Ballarat: VURRN Press. pp. 222+ix.


Over the past three decades, the neoliberal ascendancy in the main Anglophone democracies has been accompanied by extensive restructuring and reorganisation of public services. Focusing on the UK and Australia, Fairbrother, O'Brien, Junor, O'Donnell and Williams explore a central paradox: how, despite differing political regimes, the public services in both countries have been similarly transformed according to a New Public Management (NPM) model. Whereas this process began in the UK under the Thatcher government's protracted anti-union assault, in Australia it gained momentum under the Hawke ALP government's Accord with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), which even extended to the occasional flirtation with industrial democracy. Both nominally social-democratic and conservative governments in the two countries have since been committed to the establishment of a 'managerial state' within an increasingly entrenched neoliberal order of privatisation and marketisation.

Against this background, Fairbrother et al evaluate the responses of public service employees and unions, concentrating on one major union and one key public sector agency in each country: the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and Jobcentre Plus (formerly the Benefits Agency) in the UK; and the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) and Centrelink in Australia. 'Depoliticisation' provides a constant theme for their discussion. Understood as a form of ideological mobilisation in the managerial state, it encapsulates the process whereby governments have sought to distance themselves from direct control over their workforces by recruiting a new managerial stratum. These managers have been charged with implementing an ostensibly nonpolitical, technocratic regime of stricter work-discipline, performance management, wage restraint and cost-cutting, legitimated by the claimed imperatives of globalisation (see, for example, Burnham 2001; Hay 2007). Yet governments have also tightly controlled managers' relationships with employees, thereby achieving a deeper politicisation through which public service accountability to government is strengthened (see Rainnie and Fairbrother 2005).

By the early 1990s, this 'loose-tight' governance model had been successfully installed, heralding a devolution of operational responsibility coupled with increased central government control over financial administration, thus underpinning the consolidation of the managerial state in the 2000s, within the epochal neoliberal ascendancy (Fairbrother et al 2012: 58-75). Privatisation and marketisation have gone hand-in-hand with work intensification and individualised employment relations, (Fairbrother et al 2012: 103-111). As boundaries between public and private sectors have become increasingly porous, individual employees, redesignated as customer service providers, have been held responsible for delivering the often contradictory outcomes of improved quality and cost efficiencies. Specialist knowledge has been devalued, as quantifiable performance indicators have displaced more complex evaluation of work, amid intensified surveillance--for example, 'red-green-amber' monitoring of Jobcentre Plus employees (Fairbrother et al 2012: 192). Unions have sought to influence this reconfigured 'architecture of control', while negotiating their own internal tensions between centralised organisation and local activism.

In both countries, public service unionism had for decades been accommodative, only beginning to challenge governments in the 1970s. Both unions emerged as a result of amalgamations involving several previous unions and staff associations, becoming more explicitly political during these processes. In the case of the PCS, the main predecessors were the Inland Revenue Staff Federation, the National Union of Civil and Public Servants and the Civil and Public Services Association. The CPSU was formed through a complex series of amalgamations that included the Administrative and Clerical Officers' Association, the Australian Public Service Association, the Australian Broadcasting Commission Staff Association, the Tax Office section of the Clerks Union and the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation Officers' Organisation (Fairbrother et al 2012: 84-91).

In response to the institutional fragmentation and devolution of managerial restructuring, the PCS promoted workplace activism, while campaigning for stronger central pay determination and the end of performance pay; it emerged as a campaigning union, changing its own organisational structures while presenting sustained policy alternatives. The CPSU also became more politically active, especially during the ACTU's Your Rights at Work at campaign, which assisted a moderately sympathetic ALP government back into office in 2007--although its decision to affiliate with the ALP provoked considerable member opposition (Fairbrother et al 2012: 89-96). While both unions responded with a stronger workplace focus, the CPSU has become more centralised, indicating the complex, often contradictory nature of relationships between union officials and members--for example, centralisation of financial resources alongside the encouragement of local activism. Eventually, then, both state sector unions adopted forms of 'campaigning unionism', stronger in the UK than in Australia, developing strategies to contest government-driven changes. The two unions can arguably be seen as having implemented their own 'loose-tight' model, with the CPSU favouring a considerably tighter variant than the PCS.

Fairbrother et al consistently locate the evolution of union strategies and structures within their differing national contexts. Whereas the PCS had a long tradition of local bargaining within the UK's historically decentralised system the CPSU and its precursors had operated within Australia's centralised arbitration system, with little scope for local bargaining. The book's main argument is that state restructuring and new work practices have encouraged a new, more active unionism. Fairbrother et al identify the managerial state as inherently hostile to labour--but this hostility has opened up possibilities for counter-mobilisation, while the resilience of strong elements of the welfare state remain, suggesting that union-community activism may offer greater potential for union reinvigoration than any attempted resuscitation of corporatist alliances (such as the ALP-ACTU Accord). Fairbrother et al identify connections (albeit complex and mediated) between employment policies and union form, with restructuring potentially leading to a new model of state sector unionism, which may move beyond reactive and pragmatic responses (2012: 43-44).

In both countries, therefore, the relationships between the state, employees and unions have undergone fundamental transformation. However, a notable difference is that depoliticisation in Australia occurred through the national bargaining regime, thus integrating unions in the process--a form of legitimacy absent in the UK. Therefore, the more centralised Australian union has had less capacity than its UK counterpart to counter managerialism. The PCS has adopted a more conflictual, workplace-based strategy, while the CPSU has centralised coordination of key functions, including financial management, arguably at the expense of workplace activism (Fairbrother et al 2012: 163195).

The book's longitudinal analysis of the depoliticisation and restructuring draws on an extensive range of interviews with managers, employees and union officials, documenting their experiences over the past thirty years. This extensive interview material helps capture a sense of the extent of change within the public services of these two liberal democracies, illustrating how employees and unions made sense of and responded to top-down change. They also provide a sense that beyond just survival, there may be renewal of activism, particularly identifiable in the alternative views of public service organisation constructed by the respective unions. As the authors note, public service wages and conditions will always be politically charged issues. The two unions have had to confront challenges to their existence and purpose, but the managerialist individualisation of employment relationships has nonetheless created opportunities for mobilisation in defence of members' jobs, reasonable workloads and some measure of job satisfaction. Importantly, both unions have had some success in modifying government plans and moderating the impacts on their members.

Fairbrother et al demonstrate convincingly how state employees and unions have refused to be reduced to passive recipients of structural change: managerialism has been met with workplace resistance, which has contributed both to union renewal and long-term challenges to managerial control. Similarly, unions have responded to operational decentralisation by centralising their own operations, concentrating their resources, while addressing the ongoing issue of how to maintain a strong centre while promoting dynamic workplace activism. The emergence of a new form of centrally coordinated campaigning unionism, then, has set up a new set of dilemmas and possibilities, with these two unions able to contribute to the broader questioning of neoliberalism and managerialism, and potentially to the construction of viable alternatives.


O'Leary and Sheldon examine a very different industry, meat processing in Australia, but they raise closely related concerns: the ways in which employers, workers and unions have adapted their strategies to changing political-economic, legislative and industrial environments. The book focuses on the strategic choices made by employers, why they made them and their consequences for the industry's industrial relations. Their analysis is of particular interest in that it includes periods during which, unlike most of the past thirty years, organised labour occasionally held the upper hand. It also illuminates the relative advantages and disadvantages of workplace, local, regional and national levels of organisation, for workers, unions and employers. Concentrating on employer attempts to assert managerial prerogative against often militant workforce resistance, O'Leary and Sheldon explore the fluctuating power relations between employers, workers and unions, which have often been mediated through regulatory institutions and government intervention.

Meat processing traditionally possessed the features of a 'strike-prone' industry, with a relatively homogeneous workforce performing an unattractive job, isolated from the broader community and strongly inclined towards collectivism and cohesion (Kerr & Siegel, 1954; O'Leary & Sheldon, 2012: 9). Whereas most explanations of industrial conflict in the industry have focused on the distinctive character of workers and unions, O'Leary and Sheldon examine employer strategies, ownership patterns and relations between large and smaller employers, depicting successive waves of employer strategic choice which end, as in the processes outlined by Fairbrother et al, in a period of labour flexibility, cost minimisation and individualised employment relationships, and efforts to marginalise unions and tighten workforce discipline.

During the nineteenth century, meat industry bargaining, wages and conditions were highly localised, with state and national unions only emerging around 1900. The Australian Meat Industry Employees' Union (AMIEU) eventually became the main industry union nationally, although it maintained a strong commitment to regionalism and workplace activism alongside its centralised federal structure. The conscription conflict during World War One generated schisms in the union, prompting in some areas the emergence of an explicitly radical syndicalist politics and successful forms of direct action to control the labour process (O'Leary & Sheldon, 2012: 34-35). Militant local unionists, particularly in Queensland, preferred direct action and workplace bargaining to centralised wage determination, much to the annoyance of employers and the Queensland arbitration authorities, with the consequence that Queensland was more slowly incorporated under the award system than other states.

O'Leary and Sheldon identify the main pre-World War Two trend as one of more disciplined organisation of both workers and employers, with an increasing role for state regulation. Worker dissent, largely confined to North Queensland before World War Two, became more widespread and intense after 1945. During the war, militant unions, especially in Queensland, had improved conditions on a plant-by-plant basis. After the war, employers sought to roll back these gains, ably assisted in Queensland by the readiness of the state's ALP government and the Industrial Commission to uphold managerial prerogative. However, the AMIEU managed to retain its over-award conditions through tenacious workplace resistance, prompting employers to respond with moves towards greater unity, looking increasingly towards state regulation and government intervention. The inability of employers to sustain a permanent association left the door open, though, for workers and the union to regulate their own workplaces directly. Employers remained vulnerable to militant local action, but the establishment of the Meat and Allied Trade Federation of Australia (MATFA) as the main employer association brought a significant change. MATFA embodied employers' strategic choice to use the bureaucratic structures of federal award coverage to enforce greater workplace discipline and minimise industrial disputes (O'Leary & Sheldon, 2012: 40-45). By 1960, employers had managed to achieve a coordinated response, through MATFA, to militant, locally-based unionism.

From 1960 to 1986, the federal award system gained in regulatory importance, as conflict revolved around workplace change, new technology, emerging markets, changing ownership patterns and chronic over-capacity. During the 1970s boom, MATFA pursued very defensive strategies, a posture largely retained during the early 1980s downturn, when the industry had to confront an under-supply of cattle and an over-supply of both plant and labour (O'Leary & Sheldon, 2012: 68). The economic downturn precipitated widespread job losses, which MATFA largely blamed on AMIEU resistance. MATFA strongly supported the Accord's wage restraint in the 1980s, although the centralised wage fixation posed problems for MATFA with its state-based structures and the tendency for its members to pursue independent tactics. The AMIEU successfully persisted with its decentralised tactics, particularly in Victoria. However, the employer association achieved significant gains, such as deskilling, only possible in the face of militant decentralised unionism through the actions of a national employer association committed to centralised bargaining and regulation.

The establishment of Australian Meat Holdings (AMH) in 1986, as a joint venture company bringing together several large employers, was a pivotal event in meat industry industrial relations. AMH provided its members with substantial economies of scale and greater resources to fight the AMIEU, in the process also weakening industry competitors and MATFA. With the reduction of over-capacity in the face of stern union opposition as its principal goal, AMH presaged the rise of aggressive employer militancy. Drawing on its ability to move production between plants, AMH successfully countered the traditional AMIEU strategy of plant-level action through two pivotal conflicts at Fitzroy River, Queensland, and Portland, Victoria. The latter was crucial, as it represented a new strategic model adapted to a decentralised bargaining regime: AMH was able to use its market power to constrain the AMIEU's workplace-based militancy. The union's defeat confirmed AMH's industry dominance and its ability to conduct a successful, long-term anti-union campaign, achieving lower labour costs and greater workforce flexibility. The new award achieved by AMH virtually negated the gains made by unions and workers over the preceding two decades. Production was eventually moved mainly to lower-cost Queensland plants, with marginal plants such as Portland being closed. Therefore, Portland constituted a watershed dispute, providing new strategic options for employers to assert managerial prerogative and control the industrial relations landscape, while undermining the AMIEU's workplace power bases (O'Leary & Sheldon, 2012: 94-95).

AMH's success in enforcing operational efficiencies also placed its competitors at a disadvantage. In response, several smaller Victorian employers reneged on over-award payments and, through MATFA, embarked on a campaign to achieve a wide-ranging reduction of wages and conditions, leading to the long-running (1989-1992) Victorian Meat and By-Products Award dispute. This was, however, a failure--and the shift to enterprise bargaining enabled employers to achieve their own resolutions, effectively sidelining MATFA. With this abandonment of centralised action, MATFA lost its leading industrial relations role, while decentralisation gave AMH the opportunity to pursue even more aggressive tactics, as enterprise bargaining opened up new strategic options for employers (O'Leary & Sheldon, 2012: 112).

During the 1990s the US transnational food processing giant, ConAgra, steadily took over 100 per cent ownership of AMH, bringing a further development of employer strategy, most notably the 11-month long Fitzroy River (Rockhampton) dispute. AMH's successful assault on wages and conditions there and elsewhere in Queensland forced the wage-effort bargain downwards. AMH could sustain production in some of its plants while conducting disputes in others, without running the risk of losing its market share. Thus AMH set the de facto industry standard for pay and condition, through a strategy of defeating unions industrially, usually at the local level, then formalising new arrangements through the Commission. Reproducing a business model previously pursued by ConAgra in its overseas operations, AMH reduced its number of plants, increased managerial control and labour flexibility, while reducing labour costs and union power. (3)

The book thus documents the inter-relationships between employer, union and work strategies within the context of successive bargaining regimes. During the nineteenth century employers had pursued informal bargaining, but by the early twentieth century they had developed usually short-term informal associations to combat militant unionism. More formal bargaining and regulatory structures emerged during the following thirty years, with the embedding of state conciliation and arbitration systems: therefore, employers, rather than unions, campaigned for centralised bargaining and regulation. In this context, MATFA removed competition on wages between its members through award making, attacked unions at workplaces and in the Commission, to become the principal employers' industrial relations voice. Yet unions repeatedly undermined employer solidarity through militant action at local and work group levels. The rise of AMH was critical, bringing new, more systematically aggressive strategies, while smaller employers were often more accommodative towards unions. Eventually, AMH emerged as dominant, as many smaller competitors were destroyed by global competition and as unions were weakened through the erosion of their local and regional sources of power.

The book successfully portrays both the drama of industrial conflict and the more mundane matter of often uneasy mutual accommodation at the workplace level. It conveys a strong sense of the interplay between employers, unions and workers, complemented by the occasional intervention of governments and regulatory authorities. The book provides valuable insights into employer and union strategies, illustrating particularly how the selection of the most suitable terrain for conflict (local, regional, state, national), within different legislative and regulatory settings, has been consistently crucial.


These two books leave us with a series of questions--open, rather than unanswered--on the future strategic choices for employees, unions and employers, raising issues that go to the heart of employer power, union renewal and workplace activism. Strategic choice occupies a central position, including how decisions can expand or inhibit future strategic choices within fluctuating political contexts (relatively short-term, such as changes of government, and epochal, such as the neoliberal ascendancy). When viewed together, the two books also illustrate how, for over three decades, employers and governments have implemented a remarkably consistent blueprint of restructuring, downsizing, performance management, labour flexibility and cost-cutting. This overall strategy has been remarkably successful not only in suppressing opposition but in eroding even the possibility of counter-narratives --signalling the momentous political achievement of neoliberalism in transforming the political-economic landscape. The strategic choices open to employers and managers have demonstrably expanded over the past three decades, as those available to workers and unions have withered--especially in situations where all parties in government are implementing similar managerial agendas. Thus neoliberalism and managerialism have been established, with the exhaustion of social-democracy and the disappearance of industrial democracy, as the default positions. This leaves the question of whether unions whose internal structures may discourage participation can develop, or at least contribute to, a persuasive counter-narrative. In this regard, these two quite different books provide grounds for hope, if not optimism.


Burnham, P. (2001) 'New Labour and its politics of depoliticisation', British Journal of Politics and International Relations 3(2): 127-149.

Hay, P. (2007) Why We Hate Politics, Cambridge: Polity.

Rainnie, A. & Fairbrother, P. (2006) 'The state we are in (and against)', in P. Fairbrother and A. Rainnie (eds.) Globalisation, State and Labour, London: Routledge.

Kerr, C. & Siegel, A. (1954) 'The interindustry propensity to strike: an international comparison', A. Kornhauser, R. Dubin and A. Ross (eds.) Industrial Conflict, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Daniels, G. & McIlroy, J. (eds.) Trade Unions in a Neoliberal World: British Trade Unions under New Labour, London: Routledge.

(2) My thanks to Dennis Mortimer for his comments on the first draft of this essay.

(3) As of 2007, AMH was owned by the Brazilian transnational, JBS.
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Publication:International Journal of Employment Studies
Article Type:Abstract
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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