Postmodernity Haunts Labor's Workplace Policy

By Mark Hearn*

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says, "I do not want to see a situation where we end up with two Australias: one part of the country enjoying boom time conditions while the rest of the country takes the pain of tougher financial circumstances."

Yet the Rudd Government's workplace relations policies are likely to entrench the two Australia division that the Prime Minister laments.

While the Coalition listlessly concedes the apparent collapse of WorkChoices, and business critics demand that Labor embraces workplace flexibility and non-government intervention, Labor's proposals maintain the spirit of WorkChoices and the divisions in society and not only in the workplace that WorkChoices reflected.

Labor policy is driven by a historical shift to postmodernity, characterised by a determination to promote a culture of individual enterprise.

Labor's embrace of a more deregulated workplace relations system is not a simplistic process of placating business demands and "selling out" workers, nor a product of short-term panic over inflation.

Labor policy is driven by a movement towards the future, fulfilling a historical dynamic that appears to have been at work since the 1980s, if not earlier. A movement towards postmodernity, characterised not by theories but by a relentless determination to promote a culture of individual enterprise. In Western society since the 1980s, the workplace, not the Parisian cafe nor the university lecture theatre, has been the key battlefield of postmodernity. Like WorkChoices, Labor's workplace relations policies will be shaped by this historical force although Rudd may prove a less enthusiastic advocate than John Howard.

Labor has promised to scrap Australian Workplace Agreements, the symbolic totem of WorkChoices. Yet Labor's commitment to eliminating AWAs needs to be understood in the context of other significant aspects of its proposed workplace relations system.

Labor recommends an uptake of common law employment contracts for those who prefer an individualised alternative to the award system. Common law contracts currently cover about 30per cent of the workforce, a far more extensive coverage than AWAs. Labor and the unions seem oblivious to the contradiction of encouraging an expanding pool of deregulated workers while condemning the inequities of individual contracts.

Labor also proposes limiting union access to workplaces, limiting the right to strike, the introduction of flexibility arrangements in awards, and allowing employees earning more than $100,000 to opt out of the award system.

Labor also plans to scrap the rather tired and bureaucratic Australian Industrial Relations Commission. It seems that Labor has a more decentralised authority in mind, committed to promoting "flexibility" perhaps not unlike the Office of the Employment Advocate, which runs AWAs.

Labor will cultivate a world of two workplace nations, helping to fulfil a trend evident before the election of the Howard government in 1996: the individualised "haves", with their common law contracts and superior bargaining power, and low-paid workers on "flexible" awards, whose commitment to, or opportunities for, experiencing union style solidarity or collectivism are likely to be compromised or eroded by the creeping flexibility of their employment relations.

For the union movement, what's left after these changes is a very constrained space of coverage and operation, chasing after a shrinking number of collectivised workers.

Human resource management practices, with its promotion of worker identification with the organisation and individualised reward schemes, are likely to exacerbate this trend. Not content with measuring, regulating and even predicting employee performance, human resource management is now infiltrating the last private realm of the employee regulating their "behaviour" and moulding their attitudes to suit the needs of the organisation. Human resource management throws responsibility for employee management on to the employee. In that respect, human resource management is one of the clearest indications available of the movement towards postmodernity, this era of self-management in which the old certainties, structures and ideologies of 20th century modernity, have collapsed.

Since Howard first proposed the promotion of voluntary, individual employment contracts in 1984, his approach to workplace relations and politics generally has reflected an instinctive appreciation of the key postmodern proposition articulated by Baroness Margaret Thatcher in 1987: there is no such thing as society. "There are individual men and women and there are families," Thatcher declared, "and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves".

For Thatcher, the rational interventions of modernity and government represented by the welfare state of the post-World War II years had failed. In the space opened by that failure, Thatcher projected Britain towards a new era of self-help, self-management and self-creation. In the atomised social realm of Thatcherite postmodernity you may reshape your identity, you can look after yourself, but you will be on your own, burdened by the responsibility of your own performance indicators. As Thatcher declared in 1987, "You are responsible for your own behaviour!"

Howard shared and exulted in the principle of self-management. Howard understood, as he argued in a key speech delivered to the Sydney Institute in July 2005, that his industrial relations reforms reflected a cultural struggle to create a neo-liberal society through the manipulation of language and policy and the restructuring of institutions.

A society of "enterprise workers" geared to the new opportunities provided by the globalised economy after the end of the Cold War, as he explained, "Those of us who have long made the case for freeing up the Australian labour market always felt that the most important change would be a cultural one. Change the institutions and over time you change the culture."

Howard described how these enterprise workers had transformed the culture and identity of the workforce: 'These Australians do not fit neatly into categories based on age or geography, occupation or industry, income level or formal qualification. They are white collar and blue collar. They work each day in factories, small businesses, great services companies, farms and mines. Some choose to be trade unionists, many do not. Most are traditional employees, while a growing number have embraced the independence and flexibility of working for themselves.'

Howard overplayed his hand with the WorkChoices reforms of 2005, but they represent an enduring legacy. Labor's embracing of workplace deregulation also seems to move with the future and into the realm of enterprise workers, where some choose to be union members, and many do not. Australian trade union membership is now 20 per cent of the workforce and 15 per cent of the private-sector workforce, the sector in which the vast majority of Australian workers are employed.

Opponents of Howard, including from within the labour movement, liked to characterise the defeated prime minister as a picket fence man pining for the 1950s. It is the leaders of the Australian trade union movement who pine for the 1950s, and the familiar certainties of high rates of unionisation in an industrial economy. According to the structure of the trade union movement in 2008, the economy in which it organises remains a product of modernity dominated by the manufacturing sector as you might have experienced in the 1950s, when unionisation reached 60 per cent of the Australian workforce, one of the highest rates in the world.

If you find this discussion of postmodernity fanciful, then you might reflect on the sobering advice provided by Czech president Vaclav Havel in a speech delivered to the World Economic Forum in Davos in 1992. "We need a new politics that embraces the plurality of human experience," Havel argued. "We must face the challenges of the postmodern world in which we now find ourselves."

Rudd faces that plurality, and feels his values torn. He could begin to reconcile the claims of enterprise and equity by declaring that a prosperous nation can afford to offer its lowest paid workers a decent minimum wage. The principles of dignity and justice have not disappeared in postmodernity, but they need to be reasserted, and might require some creative rethinking.

* Mark Hearn is the co-editor of Rethinking Work: Time, Space and Discourse, Cambridge University Press 2006, and teaches history in the Department of Modern History, Macquarie University. This article was first published in The Canberra Times, 17 March 2008.

Published 3 April 2008.

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