The ACTU: selfish then, still selfish now

Being self-interested doesn’t necessarily mean you’re selfish. Mother Teresa was pursuing her self-interest. And so is noted philantrophist Bill Gates.

In the case of the Australian Council of Trade Unions however, they are most definitely self-interested in a selfish way.

Trade barriers are unanimously opposed by all serious economists, and for good reason. A policy of free trade was proposed at least as far back as 1776 by the father of modern economics, Adam Smith, and it has been repeatedly confirmed through empirical tests since then.

But back in the 1980s the ACTU, ever resistant to change that would harm the financial status of its members, found itself on the wrong side of the issue. The ACTU, which had members working within the automotive industry, Textiles Clothing Footwear and Whitegoods, staunchly opposed tariff cuts (on the other hand, the mining and pastoral industries, which relied upon imported goods for their own production needs, wholeheartedly supported lowering tariffs).

So they were selfish about free trade, preferring to subordinate the interests of the greater majority of individuals to their own job security. Have they changed since then? Not at all.

These days they don’t protest about free trade as much, but they have diverted their selfishness towards minimum wages. The ACTU are experts at pretending they have the interests of the average Joe at heart. Unfortunately, they have consistently taken positions directly opposed to common sense and evidence.

13 thoughts on “The ACTU: selfish then, still selfish now

  1. There is nothing wrong with being selfish, so long as you are not evil (which I define as treating others in worse ways than you want them to treat you). BUT the lying about these issues IS a worry. Like the ACTU, I am not worried about democracy and majority happiness, though I have nothing against it. Indeed, even talking about ‘public good’ seems like socialist talk, not what I expect on such a nice, well-behaved page like this! For shame, Sukrit!!!

  2. I would go further than that and say that some (not all) unions put militant ideology before the interests of their members. It’s one of the reasons their membership has declined sharply now that we’ve cracked down on closed shops.

    I have had some experience with the CFMEU – they are (were) one of the worst examples. They take a routine position that all bosses are bastards, and that the only way to win gains for their members is by force. Their approach to negotiation is coercive rather than collaborative – they view it as a zero sum game, and won’t entertain the concept of an arrangement that benefits both employees and employers, such as productivity bonuses.

    A sticker I saw on a construction workers hard hat sums up their mentality perfectly – it was a picture of a cobra with the slogan – “if provoked, we will strike”

    As a libertarian, I’m not against the concept of trade unions or collective bargaining, it can be part of a free-market dynamic, and done well it can even up the negotiation balance of power. However, union membership must be voluntary, including no intimidation of non-union members. That way if unions get too heavy-handed they will suffer the consequences of their members deserting them.

  3. The newspapers and media elites are behind this scam too.

    Not a single headline lamented the rise in the minimum wage with not a single mention of the thousands of workers who are now priced out of work.

    They all rejoiced and celebrated, proclaiming as fact that thousands of poor workers would all receive $26 a week higher pay.

  4. The ACTU are so consistently wrong and harmful to their members that I assume they are intellectually very lazy.

    Anyhow, what you are saying Sukrit is that there is a conflict between “selfish” and “self interested” for the ACTU. ie: The ACTU will promote programs that are bad for workers but good for the ACTU presumably making them more influential or popular.

    I agree that the ACTU are in a position where they can afford to be lazy are rely on their socialist convictions. I also agree that non-profit organisations can be driven by money and power at the expense of their members eg/ government universities leading to lower standards and higher costs.

    However how can you be sure that the ACTU wouldn’t benefit more by promoting measures that do actually benefit the most workers? – like abolishing the minimum wage.
    This point becomes espeically valid (by my thinking) when looking at the long term. I don’t see why “self-interest” and “selfishness” shouldn’t ultimately coincide for unions.
    (Incidentally, when I use the word selfish I actually mean self-interested, but I realise the colloquial use of the word means good for you at the expense of another and also usually assumes a “zero-sum” transaction).

  5. Nothing wrong with being selfish, but as others have pointed out, many of ACTU’s policies have actually been detrimental to their members.

  6. The ACTU promotes the minimum wage because it keeps others from competing for the jobs of their members (most of whom aren’t on the minimum wage). It prices the genuinely poor out of the labour market. That’s selfish.

    Equally, the ACTU wanted the government to refrain from tariff cuts in order to protect the jobs of their members.

    The ACTU is very diligently pursuing the financial interests/job security of its members.

  7. So what to do about it?

    If membership is truly voluntary then eventually the ACTU will have to pull its head in, or risk becoming obsolete.

  8. Why should we work for the public good in our policy advocacy? I mean I think I do and I think everybody wants to promote the view that they do also, but why should we actually do it? Recently a relative and I discussed public funding of the ABC. They would vote for public funding because they like the ABC. I think for most voters and policy advocates this is the bottom line. It may be tragic but it does not seem exceptional. It is in fact a classic “tragedy of the commons” situation.

  9. Fleeced — I think the ACTU probably has helped many of it’s members. The people mostly hurt by the ACTU are the unemployed, who aren’t in a union.

    It’s a classic insider-outsider problem, with the insiders (union workers) gaining at the expense of the outsiders (the unemployed). Unfortunately, few people are willing to stand up for the unemployed, because few people understand what is happening.

  10. I also like the ABC, but it might not need taxes to support itself! More could be done with the ABC Bookshops, becoming ABC depots, which rent shows shown once on the TV network.

  11. Mother Teresa was self-interested, selfish, evil and quite nuts. She just managed to hide it from most people.

  12. I can see that my original comment was confusing because I assumed that the ACTU would want to benefit all Australian workers, not just their members (because the ACTU covers many job types and industries).
    Also when I said benefit the ACTU, I really meant, the ACTU staff and administrators.

    So the point I was interested in was this: I don’t see why a union such as the ACTU couldn’t promote policies that benefit the union staff, the union members and Australian workers overall.
    Or do you think there is something inherent in the nature of unions whereby these three parties will never simultaneously benefit?

  13. Also, I disagree that the ACTU is benefitting its members long-term.
    eg/ A worker would probably be better off in the long term leaving a tariff protected job rather than dying a slow inevitable death delaying his career change. Also protecting one ACTU member industry can hamper potential development in other other more lucrative ACTU member industries. eg/ Both SA Mitsubushi car manufacturing plants closed down even after the SA government gave them 30-40 million dollars.

    If the ACTU does actually protect its current members at the expense of non-members this is still not necessarily beneficial over a long time. Because they are decreasing overall job opportunities and thus making life harder even for their members, alienating non-members, risking a rise in a competing unions and thereby threatening their own capacity for expansion.

    Also, the way you phrase the ACTU actions in comment #6 seems to suggest that the ACTU fully understand what they are doing. But I don’t think they realise that their proposals are harmful to their members and Australians overall. I went to their website and didn’t see any economic analysis. But I did see a hell of a lot of weasel words placed just before Work Choices etc.
    I think it’s more a case of wilful ignorance.

Comments are closed.