Desperate solutions for a broken union brand

In the wake of funding scandals, the union movement is trying to repair its brand image with a bold attack on independent workers.

Australian unions are on the attack against self-employed people and it’s all because unions are under pressure. Their attack has unfolded as part of a brand defence campaign.

From a marketing perspective the trade union brand has taken a beating in the last year or so. The misuse of member funds in the Health Services Union kicked off the issue. The New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption is exposing allegations of senior Labor/union operatives playing lead roles in corruption. It’s anticipated that a lot more will be exposed.

A union's primary brand value is the maintenance of the belief that they protect the ‘little person’. But alleged and proven corruption creates the impression that unions have become exploiters of the people they are supposed to protect.

Though the current situation is a corporate affairs headache for them, they have a proven capacity to bounce back. It’s easy to forget that Australian unions receive in excess of $1 billion of untaxed revenue a year from membership fees alone. This makes them one big marketing business. Marketing campaigns are centrally coordinated through the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

In protecting their brand the first union marketing trick is to push the line that the corruption being revealed is the result of isolated ‘bad eggs’ in union leadership. Given time they hope that people will forget about the scandals. There’s reason to believe this will work.

In 2007 Channel Nine uncovered a secret slush fund in the NSW Transport Workers Union. This TWU ‘training’ fund accumulated vast sums in payola from labour hire companies who supplied staff to Qantas at Sydney Airport. A TWU organised audit found the fund was secret. The union boss involved was not sanctioned. The TWU whistleblower members were expelled from the union. The union boss was promoted to a higher position in the national union. But time has pushed this scandal into distant memory, just as union corporate affairs and marketing managers would hope.

The problem Australian unions have however is that they suffer from a seemingly unbreakable cycle of internal scandal. In living with this reality the ACTU has assumed that the best defence is attack. They revert to throwing resources at trying to demonstrate that unions still protect the little person. The key current effort around this is their campaign against ‘insecure work.’ Their alleged aim is to ‘protect’ the 40 per cent of the workforce who are casuals and independent contractors/self-employed people.

I’m an ‘insecure worker’ myself. I head a small organisation, Independent Contractors Australia, that sees great value in, and seeks to improve the regulation environment for self-employed people. The union campaign is anti-self-employment and offensive.

The ACTU line is that people must have permanent, full time employment to be able to survive. The ACTU wanted us (ICA) to participate in a sham inquiry they’d established. We said ‘no’. We didn’t want to contribute to a sham campaign directed at attacking self-employed people.

Even union members don’t believe in the campaign objectives. An ACTU survey of 42,000 workers (98 per cent were union members) showed that 80 per cent did not rate permanent employment as important to them.

As an exercise the ACTU campaign affronts working Australians.

The truth is that people don’t need permanent, full-time employment. Instead people need reliable and ongoing income. Steady income can be achieved through many forms of work including seemingly ‘insecure work’.

The fact is that so-called ‘insecure work’ in all its forms, undertaken by some five million Australians is rewarding because it gives freedom from wage slavery and delivers income. What’s more, name one alleged ‘secure’ job that is actually secure.

In defiance of these real truths, the ACTU have poured huge resources into demonising the working lives of (let’s call us) the freedom workers. That is we are free from the bondage of permanent employment, a bondage the ACTU seems to need to impose on everyone.

But from a union brand defence perspective the ACTU campaign makes sense to them. Their claim of ‘protecting’ insecure workers is important to their social and political positioning.

Australian unions are a bit like tobacco companies. Unions have a damaged brand. In their desperation to fix the problem they are hitting out at a huge sector of the workforce, people who just want to get on with earning an income.

Ken Phillips is executive director of Independent Contractors Australia and author of Independence and the Death of Employment.

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