You know how giant tech companies love championing the innovation and productivity of their workers? It was only a few years ago the billionaire tech company CEOs and executives were caught cheating their own employees.
With Apple leading the pack, Silicon Valley tech giants made an agreement with each other to keep wages low and not compete with one another.
For years, the very engineers that had driven Apple’s success were prevented from negotiating for pay that matched their skills. It was not until five years later in 2014 that the companies were finally held accountable in a class-action lawsuit.
We could learn from American lessons like these and apply them here, according to former World Bank Chief Economist, and best-selling author Professor Joseph E. Stiglitz.
Presenting the inaugural Laurie Carmichael Lecture, Professor Stiglitz emphasised how unions play a crucial role in the modern economy.
“The union movement gives voice to workers in the workplace. Workers are the people who have the best information about what is going on in the workplace. By giving workers greater voice, we have the possibility of increasing productivity,” he said.
“Employers have always resisted. They always wanted to get labour for the lowest price possible.”
Low wages far from only an American phenomenon
As we saw with the Apple case, companies knew it was easier to get away with locking employees out of a decent living when workers lacked a strong collective voice.
For the lowest paid workers in the United States, efforts from conservative politicians to weaken protections has resulted in no real pay increase for decades.
Two generations of American workers have struggled to survive on incomes that fail to cover everyday expenses.
“Can you imagine not having a pay rise in 65 years?” Stiglitz said.
“This will be the first generation that is worse off than their parents. What does that do to the nature of a society when there’s no hope or aspiration?”
Even middle-class workers in the United States have not had a real wage gain in the past four decades.
We have seen similar wage stagnation occur in the United Kingdom as well as here in Australia. The narrative was an all too familiar one: big business raked in massive profits while – which continue to rise even now – while they benefited from the productivity of their (mainly) low-paid employees.
Stiglitz explained that growing inequality has undermined our economy and society.
“One thing that harms productivity is high levels of inequality. It hurts our economy; it hurts our democracy. It really divides our society,” he said.
Employers have tipped over their own feet each time they’ve refused workers’ rights and argued it’s for the sake of ‘the economy’. What they’ve had no desire to admit is that workers are the economy.
So, let’s shift our perspective. What progress do we see happen when there is a strong union presence in our workplaces?
Unionised workplaces are safer for everyone
When COVID-19 raged through the United States, union members stepped up to fill in the gaps where the government failed to support Americans.
The union movement made sure workers were protected against COVID-19 and employer exploitation – sometimes in unlikely places.
In one instance, unionised workers at American meatpacking plants walked out together when their employers failed to mitigate health risks. Their collective action may well have saved lives.
The same thing happened here in Australia during the Omicron outbreak at the beginning of this year.
Workers at a South Australian abattoir were told they would have to come into work, even if they were COVID positive. But in a matter of days, union members rallied together and successfully pressured the abattoir’s executives to reverse their dangerous decision.
Because of the collective effort, none of the abattoir workers were forced to put their lives at risk. We know that when we stand together, we are protecting not only ourselves but those around us too.
Australian Unions is made up of almost 2-million workers coming together to get things done. If you want to see change, together, we can take action to drive that change.
That means better wages than non-union members, the workplace conditions you deserve and support standing by if anything goes wrong.