Wealthy businesses and conservative politicians have a long history of working together in Australia to break up organised workers and make life difficult for unions.
Lead by John Howard and his freedom of association laws, governments around Australia spent the 90’s passing legislation outlawing compulsory union memberships. These changes made it illegal for every worker to contribute to a fighting fund that can stand for their interests, putting a dent in the union movement and making it harder for exploited workers to stand up for themselves.
And so compulsory unionism came to an abrupt end in Australia. Except, that is, for one high-profile, government-approved, compulsory union — which is even right now spending millions on TV ads designed to get you buying lamb for Australia Day.
A Compulsory Union For Farmers
The union for farmers is the Meat & Livestock association (the MLA). The MLA is funded through a compulsory union fee called a ‘livestock levy’. Many meat workers do not know that for every head of cattle processed at their plant, farmers are required by law to pay a fee (roughly $5) to the Meat & Livestock Association.
This livestock levy is used in a variety of ways, with most of it going towards marketing costs. But a sizeable chunk (15 – 20% in most cases) goes towards research and development in the meat processing industry.
This money is then matched dollar-for-dollar by the Australian Government, creating a multi-million-dollar investment fund devoted almost entirely to developing automation technology that will eventually put meat workers out of jobs.
In this year’s annual report, the MLA gushed excitedly about “disruptive transformational productivity improvements”, such as a fully automated robotic beef rib cutter, and a working prototype of a six-way automated robotic cutting system for mutton and goat.
In fact late last year the MLA announced that they would be borrowing $150 million to speed up the process of automation, implementing x-ray based carcase assessment equipment in as many abattoirs as possible. Major meat producing companies are also investing heavily in the technology, buying shares in robotics companies with the aim of “reducing labour costs”.
But Not All Farmers Are Happy
Many farmers have spent years fuming at what they see as a levy that primarily lines the pockets of meat processing companies and gives nothing back to the farmers.
The CEO of the Australian Beef Association David Byard blasted the MLA last year, saying “there is no argument that butchers, supermarkets and processors reap the bulk of whatever gains that come out of MLA’s marketing and they contribute very little or nothing towards MLA’s marketing activities”.
Byard also accuses the MLA’s research arm, the MLA Donor Company, of a “clear lack of transparency and a relative protected status”, alleging that their $150 million automation investment plan is “thick with spin” and asking why meat processors aren’t paying for this instead, when they are the ones who will benefit most.
The AMIEU doesn’t think it’s fair that farmers should be forced to donate money to an organisation which doesn’t represent their actual interests — and it’s clear that farmers don’t either. How can the government justify outlawing compulsory union fees for meat workers, but support them for farmers?
Barnaby Joyce, Union Fee Collector
Australia’s drunken uncle, the famously union-hating Barnaby Joyce, has campaigned fiercely in favour of the Turnbull Government’s anti-union legislation. He is an outspoken opponent of the very idea of compulsory unionism — for trade union members.
But when it comes to compulsory unionism for farmers, Joyce couldn’t be more supportive. He’s not only happy to collect fees from farmers on behalf of meat processing bosses, but he’s even topping up those bosses accounts with $4.8 million of your taxpayer money. How is this fair?
This kind of move is hardly surprising from a man who has presided over a youth unemployment rate in his own electorate of 19%, more than double the national average. These youths who would normally be employed in Tamworth’s multiple meat processing plants are instead going hungry as Joyce spends money on the bosses to help them automate their workforce.
Of course, we all know what Barnaby Joyce thinks about meat working — he thinks it’s a disgusting, unpopular job only suitable for lower-class foreigners who should be flown in to handle it. No wonder he’s willing to help meat processing companies reduce their labour costs.
Workers must take a stand
When people work together to pool their resources, they get what they want. Australia’s major meat processors have been pooling their resources for decades and are on the path to getting what they want: an automated workforce with reduced labour costs and maximum profits.
Meanwhile, meat workers – and the working class all around Australia – are attacked from all angles in the media and government, prevented from organising and pooling their resources to get what they want.
Is it fair that conservative politicians and wealthy businesses can work together like this? No. But there is only one thing you can do about it – join your union and stand together with the people just like you, who want the same thing you do.
The only way forward for struggling workers in troubled times is to stand together and fight together.