Values system historically at heart of union movement

Published in the Courier Mail on 10 November 2005

In the midst of the raging debate about the industrial relations legislation, finally something has given us some light relief.

I have watched with great interest, and more than a little amusement, the response to comments made by the head of the new Fair Pay Commission, Professor Ian Harper. Many of them are, (unwittingly I suspect), laced with a refreshing irony. With so much of the IR debate a little “same old, same old” it’s been a nice change.

In the past week, Harper has been open about the fact he has a personal Christian faith, and has commented that it will guide his decisions. That has been enough to set off the nervous whispers about religion in the corridors of power and the accusations that the Prime Minister is being influenced by fundamentalism.

The responses by the secretary of the Australian Workers Union Queensland, Bill Ludwig, have been interesting. Ludwig attacked Harper’s comments, declaring them as an extraordinary development in 120 years of industrial relations.

That’s an interesting perspective. Men of Harper’s persuasion founded the trade union movement precisely because they were guided by their personal Christian faith. It was the Church that initially acted to end the unfair exploitation of workers. Therefore, all Harper’s comments have really done is return us to the roots of unionism. There doesn’t seem anything extraordinary about that.

Ludwig also expressed that Harper should “take into account the view of different gods worshipped in different sections of the community”. Is Ludwig proposing that Harper should, for example, include multiple spousal benefits for those faiths that allow polygamy?

Or perhaps he is suggesting we take into account a Hindu world view and implement a caste system into the new industrial relations salary structure? I can imagine spirited discussions about what professions would be relegated as “Untouchables”. (Personally, I have my money on bank managers or real estate agents.)

What I do find particularly puzzling is the notion that Ludwig seems to be advancing, which is that it’s unacceptable for your value system to influence your working life. Let’s examine that a little more, shall we?

Within the course of a working day, each of us has to make many decisions. While some decisions are straightforward and organisationally defined, many of these decisions have an element of ethical ambiguity. The decision you make, and the reason you make it, reflects none other than your value system, which comes from your world view.

We neither work in a moral vacuum nor make decisions in one. The idea that we do is illogical.
Carly Fiorina, who was the chairwoman and CEO of Hewlett Packard, said in an interview: “I think leadership takes what I call a strong internal compass. And I use the term compass because what does a compass do? When the winds are howling, and the storms are raging, and the sky is cloudy so you have nothing to navigate by, a compass tells you where true north is. And I think when a person is in a difficult situation, a lonely situation, you have to rely on that compass.”

Every one of us has an internal compass. It is the world view through which we understand and make sense of concepts such as right and wrong, the dignity of humanity, justice and accountability.

While we live in an egalitarian, secular society, we are free to live out our value system if it isn’t inconsistent with society’s laws. For many people, like Harper, that world view is a Christian one.

In a society that prides itself on its tolerance, it seems curious that this would be disparaged.
In fact, the Judeo-Christian world view contains such foundational and positive core values as protection for the poor, justice, equality and inherent human worth. These values have built a strong Australia, and are at the heart of the union movement.

I suspect that Ludwig’s assertion, that we must leave our value system at home, doesn’t reflect wider community principles. If it does, it’s this line of thought, rather than Harper’s comments, that suddenly ushers in a whole new age in industrial relations.

After all, this would mean having to sacrifice the great Australian right to complain when our Mars bar “disappears” from the staff fridge — and that’s a right none of us wants to lose.