Back when I first started in gainful employment, the people in the organisation who looked after salaries, employment conditions, workplace safety, recruitment and suchlike concerns of employees and prospective employees. However, during the 1980s, Personnel departments morphed into Human Resources (HR) departments, supposedly because it was more strategic in its approach. It has been noted that the shift was coincident with the shift from being an employee advocate (personnel) to HR professionals being more concerned with the bottom line, profits, organisational effectiveness and business survival, with most being part of the ‘management team’1. This was a shift from being concerned about how the business affected people, to how the people affected the business. This was all part of the managerialism movement so enthusiastically embraced by right wing governments, and a few others, during the 1990s. It continued a shift of the balance of power away from the workers and their representatives. At the time, high levels of unemployment aided this shift in power by allowing managers to pick and choose their employees.
The shift away from a balance of power has been exacerbated by right wing governments of more recent times, with perhaps the most egregious example in Australia being the Work Choices legislation of the early 2000s. Like most modern political stunts, the name is oxymoronic in that it attempted to limit the ability of people to choose the conditions of their employment and it also attempted to hamstring their representatives, thereby giving them less choice. Ironically, this caused the Howard Government to lose government, as Work Choices was one of the defining issues of the 2007 federal election2, and it even led to the then Prime Minister, John Howard, losing his seat (and consequently his job), at which a large number of people rejoiced.
While the current government has not engaged in a legislative overreach like Howard’s, it has continued to try to decrease the power of workers and unions through more oblique means, such as the Australian Building and Construction Commission, organising raids on union offices, convening an ineffectual Royal Commissions, and attempting to prevent union amalgamations3.
This power imbalance has gone too far, and it will start to swing back the other way. It will be aided by the demise of the Liberal Party, as it becomes a party of the far religious right.