Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Bosses and Captains

Leigh Hubbard, the Secretary of Victorian Trades Hall Council announced his retirement last Friday after a decade in the role.

The link above is the official announcement from the VTHC website.

As a family friend of Leigh, I thought I might reflect on the media treatment of his resignation, and thus the media's portrayal of unionism.

The Hun's coverage is particularly telling, with the headline reading "Union boss at end of rocky road". The designation of Leigh as a union "boss" in my view emphasises the dichotomy between unions and business. Business executives are "leaders" or "captains of industry". Union leaders however are "bosses". The media loves portraying senior unionists as "bosses", giving connotations of "stand-over" tactics, organised crime and thuggery. If we were to look at which kind of organisation used stand over tactics, had links to organised crime and purposely or knowingly harmed the public or its employees, I think that the historical record indicates business would vastly outnumber unions as fitting those particular stereotypes.

The Hun also plays up the "tension" between the VTHC and the Bracks government. To some extent, this is manufactured. The Bracks Government however is fairly conservative in the industrial arena, in particular with the energy unions, education unions and the nurses. As far as portrayal of the Labor Party, it does indicate that the Vic ALP doesn't "roll over" for unions, but it does label unions as adversarial and critical. (The people's opposition to the government perhaps?)

There is also a Hun article from the day before Leigh resigned, which takes an axe to the VTHC and harps on about the various wheelings and dealings of the Victorian union movement.

Meanwhile, NineMSN follows Leigh's media release more closely. Channel Nine emphasises his positive contribution, and also highlights a smooth transition of power, as he "hands over the reigns". A quote from Leigh referring to the recent FPLP leadership challenge is included:
"I hope that the Trades Hall ... election of a new secretary doesn't go through the machinations that we've seen publicly from the ALP."
Leigh's role in lobbying Howard to send peace-keepers to East Timor, as well as restoring a worker's common law rights to sue their employer and reforms to WorkCover are also mentioned. The entire story is positive, and there is no mention of any tension between Leigh and Bracks.

Our Aunty has a "stub" entry, merely noting the event. Cut and paste from the press release.

The Age (subscription) also has a positive spin, but also highlighting the struggles, against Kennet, the MUA Waterfront dispute and the campaign to give award rights to over three hundred and fifty thousand Victorian workers. The shadow of the VTHCs run-ins with the Bracks Government appears at the end of the article, but it ends up beat:
"He's been a campaigner for a whole range of issues on behalf of ordinary people," Mr Bracks said.
However, the headline of the article does not really bode well: "Two in line for Hubbard's union job". While not as bad as the Hun, it does seem to indicate friction over Leigh's replacement. The first part of the article deals with who will be replacing Leigh, pointing out the two contenders, Brian Boyd and Martin Foley (I think a woman as Secretary could be a good move). Although in my view, contested ballots are a sign of a health democracy, there is a perception in the media at the moment that they are symptoms of a faction-ridden organisation or deep internal divisions.

The small media coverage of Leigh Hubbard's resignation overall does not paint unionism in a hugely positive light, although there is at least tacit mention of the positive things the VTHC has done under his tenure. Unions in this issue are portrayed negatively, disunified, marginalised and "once-powerful", to a greater (Hun) or lesser (Age) extent, with the Bracks quote above being perhaps the most positive thing said.


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