The cricket pay dispute is a wonderful advertisement for joining a union | Greg Jericho

Greg Jericho

If the players were operating individually, they’d be stuffed – and so are Australian workers in general, if they want higher wage growth

Even Steve Smith, holder of supposedly the second most important position in Australia after the PM, recognises the need to be in a union if he is to have any power in employment negotiations. Photograph: Rui Vieira/AP

At the moment one of the most visible industrial disputes in Australia is occurring between Cricket Australia and its players, represented by the Australian Cricketers Association. And while the issues at stake are complex, among the consequences is the issue of the marketing of players. But regardless of what the dispute might do to the ability for cricket players – or Cricket Australia – to make money hawking fast food chicken, the players’ actions are a wonderful advertisement for joining a union.

Union membership in this country is at historic lows. The latest figures suggest just 13% of all workers are in a trade union – 25 years ago it was around 40%.

In the private sector, the numbers are even lower. Just 9% of private sector workers are in a union.

Let’s not pretend that there is no link between this lack of representation and the record low wage growth we are currently experiencing.

In the past year, private sector wages grew by just 1.7% but the average prices of health, education, utilities and automotive fuel all rose by more than double that amount, and the cost of fruit and vegetables by nearly 13%.

So bad has the situation become that the governor of the RBA, Philip Lowe, last month suggested workers needed to become more bold in their claims for wage rises. He argued that employees were most likely too fearful of losing hours should they seek higher wages.

But while the theory that workers should not be afraid of seeking both more hours and higher wages sounds great in a panel discussion on the economy, the reality is such claims will not happen in a workforce with such meagre unionisation.

And there is nothing coincidental about this – it is the backbone of every aspect of the Howard government’s industrial relations policy – shift power from the workers to the employers and then vigorously decry any attempts to redress the balance as harmful to the economy.

In such a context the ALP’s recent move to enshrine penalty rates in law is a bold, and unfortunately necessary, step.

But those workers who see penalty rates being reduced and wages growing at record lows and who are also not in a union could do worse than look to the Australian cricketers.

The issues at stake in the contract dispute between the cricketers and their union, the Australia Cricketers Association, and Cricket Australia are pretty complex. Essentially they involve a shift from the way cricketers were compensated over the past 20 years – from players receiving a set share of Cricket Australia’s revenue, to one where CA would pay players an amount unlinked from the revenue.

The players are in favour of the current model because it in effect treats them as partners with CA rather than mere workers for hire.

Now, to be honest, it does not matter whether or not you think the cricketers are wrong to challenge CA.

I never have too much truck with those who complain about sports players earning too much money. I’ll vote for the money to go to the workers over the bosses every day.

But even if you think cricket players are paid more than enough, the effectiveness of their operating as a collective is apparent.

Cricket Australia sought to change a longstanding industrial relations model that would see it get a greater share of money and tried to divide players in order to achieve these aims.

It sought to split women and men by arguing the new arrangements would see all players the same hourly base rate of pay. That sounds fair until you realise that women don’t play five-day tests, meaning they will effectively be on a lower base from the get-go.

And is cricket really something that can be translated to an hourly wage, like workers producing widgets? Are three hours of test cricket really equal to three hours of one big-bash game?

Were the players operating individually they would be stuffed.

Individual contracts operating on different monetary scales and time frames would be used to ensure any individual could be left out of a team while the rest are unaffected. Test cricketers would be pitted against Big Bash players and shield players; men versus women – as indeed they have been.

It’s standard operating practice for such negotiations – sow discord and get workers scared they might lose hours, and so take less pay.

Right now cricketers across the nation are unemployed. They are not on strike; they are just no longer employed by CA. As a result CA no longer owns their IP – meaning they can’t force Steve Smith or Dave Warner to talk up the wonders of buckets of fried chicken.

With an Ashes series looming, there is little doubt that CA believed it held the whip handle – that players would back down for fear of missing out on the series. But you only need to go on the ACA site to see how unified are the players within the ACA.

They know that the impact of one player not playing in an Ashes series is greatly different from the entire team (and those in the state cricket system) not playing.

It is a stark reminder that even if you are the best cricket players in the land – seemingly holding a skill that places you at an advantage compared with other workers in your field – your employer will seek to alter employment conditions to favour them.

This is not to say unions are perfect – clearly there have been issues with governance and cases where the executive appears out of step with the members – such as on issues of same sex marriage in the Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees’ Association. But such matters will not be solved by not being part of a union.

And neither will low wages.

The old adage used to be the captain of the Australian men’s Test team was the second most important position after the prime minister – and yet even Smith, holder of such a supposedly powerful position, also recognises the need to be a member of a union if he is to have any power in employment negotiations.

Those of us who have nowhere near his power would be wise to follow his lead.