Following the full-throated scrap over the government’s workplace reforms, data emerged mid last month that neither the business lobby nor the union movement would’ve been keen to spruik.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ line graph of the latest national union membership figures resembles a 46-year tumble down a rocky slope.
The historic low of 12.5 per cent somewhat dampens conservative fears about economy-wide strikes to leverage multi-employer deals if the vast majority of Australians won’t even take the step to organise first.
It’s not an attractive figure for unions either. How can they persuade prospective members of their reach when the numbers don’t support it, and how can they take advantage of new bargaining laws if they don’t have the resources to affect them?
The glib figure – which contrasts with 1976’s 51.6 per cent – was published when the union movement ended 2022 on a relative high: significant industrial laws, partly designed to increase workers’ exposure to unions, and increase workers’ bargaining powers, were passed, with the prospect of another suite of legislation being introduced early this year.
But now that we’ve stepped into 2023, it’s time to reflect on the factors that brought the movement to this point, and whether it’s going to turn things around.
RMIT industrial relations expert Professor Anthony Forsyth, who consulted the government on the new laws, attributes some accountability to the rise of neoliberalism and “state hostility”, in his book The Future of Unions and Worker Representation, published last year.
Forsyth singles out John Howard’s WorkChoices legislation – which flipped the concept of freedom of association of its head – as a watershed moment, as many do.
Fairly or unfairly, reputational harm has also been done via the Health Services Union expenses scandal, the “widespread” corruption found as a result of the royal commission into trade unions, and various controversies involving the CFMEU.
Fast-forward, and seemingly almost no member of the Coalition can use the word “union” now without suffixing “thug”, even though the latest figures paint the average unionist in Australia as a middle-aged woman qualified in teaching or health.
As a curious aside, there was palpable wariness among the progressive, teal independent cohort – several of whom occupy affluent seats – over the potential union incursion into small businesses, a prospect hosed down by ACTU head Sally McManus.
The significant reconfiguration of the workforce has played a major part in the decline of membership.
University of Sydney industrial relations expert Professor Chris Wright summarises it as a mash of the competition that came from exposing Australian businesses to international players in the 1980s, the Howard reforms, the economic shift from manufacturing to services, and the proliferation of small businesses that accompanied that.
In 2020, the proportion of national union membership was 14.3 per cent. Wright says the subsequent 1.8 per cent drop two years later isn’t surprising, but still a development, given union heads thought the greater relevance of workplace rights amid global economic upheaval would boost their profile.
“The two things I think that have happened that can explain that is that people just weren’t going into their workplaces often, and therefore were having less contact with their union,” he says, adding memberships also “declined in the churn of the labour market as a result of people leaving their jobs.”
Electrical Trades Union acting national secretary Michael Wright emphasises the fractious effect of enterprise bargaining. “Our industrial relations system has been very focused on pushing us back to just dealing with one employer,” he said.
Wright says the construction industry had fostered portable long-service leave and income protection entitlements, meaning that union members were negotiating benefits that didn’t begin and end with one employer.
He says, ideally, the new multi-employer bargaining laws could spread portable entitlements throughout the economy, and heighten the benefit of union membership.
Wright has previously spoken about the “industrial revolution” of clean energy transition as being a key opportunity to strike multi-employer deals across regions where new infrastructure is being installed, allowing specialist workers to benefit from deals that overlap projects.
But he says the quandary confronting unions over piling limited resources into pulling off successful multi-employer deals, the very measure designed to expand the interface between workers and unions, “was unambiguously true”.
One very modern issue facing unions is working from home. “Isolation is the opposite of the collective – how we form a collective when everyone isn’t going to the same kitchen at lunch, that’s a structural problem, and something unions are going to need to face,” Wright says.
‘Isolation is the opposite of the collective – how we form a collective when everyone isn’t going to the same kitchen at lunch.’Michael Wright, National Secretary, ETU
Some are facing it head on by arguing for work-from-home entitlements in their enterprise agreements, a development that would surely prompt the need for more digital organising.
Chris Wright says unions will also have to face up to the free-rider problem, that is those who receive the benefits of enterprise agreements without paying union fees. McManus has recently said this is not on the movement’s agenda.
The Australian Workers’ Union’s national secretary, Daniel Walton, says the panacea isn’t in policies, and the bulk of responsibility lies with the organisations themselves to provide valuable product to non-members that’s both easy for them to understand, and easy for them to join.
Forsyth says the overall drop in membership density to 12.5 per cent is a concern, “but even more worrying for unions is that membership has dropped further among young workers.” Only 2 per cent of 15-to-19-year-olds are union members, and 5 per cent of those who are 20 to 24.
“In my book … I argued that the union movement’s main prospect of recovery lies in attracting young people to join. They should do this by completely revisiting what a union looks like [including through technology] to become more attractive to young workers,” he says.
Given the tendency of younger people to move between casual jobs in industries such as retail and hospitality, they likely see less relevance in union membership, despite their lack of workplace experience making them more exploitable.
Forsyth says the low membership has to be at the core of the movement’s strategies in 2023 “and the years beyond”.
“The worst thing Australian union leaders can do is deny there is an existential crisis right in front of them, or think that the legislative changes will do the job for them,” he says.
“I also argue in my book for a more combative form of unionism than we have seen in the last 20 to 30 years … The time is right in Australia for unions to push the boundaries of the public’s tolerance for strikes.”
If that piece of advice is taken onboard, 2023 will prove an interesting year.
Source: Thanks smh.com