Is it really worth joining the union?


Our workplace is going through a protracted enterprise bargaining process. I’m increasingly concerned about the proposals I can see our employer is making. Should I join the union?

Illustration by John Shakespeare
Illustration by John ShakespeareCredit:


I asked Associate Professor Stephen Clibborn, the co-director of the Sydney Employment Relations Research Group at the University of Sydney, to offer his expertise on your question. His response was so thorough, thoughtful and (I think) helpful, I’m passing it on in full:

“In general, union-negotiated collective agreements deliver higher pay and conditions for employees. With the exception of those with rare and in-demand skills, an individual employee is less able to negotiate successfully with employers due to their relative power imbalance. The higher the proportion of employees in a given workplace who are union members, the more power they have and the more effectively they can negotiate to improve pay and conditions.

“Union members pay membership fees to be in the union and make sacrifices, such as forgoing pay while participating in strikes, to advance bargaining in ways that influence employers to agree to more favourable terms of employment.

“However, the higher pay and conditions in a collective agreement benefit both union members and non-union employees also covered by the agreement. So some employees might ask, ‘Why pay the union dues and sacrifice pay during industrial action if I’m going to get the same result?’ Such an approach might seem logical but it is a narrow, short-term and risky approach.

“The problem with this approach is that the same result is not guaranteed if too many employees sit back and let their colleagues do the work of bargaining for them. The smaller the group of workers negotiating with management, the smaller their power relative to the employer.


“Union density in Australia is dropping and now only 12.5 per cent. [It was well above 50 per cent less than 50 years ago.] It’s less in the private sector and much less in some industries. So it really does require people to join unions for enterprise bargaining to achieve the gains – and to resist some management proposals that the reader might be concerned about.

“This so-called ‘free rider’ problem has led some to call for a change in the law to allow unions to charge a bargaining fee to non-members who benefit from collective agreements negotiated by the union. However, the IR minister, Tony Burke, has indicated this is not on the government’s policy agenda.”

Should you join the union? If you want to contribute to a stronger employee bargaining position and show solidarity with colleagues, that may be a very good idea. If you’re concerned about what your employer is proposing as part of the enterprise bargaining process, you should definitely join.

Send your questions to Work Therapy by emailing [email protected]

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