Are the unions in crisis?


On July 23, the Australian published extracts from a leaked internal Australian Council of Trade Unions report that described unionisation in the private sector as being at "crisis levels". The report, authored by ACTU assistant secretary Chris Walton, warns unions against any expectation of a "golden age" should Labor be elected at the forthcoming federal election, and proposes continuation of a levy on all members to build a war chest with which to rebuild the movement.

The ACTU report estimates that union membership is at 15.2% in the private sector and warns unions against expectations that a federal Labor government would re-regulate the labour market. "There will be no return of closed shop, secondary boycotts or compulsory arbitration", the Australian quoted the report as saying. "We still face decentralised bargaining, employer hostility and international competition. Our industries and sectors will continue to change, and the workforce trends towards casual and part-time work do not look likely to reverse."

The ACTU's sober internal assessment of the promise of a returned Labor government contrasts starkly with its resolutely uncritical attitude to Labor in public. The ACTU has taken every sell-out by Kevin Rudd of Labor's industrial platform in its stride — from restrictions on the right to strike, to bans on pattern bargaining, to Labor's promise to keep the draconian Australian Building and Construction Commission and allow individual contracts (AWAs) to run to 2013. In a statement released during the ALP national conference on April 28, the ACTU's president, Sharan Burrow, said: "The industrial relations policy announced by Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard today will give great hope to working families because it means that under a Labor Government basic rights at work will be protected." This was despite the ALP's refusal to commit to the complete reversal of PM John Howard's Work Choices laws.

Rather than fight for the removal of legal proscriptions on union activity such as solidarity actions (so-called secondary boycotts), industry-wide bargaining or the right to strike, the ACTU leadership is in fact arguing that unions need to adapt to changed circumstances, including to greater casualisation of the work force.

In 1986, union membership nationally stood at 45.6%. By 2006, the rate of union coverage had more than halved to 20.3%, although as a result of an increase of almost 3 million in the work force, the number of unionised workers still remains significant at 1,786,000 according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). However it is a fact that the rate of union coverage of the work force has declined sharply.

The reasons for the relative decline of union membership over the last 20 years or more must be found in social and political factors.

The most catastrophic fall in union coverage occurred during the years of the Hawke and Keating governments (1983-96). Under the Prices and Incomes Accord that began after Labor PM Bob Hawke took power in 1983, real wages fell by up to 28% and the profit share of the economy ballooned. The union movement was firmly tied into the central wage-fixing system and unions that attempted to campaign for a better deal for their members (notably the Builders Labourers Federation and the Australian Federation of Air Pilots) were smashed by the federal government. By the election of the Howard government in 1996, union membership had declined to 31%.

The Hawke and Keating governments also presided over an extensive restructuring and deregulation of industry. Large numbers of jobs were lost in manufacturing, and casualisation and the number of part-time jobs increased massively. The part-time portion of the work force grew from 17.3% in 1984 to 24.7% in 1996. The proportion has continued to grow under the Howard government — to 28.5% by 2005. Unionisation among part-time workers — many of whom work in the service and retail industries — is low. In 2006 it was only 15.5% according to the ABS, considerably below that of full-time workers.

In many cases the union movement has failed to make union membership attractive to this growing part-time work force and has been unable to stem the tide of casualisation, leaving much of this work force unorganised. A notable exception is the work done by the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union among cleaners with its Clean Start campaign, which takes up the cause of the lowest paid. Similarly, unions such as the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union have successfully campaigned for the rights of casual workers — winning some increases in casual loadings and the right for casual workers to convert to permanent work after a set period of employment.

The proportion of the work force employed in better-organised manufacturing industries has also rapidly declined since the mid '80s. The proportion of the work force employed in manufacturing industries fell from 17.8% in 1984 to 11.5% in 2005, while those employed in the less organised service sector grew substantially.

The Accord years led to a serious decline in the combativity of the union movement as measured by working days lost to strike action, illustrating a move away from a more militant unionism that fights for members' wages and conditions, to one that relies more on arbitration and other legal processes. Statistically, the decline in days lost mirrors the decline in union membership, falling from 269 days per 1000 employees in 1988 to 28.8 days per 1000 workers in 2005.

Nevertheless, the union movement, although weakened by 13 years of Accord politics and 11 years of Coalition attacks, continues to exert a large influence. Despite the Howard government's claims that unions are irrelevant to workers, since its election in 1996 it has gone out of its way to try to push them out of the workplace. The Howard government has wanted to nobble the union movement, through the introduction of Work Choices and the liberalisation of AWAs in particular, in an effort to practically exclude unions from the workplace.

The unions that have taken up the fight against the government and defended their members' rights most energetically in this period have grown in strength and size.

The success of the Your Rights at Work campaign in mobilising hundreds of thousands of workers for every rally staged since June 2005 demonstrates that unions still hold broad appeal for working people and retain a level of organisational strength. There is, however, an underlying truth in the warning that Walton made in his leaked ACTU document about declining union influence, though perhaps not exactly as he intended it.

Whichever major party wins the next federal election, the union movement faces a struggle if it is to retain and build its strength. The corporate, ALP-backed model of unionism fashioned during the Accord years has only led to decline and weakness. If the movement is to regain its lost size and influence, a more militant and more responsive model, championed by a range of newer union leaderships nationally, has to be generalised.

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