"The union movement can fight back and grow overall in the next period", Tim Gooden, secretary of the Geelong Trades Hall Council, told Green Left Weekly on April 18. He was responding to reports in the mainstream press highlighting figures indicating a further fall in national union membership last year.
According to Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures reported in the April 15 Sydney Morning Herald, total union membership fell by 5%, or 89,000, in the year to August 2007.
In August 1986, union membership was 2.6 million or 46% of the work force. Ten years later, it had fallen to 31%. Total union membership last August was 1.7 million or 19% of the work force.
"The union movement showed its underlying strength by mobilising its members massively against the Howard government's anti-worker Work Choices laws, and playing a decisive role in bringing down the Coalition government last year", said Gooden. "Unions which are prepared to adopt a militant approach have proved they can win gains and increase their membership."
ACTU president Sharan Burrow pointed out that the new data understated union membership and ignored the hostile climate unions faced during the last term of the Howard government.
"The data shows unions have successfully survived Work Choices", Burrow was quoted as saying in the April 15 SMH. She argued that the ABS survey was conducted "at the height of the former Howard government's scare campaign against unions. In this environment, it is quite likely that workers may have been reluctant to admit to being a union member to the government statistician."
Burrow said that ACTU affiliates had experienced an increase in membership applications after the defeat of the Howard government in the federal election last November.
Dean Mighell, secretary of the Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union, which has doubled its membership over the last 10 years, told the April 15 SMH that a cosy relationship with the Rudd Labor government, similar to the accords that the unions signed with the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, would be disastrous.
"We don't want any more accord-style deals", Mighell said. "The last time we did that the unions took a big sleeping tablet. All we want is a fair go with the industrial laws."
He said unions had traded shop-floor activism for perceived influence with Labor governments. "Having polite coffees with ministers is no substitute for organising", Mighell said.
Chris Cain, WA branch secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, in an article in the April 2008 edition of the WA MUA newspaper entitled, "WA Branch continues to grow: militant and involved membership is the key", noted: "Many unions have seen their numbers shrink and with that their ability to influence the industrial and political landscape... By contrast, during this time the experience of the WA Branch of the MUA could not have been more stark. Since mid-2003 its growth has been staggering, given the conservative government and experiences of other unions. Since June 2003 the WA Branch has grown about 60%. On average, that's more than 10% per year...
"We are a union that believes in building strength though our members and the elected delegates. This is the foundation of the growth of the WA Branch. The figures speak for themselves."
Commenting on the ABS figures, a spokesperson for federal workplace relations minister Julia Gillard told the SMH that while "it is not for government to denigrate unions... it is also not for government to artificially prop up union membership".
Gooden told GLW that "the Rudd Labor government is hell bent on continuing the Howard regime's policy of shackling the union movement by retaining harsh legal restrictions on right of entry to worksites for union officials, hindering them from recruiting new members, among other essential duties.
"The union movement now faces a challenge and an opportunity. If we mobilise our members to demand the Rudd government abolish all of Work Choices, including the ban on right of entry, and pursue strong policies to win back our union rights and conditions, we have a real chance to reverse the longstanding decline in membership."