Written in September 1991
Last week’s ACTU Congress was a public relations disaster. The media reporting of the congress concentrated on the decline in the representation of workers by the union movement. The Sydney Morning Herald speculated about whether the movement had fallen below the threshold such that it was entitled to play a dominant role in the wage fixing process. The Australian carried an article predicting huge worries for the ALP if the union movement continued to decline as a percentage of the workforce. The television reporting was even worse. Very little attention was devoted to the congress proceedings. Has the “parliament of the union movement” become irrelevant or only boring and un-newsworthy? Apart from the coverage of Hawke’s, Keating’s and Morris’ addresses to the ACTU Congress, there was not much else on television apart from the story of decline.
Two years ago the message coming out of Dallas Brooks Hall was of a union movement boldly confident about restructuring the economy and making Australia a better place. Australia Reconstructed was the message.
This time round the ACTU Congress was much more sober. And I also think much more realistic.
No-one can seriously blame the media for the attention given to the theme of decline. That was one of the themes chosen by the ACTU Executive to emphasise the need for change.
But it is an exquisite irony that the “doom-decline-despair” analysis is being presented at a time when the trade union movement’s influence and victories have never been greater.
The achievements under the ALP/ACTU Accord are enormous and the trade union movement has every right to be proud of its positive contribution to the Accord’s ongoing success. Some of these achievements include:
Since 1983 Australia has experienced unprecedented growth in employment – 1.54 million new jobs, unemployment has fallen to 5.9% (the lowest in 8 years), the participation rate has hit a record high of 63.4% and, if the current unemployment rate was adjusted to the participation rate of 1983, unemployment would be measured at 2.2% – the figure once regarded as full employment.
In other words, never in the federation’s history has there been greater employment opportunities for Australia’s workers. If it is accepted that the fundamental first step towards reducing poverty and increasing workers dignity is to provide meaningful employment to all those who seek work, then this employment record must be seen as the greatest success of the Accord.
Household Disposable Income
Whilst real wages have fallen by 2% since 1983, as a result of ‘social wage’ improvements, taxation changes and the massive increase in employment, average household disposable income – in other words – real spending power of families – has increased by 15%.
* Introduction of universal health insurance system based on capacity to pay
* A national system of superannuation commenced
* Integration of taxation, superannuation, and welfare systems for retirement
* Radical retirement income strategy announced
* Major improvements and new initiatives in the areas of family support, education and training, targeted labour market programmes, taxation reform, housing, pensions, youth, occupational health and safety and equal opportunity policy.
These economic and social gains represent a spectacular success yet recent trade union membership statistics show a dramatic decline in the level of union membership from over 50% of the workforce in 1976 to less than 40% now (with a figure of 25% projected by the year 2000 in the absence of positive steps to reduce this decline).
The decline in union membership is not a peculiarly Australian phenomenon. By international standards Australian unions have managed to contain their losses more effectively than many others. In the US, the union’s share of the private sector workforce is now below 15% and there is every indication that it will continue to decline. Trade union membership is declining throughout Western Europe – Scandinavia is the only exception in this regard. Less than a third of workers in France, Spain and Portugal are unionised. The number of union members in the U.K. has declined from 13.3 million in 1979 to 9.2 million in 1987. In the Netherlands union membership fell from 40% of the workforce in 1979 to 29% in 1985.
One of the questions the congress addressed – even if obliquely – was this: in light of these trends, does labour have much of a future?
In my judgement it has, but there are many things that need to be done in order to enhance the legitimacy and organisational capacity of the labour movement.
In one sense, all organisations have a future if simple existence means anything. But that is not what most of us have in mind. The real issue is can the union movement continue to appeal to existing members and market itself to the millions of Australian workers who are now untouched by the appeal of unionism.
Before dwelling on what needs to be done, I would like to deal with some arguments which seek to explain labour’s current predicaments.
First, it is sometimes said that the union movement is the victim of the success of western liberal democratic societies. In other words, the contribution the labour movement has made to the development of prosperous societies, underpinned by a government welfare safety net, has diminished the appeal of unionism. The injustices and the terror of unemployment are no longer so impressive to many workers in advanced industrial societies.
Undoubtedly, there is much to this line of argument, but I am unconvinced that there is no relevance of union organisation to professional, scientific, technical and administrative workers which such a theory attempts to cover.
Second, the changes in the composition of the workforce is the greatest factor in the decline of the unionised sectors. With the massive drop in manufacturing and related employment, the union movement’s numbers have declined. The services and hospitality sectors increased employment tremendously over the last decade, but it is in such sectors that the union movement finds most difficult to unionise.
Third, an argument bound to become increasingly fashionable is that unionism is an alien ideology to workers in Australian society. It is supposedly not only irrelevant to workers but hostile to their perceptions of themselves. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before those of us who are waiting for Godot will find instead an Australian version of Seymour Martin Lipset who will argue that unionism can never take deep roots amongst the newer kinds of services and professional workers. Henry Lawson quotations about “Staining the Wattle” or “Sticking to your Mates” to ‘prove’ the Australian character of unionism will be beside the point. Verse written in a state of hysteria may sometimes become great poetry but not necessarily useful marketing tools.
There are many other arguments that might be put forth to explain the decline in union workforce density.
What the ACTU decided to do is to concentrate on reforming itself. Significantly, the key debate at the ACTU Congress occurred in the “Organisation and Services of the Trade Union Movement” session. It is significant that the congress linked the issues of organisation and services together as both are interrelated and integral to the tasks of reform and recovery.
In my judgement, the following strategies should be attempted.
First, the amalgamation of unions should be accompanied by rationalisation of workplace union organisation such that one, two or three unions should exist at individual workplaces. Australia currently has around 310 separate trades unions. 52.2% of union members belong to the 18 largest unions each having more than 50,000 members. Almost 72% belong to the 34 unions which have more than 30,000 members. In contrast, 1.7% of union members belong to the 143 unions having fewer than 1,000 members, whilst 7.9% belong to the 226 unions having fewer than 5,000 members.
It is self evident that Australia has too many unions. The inevitable result is that most unions are not capable of providing the level of service for their members that is needed in order to meet the challenges of the next decade and beyond.
The ACTU policy favours the merging of the 310 unions into 20 key industry federations. This makes a good deal of sense. While craft based unionism gave Australia a strong and well organised trade union structure in the 19th and early 20th centuries – it is now slowly strangling us as we approach the year 2000.
Craft based unionism has not only led to the creation of a large number of structural inefficiencies in the union movement, but has largely been responsible for demarcations, infighting and elitism.
No doubt, if Australia was to have its time over, it would build an industry based trade union organisation. But we are stuck with the history and culture of the existing union movement.
In the next few years we must move towards a radical reduction of unions in each industry, based on community of interest between classifications and sensible exchanges and transfers of membership.
The ACTU objective of 20 conglomerate unions is a balance between the concept of industry unionism and the reality of craft unionism.
I do want to place one important caveat on the concept of the move towards “big unions”. Elsewhere in industry and to some extent in the public sector, there is a move towards smaller working units and a corresponding increase in individual responsibility and control. The concept of ‘small is beautiful’, as initially promoted by Schumacher in the 1970s is apparently alive and well.
It would be a tragedy if the union movement, in its efforts to increase its “efficiency” through “economies of scale”, was to further alienate itself from its members and non-members by becoming aloof and inaccessible through the inevitable “bureaucratizing” that will accompany the expansion of the surviving unions.
There is already a perception amongst workers that the existing trade union structure is nothing more than “another bloody bureaucracy”! We must strive to project unionism with a “human face”!
Second, more competition should occur between unions to recruit potential members. It would be a tragedy if union amalgamation simply led to smaller numbers of unions but with each one jealously patrolling its area of jurisdictional coverage.
Third, more can be learnt from successful non-unionised companies in human resources management. I am not thinking here of learning from union-busters, although the reasons why workers decide to reject union membership together with the attempt of professional anti-unionists to achieve such an objective is not what I have in mind. Rather, I think that the larger companies like IBM which have invested huge amounts of time and resources to improving productivity and job satisfaction are worthy of note.
Fourth, the union movement should market more services to members and potential members. Some strides have already been taken. In particular, A.C.T.U. Financial Service Trust has been established by the A.C.T.U. and 12 affiliates to deliver a wide range of financial services on privileged terms to union members. The areas being addressed are:
– Banking and credit
– Financial advice/retirement planning
– Leisure (including travel and entertainment)
– Health maintenance
The objective of the ventures are straight forward: to deliver real benefits to members so that:
– They see value beyond the traditional services offered by unions;
– Non-members will see value in becoming members; and
– The regard in which individual unions and the movement as a whole is enhanced.
The privilege programme is currently being tested in Victoria.
Fifth, more resources should be devoted to the training and recruitment. Such training falls into two broad categories:
I. Union Training: This could include a basic introduction to trade unionism in general and the union in particular; officer training (for example, for shop stewards, treasurers, secretaries, etc); specialised training (for example, in areas like occupational health and safety, affirmative action or worker participation), and “single issue” training (for example, to alert members to recent legislative developments, new wage principles and so on).
It is imperative that trade union representatives receive information and training that is relevant to the issues confronting the trade union movement in order to enhance their capacity to provide a high level of service to their members. In this regard the ACTU, in consultation with the Trade Union Training Authority (TUTA), should establish formal links with tertiary education institutions to ensure that the provision of training leading to recognised qualifications is relevant to the needs of the trade union movement.
II. Vocational Training: This would include providing training, or assistance with training to enable members to acquire new skills, refine existing skills or generally to improve their career prospects.
TUTA has an important part to play in providing union training. But it does not have, and is not likely to have, the resources to provide adequate levels of service to the entire union movement. This is demonstrated by the recent decision of the Australian Council of TUTA to discontinue wage reimbursements and reimbursements for student travel and accommodation expenses. As a consequence, it is imperative that unions take steps to have trade union training leave provisions inserted into awards.
Individual unions and the ACTU will have to devote far more time and resources to lifting recruitment levels if we are to turn the tide. We can easily identify those industries and classifications of work that need special targeting.
The three big growth industries are:
– Wholesale and retail trade
– Finance property and business services
– Recreation, personal and other services.
Unionism here averages 25%. In the future more than 3 out of 4 new jobs will come from those groups. By classifications, the clerks and the sale persons are the two fastest growing in our economy. They are also two of the most difficult groups to organise. This explains why clerks are only organised at 18% and sales persons at 30% in the private sector.
New sophistication will have to be brought to our recruitment drive. This will include surveys, marketing, modern communications and expansion of services.
Tonight, I have touched on some of the problems and suggested solutions the Australian unions have to face up to.
Industry based union amalgamation and rationalisation may lead to fewer, larger and more efficient unions. The provision of a wider variety of quality services, promotional campaigns aimed at migrants, women and youth, the adoption of progressive environmental, social and industrial policies and the promotion of women to union executive positions should improve the standing of unions in the community. But given the international and local experience, a major and sustained effort will be required merely to halt the decline let alone extend union coverage.
During debate at the ACTU Congress last week, Secretary Bill Kelty argued that trade unions “don’t have a god given right to exist”. It therefore follows that if we continue to exist we have no god given right to expect union coverage of 40, 50 or 60%. I said earlier that on an international comparison, Australian unions have performed quite well in stemming the decline in union density. Unions in this country over the past six years have shown an overwhelming capacity to grasp the nature of fast moving and complex economic change.
If the labour movement can now show this same intelligence, flexibility and plain hard work and effort in relation to its own organisational structures and operations, I am confident that the labour movement will survive and evolve in a way that maintains its relevance to history, the economy and most importantly, its members.
The book I co-edited with Michael Crosby, What Should Unions Do?, Pluto Press and the Lloyd Ross Forum, Leichhardt, 1992, was a response to many of the questions raised in this paper.