ABS data released today shows that the number of union members in Australia has increased for the first time in over a decade. Union membership grew by 23,600 last year compared to a decrease of 208,000 in 1999.

ACTU Secretary Greg Combet said the rise reflected the increased focus of unions on grass roots organisation and a growing concern in the community that the anti-union approach of the Howard Government and some employers was damaging the fabric of Australian society.

“I am cautiously optimistic about these figures. To achieve a just and fair society Australia needs effective unions and there are signs that our strategy for revitalising unions is on the right track,” said Mr Combet.

In August 1999 Mr Combet launched unions@work, a strategy document for Australian unions which encouraged a greater focus on workplace activity and organisation. Many unions have since adopted the strategy which has seen union membership and activity grow in some areas.

But Mr Combet said that the decline in union density in Australia over recent years was an issue for the whole community and not just unions. Governments and employers needed to start recognising and respecting the right of employees to join and participate in unions, he said.

“Instead of taking pleasure in any sign that union membership has decreased, Tony Abbott and John Howard should tell the Australian people what they are doing about increased income inequality, job insecurity, casualisation and longer working hours. Because that’s what their anti-union policies have delivered to Australian workers.”

While today’s data shows a slight reduction in union density to 25% due to the growth in overall job numbers, Mr Combet said he was encouraged by an increase in absolute and relative union numbers in growth industries like health, tourism and accommodation. Another ABS survey released yesterday shows that more than a third of all workers in permanent jobs are union members and that 27% of all employees say they belong to a union.

“Our research shows that the vast majority of Australians support policies based on fairness in the workplace. This is what unions stand for and today’s figures reflect that understanding,” said Mr Combet.