ACTU President, Jennie George on the decline of union membership and the need for unions to focus more directly on the workplace.

It has become somewhat cliched to quote Mark Twain, but I am here to let you know that reports of the death of the Australian union movement are greatly exaggerated.


Falling union membership has been seen by some as evidence of the end of unionism, with our movement characterised as an anachronistic, lumbering (but occasionally vicious) bear needing only a good kick in the form of legislation and a tough dispute or two to knock it into oblivion.


It is becoming increasingly obvious, however, that the animal is neither dead nor dying. Australia is not New Zealand; although unions in this country are not immune from the difficulties and challenges experienced by their counterparts throughout the world, we have been in a better position to respond strategically than some others.


Just in parenthesis, although union membership density in New Zealand has fallen more rapidly than in Australia, with a greater effect on the union movement’s viability, there are a number of examples of unions coming back, with innovative organising strategies which have adapted to the realities of the country’s present industrial relations system.


In Australia, union membership has declined from 57 per cent to around 31 per cent in the last 20 years. Obviously, this is a great concern to the ACTU and to unions generally, and issues of organising and recruitment have been central to our planning for some years.

Reasons For The Decline

If the issue is to be understood and addressed, then it is crucial to understand the causes of the decline. In my view, a very small proportion of the decline, if any, can be attributed to workers who were union members deciding that they no longer wish to continue their membership.


So what are the reasons?

Structural Change

A major factor has been dramatic changes in the structure and composition of the labour market. Put simply, there are fewer workers who could be characterised as tradition unionists; that is, male, blue collar and full-time, while at the same time there has been a growth in employment where union density has traditionally been poor – in service industries, and amongst women and part-time workers. It is linked to globalisation and the greater ability of capital to shift itself around to achieve, amongst other things, cheap labour, which has led to the development internationally of “precarious” employment – workers whose employment is insecure, often part-time and low-paid.


These changes are very striking.



  • Full-time employment has declined from 90 per cent in 1966 to 72 per cent in 1996.




  • Casual employment has doubled to 20 per cent since 1982.




  • Women make up 43 per cent of the workforce, up from 31 per cent in 1966 and are more likely than men to be employed part-time.




  • Employment in manufacturing, and the public sector, where union membership has tended to be higher, has declined in favour of employment in industries such as finance, community services, retail and hospitality.




  • Employment growth has been concentrated in small business, while large business and the public sector have reducing employment levels, another indication of jobs shifting into the traditionally ununionised sectors of the economy.


Government and Employer Hostility

The unrelenting campaign against unions by some government and employers has had an effect on workers’ willingness to join unions. It would be staggering if it had not, although this has not been the major factor in the decrease in union membership density. I am well aware that the decline continued in a period when the Labor Party was in government federally and in the states.


In particular, abolition of awards in Victoria, and introduction of individual contracts in a number of states allowed employers to stand over their employees and reduce wages and conditions and made it much harder for unions to protect members entitlements, although in some cases workers have come to unions for the first time because of their fears about losing established conditions.


Since the election of the Howard Government, industrial relations legislation has been amended along similar lines, although generally on a less draconian scale than in Victoria and Western Australia.


One consequence of the federal legislation is that it is considerably more difficult for unions to gain federal award coverage for workers to enable them to transfer from repressive state systems. Unions’ ability to gain federal awards for these workers was of significant assistance in organising and recruiting in some states.


As the political climate changed in the nineties, so did the attitude of some employers. Traditionally, many unions were able to work co-operatively with employers (albeit not without some conflict) reflecting the “historic compromise” at the time of federation, whereby unions accepted the conciliation and arbitration system, which constrained their freedom of action, understanding that it would deliver a system of fair wages and conditions.


During the late eighties and early nineties, the wage fixing principles encouraged employers and unions to work together to increase productivity and efficiency, to develop export industries and increase the skills and knowledge of workers.


While many employers are continuing this approach, others have determined on a different course. Foremost amongst these is Rio Tinto (formerly CRA) which has, site by site, set out to deunionise its workforce by breaking up collective structures in favour of individualised relationships between each employee and the company.


This approach has had some success in the company’s operations outside the coal industry, where workers came to believe that signing individual contracts was the only means of obtaining a wage increase and/or a promotion. It must be said, unhappily, that union ineffectiveness and in-fighting contributed to the workers taking that view.


The ACTU did have some success, however, in achieving through the Commission some recognition that workers wishing to be collectively represented should be treated equally with those signing individual contracts.


As time goes on, it is becoming clear that significant numbers of Rio Tinto employees on individual contracts are finding that the company is no longer so benevolent, and that they have little recourse against unfair treatment.


While few companies have been as belligerently anti-union as Rio Tinto, there has been a marked shift in employer attitude, reflected in refusals to negotiate, cessation of deduction of union dues, restricting right of entry and seeking legal sanctions against industrial action.


The banking and finance industry has seen a number of new entrants make strenuous efforts to prevent union involvement in their relations with their employees.


At the same time, globalisation and increased competition have led to greater divisions between a core of skilled, well-paid employees and the growth of “precarious employment” – employees with insecure and low-paid jobs, often either part-time or engaged as “independent contractors” so as to avoid the obligations attached to employee status.


As employers outsource a growing number of functions, the contracting companies attack wages and conditions in an attempt to compete for work. De-unionisation may be seen by some employers as essential to this process.

Member Dissatisfaction

It is sometimes suggested, including from within the union movement, that our own policies have led to membership decline. Two in particular are frequently mentioned.


The first of these is union amalgamation. It is sometimes argued that the amalgamation process has led to top heavy organisations, preoccupied with fighting over the spoils of office and insensitive to the needs of workers, who can no longer identify with a union reflecting their industry or occupation.


To this, I say that amalgamation can only provide the opportunity for unions to take advantage of economies of scale and more efficient administration in order to shift resources to the workplace level. Amalgamation itself will not cause this to happen.


It should also be noted that amalgamation did not create inter or intra-union conflict, as a glance at the law reports will tell you.


The other major policy issue often raised is the Accord. The argument goes that workers saw the Accord processes as bringing the union movement too close to the Hawke and Keating governments, with workers feeling that they were restrained from pursuing wage increases or forced to negotiate “offsets” in return for any improvements, whether as a consequence of the wage fixing principles or through enterprise bargaining.


While some workers no doubt held these views (reinforced occasionally by union officials to explain difficulties or lack of results) there is no evidence to suggest that this has contributed significantly to membership decline, although it may have had some political impact.


Academic work by Dr David Peetz has concluded, on the basis of testing a number of related hypotheses, that there is little, if any, demonstrable connection between the Accord and the decline in union membership, which he attributes to what he terms “the collapse of compulsory unionism”.


After finding that union density amongst workers in jobs where membership was not compulsory had remained relatively stable, Peetz concluded that the decline in membership could not be explained by declining employee interest in union membership, let alone on declining interest in the Accord.

The Union Response

Unlike the dinosaurs, unions are adapting and changing in response to the changing environment. Primarily, this involves a recognition that workers join unions and maintain their membership because they believe that this is of benefit to them in the workplace. This means that unions need to focus more directly on the workplace. It also means that unions must tailor their approach to the particular needs of specific groups of workers, while not ignoring the movement’s responsibility to the community generally.


I am not guaranteeing that union membership levels can be restored to those of 20 years ago. However, a number of unions have been successful in arresting or slowing down decline through this kind of emphasis. In many cases, this has meant developing successful recruiting strategies in new areas of employment, to compensate for reduced employment in the traditionally unionised sectors.


The ACTU, together with union affiliates, are currently addressing a number of key areas as the focus for these efforts.

At The Workplace

The workplace has always been the key site for union activity, although centralised wage fixing can lead to feeling that there is little to do on the job apart from dealing with specific grievances.


It should first of all be noted that members may well give on-the-job problems, such as the way they are treated by supervisors, a higher priority than a wage rise.


In any event, the shift to enterprise bargaining, particularly in the context of the change of government, means that workplace activity will be the source of most improvements in wages and conditions, and in many cases will be necessary in order to maintain current entitlements.


It is simply impossible for unions to employ a sufficient number of officials to run all the workplace activity which is required. The major priority of unions must be to develop a structure based on delegates and activists who feel confident enough to represent members on the job. The role of unions should be to provide training and information, resources and advice, to assist workplace activists in their work.


An activist structure is the key to successful union activity, and is of greater importance than mere density. In France, for example, where only around nine per cent of workers are union members, this base is able to mobilise economy-wide around issues in a way which must be the envy of union movements in countries with higher membership.


The recent United Parcel Service dispute in the United States also showed how, in a country with low union membership, public support could be achieved for workers who are seen as vulnerable and exploited.


The success of the FSU and ASU in the merged Suncorp-Metway ‘bankassurance’ company in Queensland, also shows what good organising can achieve, even though union membership is less than a third of all employees. In this case, a majority of employees, in response to the union campaign, voted to reject a non-union certified agreement which would have reduced their conditions, in the face of a very anti-union employer (the sixth largest financial institution in the country) which had refused to negotiate with the unions.


The Suncorp-Metway campaign is a textbook case, where the two unions involved were able to put aside their coverage dispute in order to work co-operatively in recruitment and campaigning, as the “SMQ Unions Group”. A crucial part of the campaign was independent polling to obtain the views of employees, and constant communication via leaflets and fax.


It also demonstrates the need to identify the union clearly with the workplace. The economies of scale and efficiencies made possible through amalgamation should allow for more decentralised activity and decision making. The LHMU, for example, a very large amalgamated union, has been able to recruit successfully in the Sydney and Melbourne casinos by ensuring that its efforts are carefully targeted and relevant to those enterprises. Many workers see themselves as joining a casino union, rather than a large conglomerate of many industries.

Cultural Change

Organising today requires strategies which take into account the nature of the particular workforce. No longer can it be assumed that all workers meet at the one time and the one place, at lunchtime, to be addressed by union officials.


Unions with significant numbers of part-time and casual employees, particularly where work occurs outside normal office hours, need to restructure the way they operated to match these working arrangements. The SDA, which has increased its membership by 16,000 in the last two years, employs young part-time organisers to work evenings and weekends, to provide services to that sector of the part-time workforce.


The ACTU’s Organising Works program has placed around 250 young people in unions in an effort to develop an organising culture with an emphasis on recruiting.


Use of telephone campaigns through our call centre provides a means of contracting members personally where this is not possible at the workplace.


Unions are also changing in response tot he changing nature of the workforce. They are becoming more representative; officials are more likely to be female and their average age is lower. The ACTU Congress decision to add affirmative action positions for young people and indigenous representatives to those already applying to women on the Executive and Council reflects the new reality.


This is not to say that the union movement has achieved a truly representative structure; it is still male-dominated and likely to remain so for some time, although, as Barbara Pocock has commented, the picture is better when compared to other major institutions such as Parliament and the corporate world.


I am heartened by the growing number of very effective women who are branch secretaries, assistant secretaries and federal officials. In part, of course, this reflects the changing structure of the workforce, with women coming to the fore in unions with large number of female members, such as the teachers, public servants, ASU, LHMU and MEAA.

Non-Industrial Services

While workplace issues are the reason workers join unions and stay in them, there can be substantial value in unions providing additional service to members. Emphasis on professional issues are seen as valuable by members of unions such as the ANF, APESMA and the Independent Education Union, all of which have achieved substantial membership growth in the last two years.


APESMA has developed post-graduate management training for members, including an MBA, and the ACTU, in conjunction with Deakin University, is working to extend training opportunities to members of other unions.


Unions have traditionally offered services such as legal work, taxation advice, discount medical and dental services, credit unions, discount purchasing and travel and cheaper home loans, but these have generally been un-coordinated and not particularly will targeted.


An ACTU initiative due to commence early next year will provide a range of services linked through a union membership card, including a nationwide discount purchasing system, a cash-back reward program from a range of retailers and service providers, together with access to career development through vocational education and training courses.

Links To The Community

It is sometimes said that the decline in union membership is linked to a general decline in community; that is, that people lead much more individualised and atomised lives, with home as the centre, rather than work or social organisations. This is obviously right, at least to some extent, as can be seen in the low attendance at union meetings held at night.


But this is not the whole story. We know that people will not leave the attractions of the television or the computer to venture out to a boring, routine meeting in the union office or the local hall.


At the same time, however, many so-called union issues affect significant sections of the community, and unions can work with other groups and organisations to reach far beyond the boundaries of union membership.


France is an example where a relatively small core of union activists can mobilise the community around issues which concern living standards generally.


The ACTU’s Living Wage Claim is an example of this approach; the outcome will be of little benefit to many active union members in key industries, who by and large are able to obtain wage increases through enterprise bargaining. Through the claim the ACTU is seeking to benefit not merely its own membership, but all low-paid workers. The strong support given by community organisations concerned with the plight of the poor shows in practice that unions are seen to speak for all employees, not merely those who have taken out financial membership.


Specific campaigns can also link unions with the community. In the United States, the union-run Justice for Janitors campaign engendered wide-spread community support as it utilised community organisation strategies traditionally belonging to organisations working within immigrant and poor communities. This campaign recognised that, in an industry based around competing contractors, increased wages in one company would simply lead to job losses as it became competitive. The campaign was successful because it was able to combine industrial action with community pressure.


The dispute over Workcover in Victoria shows how what starts as a “union” issue can achieve community support to an extent that it impacts significantly on the political process, as will be seen in the Mitcham by-election.


The campaign for clothing retailers to take some responsibility for the employment conditions of outworkers was also very successful, through imaginatively linking union concerns with community groups working to support migrant women, and developing strategies which caught public attention and focussed on the role of major retailers such as Sportsgirl. The growth of outwork in the clothing industry is one of the clearest manifestations of globalisation and the consequent pressure on employment conditions.


The task for unions as we move into the twenty first century is to combine two primary roles.


First, to represent workers at the workplace, utilising collective bargaining to protect their interests and improve wages and conditions.


Second, on a nationwide scale, to represent the interests of wage-earners, the unemployed, and all those who are vulnerable and in need.


The ILO’s recent World Labour Report asks whether collective bargaining remains relevant given seemingly intractable unemployment and the growth of precarious employment.


The question is obviously a very important one. Under the Howard-Reith scenario, unions could retain their influence in key areas of the economy, and maintain relatively high wages for those workers in a strong positions in the labour market. I believe that Australian unions are well-placed to continue to represent these workers, even in the fact of employer attacks initiated or encouraged by the Government.


However, this is not where union responsibilities end. We do have a responsibility and a duty to use industrial, social and political avenues on behalf of all working people, and we cannot fall into the trap of being content with representing a core of high paid workers, while the rest of the workforce becomes totally alienated from unions in the face of growing inequality.


Although the result of the last election means that it is no longer possible to negotiate with Government for improvements in the social wage, including employment targets, it is critical that unions continue to play their part in working for a fairer society in the interests of us all. We will do this in the Industrial Relations Commission and in the streets, as we always have; unions are around for the very long haul.


Address By ACTU President Jennie George To The Third International Conference on Emerging Unions Structures: Reshaping Labour Market Institutions. Australian National University, Canberra, Monday, 1st December 1997.