ACTU Assistant Secretary, Richard Marles on the bleak times the Australian Union Movement had in the 90’s and the circumstances that gave rise to that situation.

Thank you Mark and Warren for having me here tonight.


I’m a Geelong boy so I’m not from this place but I’m sort of from this direction. I know a couple of your ex-colleagues in John Kranz and Gavin Penn who now work in Geelong and so I have heard a lot about the South West Trades and Labour Council and it is nice to finally meet you all.


What a difference a couple of years make.


Life on 1 July 1999


I want you to cast your minds back to 1 July 1999 and think about what you were doing on that day.

Union Density

Because on that day the union movement had just endured 25 years of consistent decline in union density and union numbers. Indeed, the year 1999 was one of the two worst years on record in terms of falls in union membership.

Political Landscape

We had two very conservative governments in place. And they were not just conservative governments but hostile anti-union governments. I think the Victorian government was the most anti-union government in Victoria’s history and the same can be said of the existing federal government.

Employer Hostility

And it was around this time that BHP was starting to heat things up in its operations in the Pilbara. After years of settled relations between BHP and the unions on site, which had involved a number of negotiated collective agreements, BHP suddenly said that it wasn’t going to do that anymore and refused to negotiate an agreement with the unions. At the same time it offered its entire workforce individual agreements. Sadly, from the union movement’s point of view 45% of the workforce took those offers up.


The significance of the dispute was that it was the first time that a large company had used this legislation to try the traditional de-unionisation technique of offering individual agreements across its workforce. It is probably the second time in the country’s history that this technique had been used. The first was CRA\Rio Tinto offering individual agreements in the late 80’s and early 90’s where they fairly successfully, from their point of view, managed to de-unionise a large part of their workforce.


I think that a number of us hoped that this kind of technique would have been confined to Rio Tinto as there was a bit of a lull between them and BHP’s attempts. But in hindsight there was a small industrial dispute involving the Maritime Union of Australia which held the attention of both the corporate and union world during the intervening years.


BHP was not the only major company offering individual agreements in 1999. Telstra in a more sophisticated way offered agreements across its entire workforce of 60,000 employees. Telstra is the largest employer in Australia. And the following year the Commonwealth Bank of Australia offered individual agreements across its workforce of 25,000 employees. Together these three companies employ something like 5% of the union movement and together it represented the single biggest employer sponsored de-unionisation push in our country’s history.

The Cause, Effect and Significance of Our Darkest Hour

So these were bleak times. And I think future generations will look back at the late 90’s and regard this as the Australian Union Movement’s darkest hour. However, I put it in this way quite deliberately because I think we have seen our darkest hour. I think the future is more optimistic and holds brighter times ahead. But before I talk about that it’s worth thinking a little bit about the circumstances which gave rise to the situation that the union movement was in at that time.

Union Density

Don’t let anybody tell you that the cause of a decline in union density was a lack of relevance on the part of unions or the fact that unions were not doing their job properly. Nothing could be further from the truth.


A decline in union density has occurred because there has been a dramatic change in the economy. Economists will tell you there are the three ages of the economy. First came the industrial age, then in about the 1970’s there came the service age, and now we are moving into the information technology age. In the transition from the industrial to the service age our economy went through major changes which resulted in a decline in union density.


But it was not only us. It was an international phenomena which occurred across the English speaking world – the UK, Canada, the US and New Zealand.


To give you one example, in manufacturing in 1973 1.4 million Australians were employed in the industry, which comprised about 25% of the workforce. Now there is 1.1 million Australians employed in manufacturing which comprises a mere 12.5% of the workforce. As a proportion of the economy manufacturing has halved in the last 27 years. And this is indicative across the entire “union economy”. The “union economy” has declined and so too has union density with it.


But if you take union density within the “union economy” you will find that it has actually increased over that period of time. We could well argue that we have in fact been doing our job better over that period of time and that more people who are able to join the union movement have joined the union movement. We could argue that a decline in union density is not our fault. However, that doesn’t help. Because whoever’s fault it was, it is certainly our responsibility to ensure union growth in the future.

Political Landscape

The effect of having Liberal Governments in power is not that they have contributed to union decline. As I have said, that is all about the economy.


However, they have the potential to inhibit our resurgence in the future. This is because we now operate under the harshest system of industrial laws in the developed world. Not one of the harshest but THE harshest set of laws in the developed world.


Let me give you one example. We have a bargaining system of industrial relations with no collective bargaining rights. That is, 100% of a workforce can come together under the banner of a union and attempt to seek to negotiate a collective agreement with the employer and the employer can quite lawfully ignore that request and refuse to negotiate. Indeed the only way are able to achieve enterprise agreements is if we have the industrial strength to achieve them.


This is not the way the rest of the world operates. In fact the only other countries in the world who do not have collective bargaining rights are the Gulf States – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman. If you’re a union in Paraguay, Indonesia or Swaziland you have better rights in relation to this than you do in Australia.


Those countries and indeed the rest of the developed world have a system whereby if a certain threshold of employees who want to negotiate a collective agreement approach the employer to do that, then there is a legal obligation upon the employer to negotiate with them in good faith. There is a legal obligation to engage in those negotiations toward a collective agreement. And that’s fair. That is how it should be. Because this is the only way you can address the inherent power imbalance between employees and employers, between workers and bosses, when it comes to negotiating employment relationships. Indeed Australia, through the International Labor Organisation, is obliged internationally to provide employees with these rights.

Employer Hostility

The significance of the BHPs, and the Commonwealth Banks, and the Telstras wanting to take on the union movement is that they are trying to import into Australia a US style culture of industrial relations.


This is a culture of industrial relations which is not so much adversarial as it is utterly hostile. It is based on the proposition that employers have power in the bargaining process and employees don’t and that employers use that power to step on employees. And the problem is that to an extent it works. The US economy has been the most productive economy in the world for the last 50 years. But while there are undoubtedly winners in that economy there are many many losers as well.


I know that as a unionist we do not want that culture in Australia because we will be the losers. However, I think that as a country we also don’t want that kind of culture in Australia. It does create a great division between rich and poor and it is worth noting that the country in the developed world which has the greatest division between rich and poor is the United States.


But it doesn’t have to be this way. It is certainly not the European way. In Europe they have an industrial relations culture far more based on co-operation. Where workers and employers work together to have their companies be as productive as possible. Their divisions between rich and poor are not nearly so great. And yet these are very productive economies.


The truth is that this used to be the Australian way. We have had in Australia a consensus between labour and capital which has really been in place for most of the last 100 years. And it is this consensus which the Telstras and the Commonwealth Banks and the BHPs are trying to break down.


Life on 11 May 2001


So let us just come back to the present and think about where we are at now on 11 May 2001. The circumstances may not be dramatically different. However, the tendances out there, I think, are radically different.

Employer Hostility

For starters there hasn’t been a single corporate who has taken on the union movement in the sense of attempting to de-unionise – there have been fights over bargaining but not fights about de-unionising – since last August. Now I grant you that’s not a great deal of time. But I think it’s unlikely that any corporate will embark upon a campaign of this type before the next federal election. Most pundits predict the election will be towards the end of November this year at which time it will be more than a year since we have had a corporate try to take us on in this way. Even that I don’t regard as being particularly significant but it is at the very least a breather.

Political Landscape

On the political front things are very different. In September and October of 1999 we achieved a Labor Government in Victoria. This was followed up at the beginning of this year with Labor victories in Western Australia and then Queensland. And of course we all wait with anticipation the end of the year when there’ll be a federal election.


If the Queensland result is replicated in the federal election just within Queensland we stand to pick up something in the order of 10 seats in that state. Most people expect that we will pick up 2-3 seats in South Australia and Western Australia. Current polling indicates that we will pick up about 10 seats in Victoria but I think a more realistic assessment of that is 4-5 seats. So across those States we are talking about something in the order of a 15 seat gain and the margin that we need to win government is 5 seats. And in all of this we have not even mentioned New South Wales where most people regard Labor as having the greatest opportunity to improve in what is our largest State.


However, if we learnt anything in 1999 it is that you can not predict anything in politics. Still, we can quite rightly look forward to the end of the year with a sense of optimism about the outcome of the election.


But as unionists it’s not just about winning elections for winning’s sake as fun as that will be. We hope that we win the election so that there will be fairer industrial legislation introduced. And on this front I think there is also cause for optimism. At it’s conference last year in Hobart the ALP adopted an industrial relations policy which was one of the best industrial relations policies the Labor Party has ever had. It’s not perfect but it’s pretty good. It’s certainly radically different to what the conservative government has in place at the moment. All of which means that we can look forward perhaps in the next couple of years to there being new legislation in Australia and a fairer industrial relations environment.

Union Density

Finally, this brings me back to where I started and that is how the union movement is going in increasing union density.


Towards the end of 1999 the ACTU released a document called unions@work. This is a plan or an agenda to try and work out ways in which we can unionise the non union service sector. It is pretty simple stuff. It’s about saying to people who have not been exposed to unionism before that when two people walk hand in hand with a problem to their employer they do so with more strength than one. It’s also about trying to convince unions to put more resources into organising and recruiting in the non union sector. And that is something that we have been trying to do now for a number of years.


Is it working?


Well in the last month the ABS has released figures which it does every year about union membership levels. And for the first time in 12 years we have had a growth in union membership of about 24,000 people. That is the size of a not insignificant union. I think it’s about the size of the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union for example. And if there is any figure which should give you hope about the future it is that.


And just to add to that, Universities and the ABS have been conducting research for a long time now about the attitude of the community towards unions in general. They ask unionists and non unionists alike what they think of unions, how they think unions are performing, and whether or not they think the union movement is doing a good job. And right now the approval rating of unions is at an all time high. We are more popular within the community than we have ever been. This too should give us great cause for optimism.


And so when you take all these things together it may just be, that as bleak as the late 1990’s were, sitting here in the middle of 2001 looking forward to a new century we may just be on the verge of the rebirth of the Australian Union Movement. Of course as unionists it’s our job to make sure that that is what we are about to experience. But if we are about to experience the rebirth of the Australian Union Movement, well what a fantastic time to be involved in unions.


Thank you for having me.


This speech was made to the South West Trades and Labour Council, 11 May 2001.


ACTU Assistant Secretary, Richard Marles