Our assessment before the release of the ABS figures for 2000/2001 was that recent trends would need to be reversed if union density and membership levels were to be maintained.

  • The union density rate achieved in 2000/2001 of 24.5% demonstrates a net gain in union membership and signals some positive adjustment to structural change in the economy. Due to further structural change away from unionised occupations in 2000/2001, even if union density within all occupations had remained constant from last year, overall union density would have fallen from 24.7% to 24.5%. Against this backdrop the 2000/2001 outcome of 24.5% represent a very positive result.
  • The 24.5% union density outcome recorded in 2000/2001 indicates a slowing in the rate of union decline. If the decline in union density in 2000/2001 had continued at the same pace as the period 1997-2000, union membership would have declined by just over 100,000 to 22.9%. Instead union membership numbers increased by 900 and union density fell only slightly to 24.5%.


Against the backdrop of economic slowdown, accelerated structural change and the concentration of employment growth in part-time employment, the outcome of 24.5% represents a very positive result. For the second year running, union membership also increased fractionally (up just 900 to 1,902,700), reflecting a stabilisation of union membership levels after the losses of the 1990s.

The other key features of the new ABS figures are as follows.


  • Union membership increased in 9/16 industries, density increased in 8/16
  • the biggest recorded membership increases were in government administration (18, 000), education (11, 300) accommodation, cafes & restaurants (9, 800), transport & storage (7, 200);


– at a sub-sector level, the best performances were recorded by food retailing, air & space transport and road transport where union density increased against recent trends;

– the biggest falls were in health and community services, manufacturing and construction;


  • Union membership generally fell amongst blue-collar occupations amidst major job losses whilst rising amongst middle and high-skill white-collar occupations:


– membership fell substantially amongst tradespersons and labourers but density was stable and higher respectively reflecting the employment downturn;

– trends were polarised amongst white-collar workers according to skill level: membership and density increased amongst advanced and intermediate clerical and service workers but fell amongst elementary clerical, sales and service workers;


  • the occupational grouping with the highest density, intermediate production and transport workers, recorded a strong membership increase but failed to keep pace with employment growth leading to a fall in density




  • Overall, the key changes at an industry and occupational level were:


– Union membership and density continued to fall throughout most of the blue-collar heartland occupations and industries such as manufacturing, construction and electricity, gas & water against the backdrop of heavy job losses (around 50,000 for blue-collar heartland occupations);


  • Some heartland sectors managed to reverse heavy declines in recent years (eg communication services);


– membership growth was mostly concentrated in public administration and a smattering of private-sector services – areas we identified last year as falling into the midlands and lowlands – which represents a small but encouraging sign of adaptation to structural change


  • Reflecting these changes, the proportion of union members who are women continued to rise (now 43%) as membership fell amongst men and increased amongst women
  • Falling membership and density in full-time and permanent employment were offset by growth in casual and part-time employment.
  • union coverage of part-time employees increased (24, 400, 0.5%) whilst membership and density amongst full-time employees fell (23, 400 and 0.5%);


– union coverage amongst permanent employees fell by 13, 300 (0.5%) but increased by 14, 200 (0.5%) amongst casual employees


  • Union density only increased in NSW and SA although the number of union members also increased in Victoria