Unions: part of the solution, or part of the problem?

The WorkChoices campaign was a rare and important success for the Australian union movement, but can it build on this success of eight years ago? Author provided, Author provided

Since the 1980s, Australia, like many industrialised countries, has experienced rising inequality and growing concentration of income, wealth and power. Within the workplace, there are major concerns about working hours, work intensity, work-life balance, pressures on women, “overemployment” and underemployment, demands on employees for flexibility, insecurity, micro-management of time and managerial efforts to control “culture”.

Upward redistribution of income and power has accompanied the spread of “market liberal” or “neoliberal” policies in most industrialised countries – without any distinguishable improvement in productivity to justify it.

In this grim context, are unions part of the solution, or part of the problem?

Unions and the problems of the past

Through much of the 20th century, unions’ high membership and industrial and political strategies gave workers – both members and non-members – substantial gains, helping moderate or reduce inequality.

In the 1990s, though, what had worked well for unions (tribunal advocacy and doing politics with the ALP) became a liability in a context where employers and governments became belligerent and the workplace, not the tribunal, became the centre of wage determination.

Membership declined. To varying degrees unions sought to reorganise, devoting more resources to the workplace and training of workplace delegates. This boosted influence in some workplaces but the environment remained adverse. A rare but major success was the Your Rights at Work campaign against the Howard government.

Now the problem?

Although the decline was stabilised by the early 2000s, membership failed to grow sufficiently to match workforce growth, so union density (membership as a proportion of the workforce) continued to ease. If unions were once part of a solution, their situation now is a barrier to redressing the growth in inequality, and hence is part of the problem. Increased inequality in several countries has been linked to fallen union density. Few Australian unions have been fully transformed and it is important not to understate the magnitude of changes now demanded of them.

Australian unions are in a weaker situation than during the Accord of the 1980s and early 1990s. Competition for “rents”, generating a spiral of unemployment and inflation, had prompted the Accord as a solution. These days rents are still being extracted, but by different groups – extremely high income earners, top managers and directors of large firms, and some financiers.

By the Rudd-Gillard years, unions were relegated to just another lobby group. They maintained links with the Labor Party, but that government seemingly figured, “where else could unions go?”. Unions put resources into the ALP, which badly needs the resources but does not want the unions.

Structurally, unionism is no longer a primarily male, blue-collar affair. Soon there will be more female trade unionists than males. White-collar unionists now out-number blue-collars by two to one. Professionals are unions’ biggest occupational group. Manufacturing accounts for only 7% of members, less than half those in health care and social assistance. Many of the “heartlands” of unionism are no longer so.

Governance remains an issue. There are well-argued claims that proceedings of the Royal Commission on Union Corruption demonstrated bias against unions, but also no doubt that some corruption existed within some unions. To the extent certain union officials enriched themselves and disenfranchised members, this anti-democratic activity undermined workplace unionism. The governance challenge is how can unions be demonstrably pure without also appearing impotent.

Meanwhile there is a clear need for major rethinking of economic and social policy, in Australia and overseas. Despite the failure of liberal market policies through the global financial crisis, pushing millions out of work globally, the ideas behind market liberalism showed zombie-like persistence. Civil society failed to develop and articulate an alternative vision.

Can unions be part of the solution?

The net effect of globalisation’s contradictory tendencies – promoting economic and employment growth alongside greater demands for flexibility and risk shifting – depends on choices taken by many actors.

But what is unions’ capacity to shape these forces and mobilise responses? Australian unions do not face unique problems, though national factors have exacerbated them. Canadians Lévesque and Murray identified key “power resources” for unions, including their internal solidarity and infrastructure. But unions must also be capable of using these resources as contexts change. Much depends on unions’ capacities for learning, framing issues, fostering collaborative action and networks, and devising actions across time and space.

Effective union mobilisation requires power and capabilities on many levels. But perhaps the foundation is the workplace. Workplace influence requires workplace activism. This depends on effective delegates with self-belief, supported by union offices, with access to networks providing back-up, information and ideas. Formal training of delegates is essential but almost wasted if resources are not put into follow-up of training. Necessary structural changes can be both expensive and controversial.

Workplace influence requires delegates and members believe they can and do influence what the union does. Workers cannot have power in the workplace if they don’t have power in the union.

Democratisation is not so much about elected structures as it is about members’ and delegates’ ability to shape what the union does and how open it is to members’ preferences and their diversity.

An effective response to workplace and national problems requires new ways of doing and thinking about things. The prominence given to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century reflects how it “suits the mood of the times”. The need to develop an alternative vision is greater now than ever before.

But can unions mobilise outside labour? Are they capable of engagement in a ‘big conversation’ about alternatives? It would require change to the “insider” mentality – precisely what the Accord did when pensioners and poverty became industrial issues. It would require confronting unions’ old anti-environmental image – but already many actively engage in environmental and climate issues. Unions are probably the only group with the resources, breadth of membership, and organising capability to draw together the disparate groups and individuals concerned with developing an alternative. In that way, they could be central to the solution.

In the end, if unions are to be part of the solution, there is much to be done. It requires action in developing and empowering workplace delegates and members, democratising union processes, strengthening articulations between levels, developing framing capabilities, managing governance, becoming learning organisations, deepening links and networks with other organisations and movements in the community, and using such links to build and articulate an alternative vision of society. It is a huge task. But if unions don’t do this, who will?

This is an abbreviated version of a fully-referenced article in Australian Review of Public Affairs.