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Paul Howes and the mysterious membership figures

Paul Howes faces claims he has inflated the AWU membership figures. AAP

This morning Fairfax newspapers delivered a savage hit to the reputation of Paul Howes, National Secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) and the country’s best-known union leader.

The story carried in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald, seemingly well-substantiated, suggests that Howes’ union, has not been acquiring new members to anywhere near the extent he claims.

This is not just about integrity, it goes to the heart of the viability of the union movement’s survival. And it undercuts Howes’ claim to be the leader of a new generation building the union movement’s future.

Paul Howes, not yet 30 years old, has been a national AWU leader since his equally ambitious predecessor, Bill Shorten, departed in 2007 for federal parliament and a career that many insiders tip will take him all the way to the Lodge.

As AWU National Secretary, Howes is vice-president of the ACTU and a member of the ALP’s national executive. He is an ultimate insider and one of a small group of union officials that effectively run the Australian trade union movement.

Having left school at age 17, he is the only member of this elite group that does not hold a university degree. Nor has he come off the tools. Howes was political from the start and after a dabble on the far-left, he has worked in right-wing union offices for all of his short career.

Howes worked closely with Shorten, and then ACTU Secretary, now Gillard’s climate change Minister, Greg Combet, on the fight against Howard’s WorkChoices legislation between 2005 and 2007.

They won the battle, not the war. Without a reversal in membership trends, it is only a matter of time before new business and conservative political campaigns further undercut an already weakened union movement.

For the past decade and a half, membership has been a prime obsession of the trade union movement. Not surprising, given the precipitous decline in union membership that started as a trickle way back in the 1960s and became a torrent with the collapse of the Accord and the onset of this country’s last recession in the 1990s.

Since the mid-nineties, Australian unions have looked around the world for answers to the membership problem. In particular, they have looked at US unions, like the Service Industry Employees Union (SIEU), which has enjoyed formidable membership growth in hostile circumstances.

The SIEU is an exemplar of the “organising model”; it argues that its success in membership recruitment and retention flows from political or public relations campaigning. It’s all about getting workers involved and about winning the public support needed to sway politicians, including those in the ALP.

Although the ACTU encourages its affiliates to become campaigning organisations, progress has been slow and patchy. It does not sit well with officials schooled in the traditional Australian approach of relying on the ALP and the arbitration system.

Some officials see the organising model as too American, or nothing new because Australian unions have always run campaigns. Some officials argue that PR and political lobbying still needs to be backed up by industrial muscle. There’s no doubt that Paul Howes loves a campaign.

Howes has been in the media recently promoting his union’s campaign against Rio Tinto which includes TV ads in Tasmania and on the national cable channel, Sky News.

In February this year, Howes launched a workplace safety campaign with the tagline “Guard it or ban it”. Also in February, there came the campaign against predatory pricing by importers called “Don’t Dump on Australia”.

Other traditional blue-collar union are also using political campaigning to win public support for their policy positions, rather than going on strike. Professional unions, like teachers and nurses, not affiliated with the ALP, have a long tradition of political campaigning.

Because these campaigns use the media to garner public support much can depend on the quality and the profile of the spokesperson.

None of today’s crop of young, new generation union officials can match Paul Howes when it comes to getting in front of a TV camera.

But if his enthusiasm for capturing the media spotlight is not matched by results in terms of membership growth, his enemies will waste little time in their efforts to bring him down a peg or two.

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