On the release of ABS figures last week showing continuing decline in union membership, one journalist’s reaction was typical of those who covered the story when he tweeted “so what is the ACTU strategy, if there is one, to deal with the collapse in union membership?”. It was as if it was something unionists just noticed – as opposed to something which has been the all-consuming focus of a generation of union delegates and organisers for the last twenty years.
Banner at Trades Hall, Sydney
The more important question is: what will happen to people’s way of life without unions? We don’t work to rebuild union membership for its own sake. It’s not just that union members earn more, or that they’ve won a long list of conditions for all workers. It is also well established, for example, that higher union density leads to lower inequality (by studies like this one, this one, this one and this one). Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s the Spirit Level (2009) links inequality (and by my extension, unionisation) to a whole range of measures of well-being, finding that less unequal societies have better physical and mental health, less drug abuse, better education, fewer people imprisoned, less obesity, better trust and community life, less violence, and better child well-being. More recently another paper showed a link between unionisation and intergenerational social mobility – children in areas of higher union density grow up to earn more, compared to the same income households in areas of lower unionisation. (If you regard it as a good thing, another study even showed that rates of marriage are higher where there are more union members.) This is all because of what we know to be true – organised workers are the greatest force for social good and unions are the most important movement for positive change.
So, about the best thing that can be done to make everyone’s lives better is to have a bigger and stronger union movement. It’s why unionisation is important – and it’s also why it’s everyone’s responsibility: governments, academics, the media, civil society – and business – in addition to the union movement itself.
Having said that, and in the knowledge that we can’t rely on anyone else– we’re brought back to the question the union movement constantly asks itself in the face of its challenges – what should unions do?
But just before we go there, to take issue again with just asking “what’s the ACTU doing about it?” To do so is to imply that membership decline, occurring across OECD countries, is simply the outcome of whatever strategy the union movement has pursued. This is, of course, far from true – the primary causes have been well described by labour market experts like Professor David Peetz and others. Structural changes in the economy (like the decline in employment in unionised sectors and growth in non-union sectors, and casualisation) alone account for around a third of the decline. Then, as part with what Peetz calls the “institutional break” in union membership in the 1990s coming after the culmination of the rise of corporate right’s influence on policy, we developed a regulatory framework hostile to union organising, which remains today. At some point here we conceded that the rights of free-riders to accept the benefits of union membership without contributing to the cost are more important than the rights of dues-paying union members to expect all their colleagues to meet the obligations they share. This last thing won’t be fixed anytime soon.
While those two things account for the majority of union decline, there are factors identified by Peetz and others which are within unions’ control – such as the deterioration of workplace organisation and the servicing culture allowed to develop over a period of reliance on tribunals to deliver wage increments and handle workplace disputes. This left unions ill-equipped at the workplace and with insufficient delegate structures in place to adequately deal with the rapid workplace and legislative change from the 1970s onwards, coupled with the corporate right’s successful long term deunionisation strategy, both as employers and in having governments adopt their programme.
This is why, to answer the question, the following five organising responses in which unions are already engaged to a greater or lesser extent, should give us hope. They are all different, should not be confused with each other. But we have to do all of them – and properly, with resources allocated accordingly.
- An unwavering focus on workplace organising
Last year was the twentieth anniversary of the commencement of the Organising Works programme in Australia – but of course, organising is something unions have always done. Throughout the twentieth century, although to varying extents, union delegates and organisers did their mapping, had active trained and skilled delegates, conducted concerted drives to organise non-union workplaces, identified and renewed rank and file leadership, built power at the workplace to deal with issues on the ground and had in place self-sustaining structures for recruitment of new members.
At times of crisis, however, there’s a refocusing on organising, as happened in the 1990s when the Australian union movement was an exciting place to be, when the argument was so persuasively put that unions had to re-learn how to build power in the workplace after the structures that propped up union membership had fallen away.
But has organising across the movement lost some intensity in the last decade? Since the triumph of the Your Rights at Work campaign there’s been a tendency to conflate organising – wrongly – with campaigning. They often happen together but campaigning is not always organising, and vice versa. Some say a drawback of the Your Rights at Work campaign was that recruitment suffered when resources were diverted from workplace organising. But even after the worst bits of WorkChoices were abolished, did that focus ever return to what it was? Often it did, certainly among the unions which have been most succesful in maintaining or growing their membership.
Unions have to walk and chew gum at the same time, and pursue a range of programmes, but all other initiatives need to support, complement and be integrated with this core organising work – not be an extra “brick in the backpack” for organisers.
But as has been widely observed, the scale of the membership crisis is such that army of workplace organisers just won’t be able to organise the union movement out of it. To both maintain influence, and membership, the same principles that underpin workplace organising need to be applied in other domains.
- Union members organising together in the communities they live and work
Australian unions have a tradition of working together in local geographical areas which stretches back to the origins of trades and labour councils and their roots in the eight-hour-day movement and the eight-hour committees which formed from the 1840s and continued until the early 1900s. It was only out of necessity that this tradition was revisited so successfully in the Your Rights at Work campaign, which, at its best, represented the application of best practices of workplace organising to local, geographical areas. In 2005-2007, organisers, delegates and members from different unions who’d worked in the same towns and communities for years or decades for the first time found themselves together in a room. They worked together to defeat WorkChoices by educating the public about the laws through thousands of conversations. In New South Wales these Your Rights at Work groups morphed into Local Union Community Councils to continue their work bringing together unionists in local areas to campaign for better deal for working people, and Victorian Trades Hall organise union members to work together locally under the banner of We Are Union, like they are across the country to Build a Better Future. These groups are not just for knocking off anti-worker local members of Parliament (although at this they’ve proven to be highly adept) – they are a new lever of influence for working people and have huge potential as an genuine, organised working class voice in a public discourse which is dominated by the influence of the corporate sector and a conservative media acting against their interests. Their potential as local hubs of union education, activism and recruitment is yet to be realised.
- Building power in coalition with others
Just 30 years ago unions had industrial laws that encouraged their activities, industrial power less hampered by the sort of restrictions on the right to strike seen now, and other things that both exercised and signalled influence like a seat on the Reserve Bank board. Corporate Australia has successfully managed to dismantle all of these sources of influence for working people and are going after any that remain. It’s why its imperative unions vigorously pursue their work towards building power together on areas of common interest with civil society organisations as union movements overseas have done. Citizens UK’s work on the Living Wage, and in Australia the Shop Assistants’ Union’s (SDA’s) work in partnership with organisations in the Sydney Alliance preventing a further erosion of their members’ leisure time are examples of potential of coalitions to win on work-related issues. Increasingly though, the quality of life of union members depends on factors outside their workplace like housing affordability and availability of transport, around which unions readily find common ground with faith and community organisations, who together can exercise a powerful voice. This coalition building work draws on the community organising approach of Saul Alinsky – exactly the same basis with its emphasis on relationships and leadership development as the core training for union organisers in the Organising Works Programme. The Sydney Alliance has meant the NSW union movement is probably better connected to faith and community groups with a shared interest now than at any other time, which in turn can assist workplace organising with the support of community groups. As the Turnbull Government pursues its $63 million Royal Commission objective of mudslinging at unions, there has probably never been a time these relationships are more important.
- Industry and supply chain organising and campaigning.
Globalisation has concentrated more power in fewer multinational firms, vertical integrated in their industries, increasing their control over the labour process and the difficulty with which their workers can effectively exercise voice. As this has happened, unions in the private sector like United Voice and the TWU have been mapping out supply chains, identifying pressure points and identifying where their organising and campaigning efforts are best directed to address the issues of workers who are employed often at the bottom of complex subcontracting arrangements.
It is here where unions are getting more organised across international borders, something necessitated by the rise of multinational firms and their global organisations are more important than ever. Which in turn raises an issue – more and more where unions need to be powerful is locally, in neighbourhoods and workplaces, and globally to coordinate across countries against global employers, yet, unions campaigning structures can often reflect their state and national structures. Nevertheless private sector unions are increasingly working to understand the supply chains of the companies that hold the power in their members’ employment to more effectively organise in workplaces.
- Opening up new ways for workers to be part of the union movement and have a collective voice at work
These first four draw upon existing traditions of organising from within and beyond the union movement – but here is the space where genuinely new thinking is needed.
There’s lots of research that says that the number of people willing to join unions as well as public support for unions is significantly larger than the number of workers who actually join. Along with a changing workforce and rapidly changing nature of work, this question of how to convert this potential into actual membership to arrest decline in density and establish a presence in previously non-union areas has given rise to unions in recent years making forays into different forms of membership and ways to join.
We should rightly be suspicious of any new and shiny solution that doesn’t just involve lots of hard work on the part of delegates and skilled organisers, but to adequately confront the scale of the change that is occurring right now, some suggest we need to find a new model of union membership and way for workers to connect with unions in the first place amongst the vast and growing swathes of private sector workplaces with no union presence.
The most well-known of alternative forms of union membership are from the United States, and in a book detailing thirteen such examples, Ruth Milkman concludes that “an alternative union model will be necessary that both attracts and retains workers for the long run”. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka went further, noting that “all over America, workers are organizing in all kinds of ways, and they call their unity by all kinds of names—workers’ unions, associations, centres, networks – we may not be able to imagine all the new models of worker representation that will emerge in response to our crisis. Over 100 years ago, the only unions were of skilled craft workers. No one thought industrial workers could organise”. Similarly Milkman likens the current era to the gilded age of the late 1800s and early 1900s in the US, which produced prosperity for some in society but inequality and hardship for many more and which provided the impetus for what was then a new form of union.
It’s questionable whether the US examples are directly applicable, or necessary, in Australia. Whether we need a wholly new form of union (as suggested by the SEIU) or just new ways of joining is up for debate, but in developing a suitable model, Victorian union official Godfrey Moase’s contribution with the concept of a continuum of union membership is as good as any place to start.
The first thing would be to address the systems issue to plug the leaks in membership as people move to job to job, in and out of different unions’ areas of coverage, for which the systems across our movement are poorly equipped to handle. As a start, it’s something on which NSW unions have agreed to work together.
It’s not a new discussion either. Academics Anil Verma and Thomas Kochan in 2004 described a union movement about to undergo metamorphosis, saying back then:
Part of the evolutionary process by which a metamorphosis occurs involves variation as species try different approaches to adapting to a changed environment. Some of these succeed and survive; others do not. We may be observing this process unfold as 20th century unions seek to adapt to 21st century conditions
Moase likens the union movement to a shark – having to keep moving in order to survive (a factlet of which I wasn’t aware and to save you checking I already did). Adapting unions to suit the rapidly changing landscape is a huge task but for the most part we know what needs to be done; it’s a matter of doing it quickly, and properly. The biggest advantage we have now compared to the union movement of 20 or 30 years ago is the unity among unions forged during the attacks on us over that time: the Patricks dispute, the Your Rights at Work campaign, and now on the Hutchison picket lines. This unity – the absence of sniping and willingness of unions and personalities to work together – is absolutely essential for the high level of discussion and cooperation needed.
We largely know what unions should do. Whether it’s on the scale required and with the commitment required is the question on which survival of unions – and decent way of life for people in the future – rests.