Union membership in Australia now sits at just 19 per cent of the workforce, the lowest level since the 1900s. With membership in decline, Australian trade unions are in a dire situation. In industries ranging from mining to telecommunications, several of their strongholds have been blasted to bits. Worse, less than one in ten young workers signs up to the union cause.
And yet unions retain a public relevance as great today as ever before. The Your Rights at Work campaign was largely responsible for bringing down the Howard government. One half of all working Australians regularly report that they would "rather be in a trade union".
Why is it that unions have become so weak and yet retain such pulling power? The conservatives see only one side of the question. Commentators such as Janet Albrechtsen argue that the days of "union domination," class conflict and strikes are a thing of the past: "We’re all individuals now". Others suggest that the problem is the decline of blue-collar industry. The sons and daughters of yesterday’s wharfies and coal miners are call centre operators and Starbucks staff, genetically impervious to the appeal of trade unionism.
These arguments are as absurd as they are self-serving. If "we’re all individuals now", why was WorkChoices such an electoral stinker and why did the ACTU’s Your Rights at Work campaign strike such a chord? If structural change in the workforce is the problem, why were the unions able to turn the timid staff associations of nurses and teachers of the 1950s into militant unions in the 2000s?
The new employer militancy exemplified today by Qantas and Telstra is one obvious partial explanation. Employers have donned their hard hats and taken an axe to unionism amongst their workforces, sacking union activists, ripping up established arrangements and preventing union organisers from meeting staff.
Governments too have been gunning for trade unions. Waves of government industrial relations "reforms" have sought to box the unions in, with WorkChoices being the most obvious case. The Rudd Government shows no signs of wanting to reverse this trend.
But hostile bosses and governments can’t be the decisive factor explaining union decline. There is nothing new in their hostility to unions — the Melbourne Club has never resonated with the sound of employers discussing ways to make the life of union organisers easier. And unions have been able to grow in the past even with hostile governments in power, as they showed during the Fraser years.
The crucial factor explaining union decline is that unions have forgotten how to fight. Whereas the Albrechtsens of the world suggest that workers won’t join unions because they are identified with conflict, the historical record reveals that it is exactly when unions do fight for workers’ rights that workers join in droves. During the strike wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s, union membership soared by 32 per cent.
The beginning of the rot came precisely at the time that the leaders of Australian unions embarked on a cunning plan to strengthen trade unionism by forswearing workers’ most powerful weapon — the strike. This was the Accord arrangement between the ACTU and the Hawke and Keating Governments, negotiated in the lead up to the 1983 Federal election and in place until 1996. The ACTU leadership policed the union movement for 13 years, rubber-stamped a 13 per cent cut in real award wages under Hawke and then engineered a series of wage-fixing schemes that allowed workers to boost their wages only by accepting work intensification and give-backs. As workers saw their wages and conditions sold off by their own unions in the name of "workplace reform", so unions lost their appeal. If unions wouldn’t fight for better wages and conditions or for job security, what incentive was there to join?
With the election of Howard, union strategy did not change in its essentials. Cosy chats with government ministers were gone, but union leaders still insisted that "they had to keep their powder dry" when facing the most sustained decline in union coverage in Australian history. Even when staring down Chris Corrigan in the 1998 Waterfront Dispute, the nation’s union leaders were desperate to ensure that the massive sympathy for the wharfies did not develop into support for large solidarity strikes. The most urgent wish of the union leaders was for "partnership" with business. But with union membership plummeting, business could now sideline the union leaders, leaving them clutching at thin air.
The pressure of a world economy going from bad to worse urged bosses onwards: a dollar saved today by gouging the workforce could be the difference between being prey or predator in the corporate shark pool.
The conservatives are wrong. It is not that workers are "so over" trade unions. The Your Rights at Work campaign shows the deep pool of support that unions can draw from. The 2007 election result confirmed it. The challenge facing unions is to put aside the failed strategies of compromise and concession pursued over the past quarter century and reach back to the weapons of yesterday that actually built trade unions — the strike, the picket line and workers’ solidarity.
Tom Bramble’s new book, Trade Unionism in Australia: A History from Flood to Ebb Tide, published by Cambridge University Press Australia, is out now.