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The future of unionism

By Tony Abbott - posted Wednesday, 15 August 2001

Australian unionism has been in severe decline over the past 15 years. This decline has occurred under Coalition and Labor governments - suggesting that the unions' own failures are to blame, not government policy. In 1980, nearly half the work force was unionised. Today, less than a quarter of Australian workers generally, less than half of public sector employees and less than one fifth of private sector employees are union members. While there was a small increase in union membership last year, this followed a decline of more than 150 000 in the previous year - the greatest numerical decline ever.

There are three key factors in the decay of the union movement: first, the persistence of old-fashioned, quasi-marxist, "class war" thinking; second, its total involvement with one side of politics; and third, an ingrained tendency to see members as "numbers" to be used for industrial or political purposes rather than as individuals with needs to be met.

Most union leaders still portray employers as "robber barons" determined to exploit workers. In the long run, workers can't earn a wage unless the boss can also make a profit. Common sense dictates that the mutual interest of workers and managers in the success of their enterprise is far greater than any occasional differences they might have over a particular wage claim. Contrary to union-fostered "greedy boss" stereotypes, most workplaces operate with more understanding than ever of the things workers, owners and managers have in common - evidenced by the substitution (for over a quarter of the workforce) of individual and collective agreements for industrial awards.


It's little coincidence that the highpoint of "working class militancy" - the waterfront dispute - preceded the largest ever annual decline in total union membership. It seems that the use of industrial muscle to defend workers earning up to $100,000 a year for a 27 hour week failed to impress the majority of decent workers and honest unionists. The fact that waterfront productivity is now at world class levels- and workers are still earning very good wages and bonuses - shows that it's possible to have win-win outcomes when workers and managers treat each other as partners in the same enterprise rather than ideological enemies.

The notorious 60:40 rule giving the unions control over Labor Party conferences and pre-selections means that union officials often spend more time worrying about "their" party than their members. The Labor nexus gives some union officials the status of de-facto ALP cabinet ministers but only by establishing a permanent conflict of interest between their duty to their members and their loyalty to a party. Increasingly, it must perplex the union members who don't vote Labor (about 50 per cent at the 1996 election).

The $5 million which the ten largest unions gave to the ALP in 1999 (plus millions more in unpaid official support, factional activity and politically-inspired legal expenses) is money that the unions take from their members to expend on essentially irrelevant politicking. The Metalworkers Union announced a $500,000 anti-government marginal seats advertising campaign just days after the union national secretary reportedly announced staff cuts because of cost overruns.

Too many union leaders take the approach that union ideology and institutional self-interest is more important than member services. The unions have been lukewarm at best to award simplification, preferring many hundreds of pages of regulations which keep workers in the dark and the (union) "experts" in charge. Most unions have actively campaigned against Australian Workplace Agreements because, it seems, they're more comfortable with a "one size fits all" approach than arrangements tailored to meet the needs of individual workers. Although many workers would prefer unions which specialise in representing a particular craft or trade, union officialdom has persistently pursued a "big is best" strategy (lumping, for instance, journalists with actors). The latest union blueprint - Unions@Work - is based on an 'activist' rather than a service model, as if workers need to be organised in the way dogs herd sheep. Modern workers don't need to be dictated to about what's good for them.

Last year, the ACTU launched a national campaign to impose compulsory levies on non-union members on the spurious grounds that people should have to pay for union "services" whether they ask for them or not. If a company tried to bill people for unrequested services it would be a scam punishable under trade practices law. Like every other organisation, unions should rely on recruitment rather than conscription to gain members. Unfortunately, the Federal Opposition has opposed the Government's attempt to outlaw this union tax - which ultimately means that six million non-union workers could each face a bill for $500 a year.

There are a handful of unions which have been prepared to work constructively with their members to make the most of new workplace opportunities. But every time the union establishment condones violent protests, makes excuses for industrial coercion and tries to bully elected governments (let alone small businesses), honest workers leave in droves.

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About the Author

Tony Abbott is a former prime minister of Australia.

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