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When you must 'conveniently belong'

By Graeme Haycroft - posted Tuesday, 7 October 2008

In addressing the question about whether unions are still relevant one must also ask two further questions. To whom are they, or were they ever, relevant; and is it possible to discuss relevance when for the vast majority of union members their membership was simply not voluntary?

For instance most workers would rationalise the purported benefits of a union membership even if that membership was an involuntary requirement of the job. But if they were in fact given a real choice in the matter of whether they would part with their hard earned cash, would they in fact do it? And if they wouldn’t, should we take their view into account in addressing the question of relevance?

It is an interesting, and indeed endearing, quirk of the Australian character that people are very supportive of protections real or imaginary for other workers who they perceive as less able to look after themselves, while happily dismissing the need for the same protections for themselves.


The most violent and vehement opposition to WorkChoices in general, and AWAs in particular, came from the groups to whom they would never apply. The half million or so workers on AWAs before it was all stopped by Minister Hockey had very few genuine complaints.

Accordingly any discussion of the relevance of unions must surely be made in the context of only those for whom union membership is genuinely voluntary.

We know that from studying history - in times where union memberships were genuinely voluntary and surveys over time - the level of genuine voluntary union membership is in the order of only 5-6 per cent of the workforce. These are the workers who so value their union membership and what they perceive are the benefits of it that they would happily write out a cheque or authorise a payroll deduction to be a union member.

We have seen in industries where union membership can no longer be enforced, and workers have a genuine choice in the matter that union membership has almost completely dried up.

So the matter of the viewpoint of the workers who make up the difference between the 5 per cent who really value their memberships and the 18 or 19 per cent who actually are financial union members, but who are so involuntarily, must be taken into account in any assessment of its past or future relevance.

Let’s not get misty eyed here. Although there was significant industrial upheaval in the early 1890s, at the time of the post gold rush economic depression, the actual levels of workforce union membership at the time of the Federation when the membership was truly voluntary was only about 5 or 6 per cent of the workforce.


It was only with the introduction of the first Federal Industrial Relations Act in the second parliament, that unions were granted a monopoly which they have since successfully exploited to build unions memberships to levels of more than 60 per cent of the workforce in the 1950s. But as the ability of the unions to use their monopoly to enforce memberships has declined so also have the memberships. Today they have declined to levels now substantially less than even the number of independent contractors in the workforce.

Of course in the 50s and 60s in Australia, ironically under the Menzies Government, the unions became the past masters of the secondary boycott. An hotelier for instance would find that unless they ensured that all their staff were enrolled and fully paid up in the union, then the Transport Workers Union would stop the delivery of beer and the Post Master General PMG would simply cut off the phone. This was all done with total impunity until John Howard stopped it with amendments to the Trade Practices Act in the late 1970’s.

But as effective as the union thuggery was in enforcing union memberships, the real compulsion came from employers not unions and still does today.

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About the Author

Graeme Haycroft is the executive director of the Nurses Professional Association of Australia.

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