A strong trade union movement is crucial to combating growing wealth inequality in the Australian economy.
When asked in 2014 what Australia ‘had done right’ to defend the economy against the chronic wealth inequality experienced in the US, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz answered: ‘unions’. He explained that Australia has ‘been able to maintain stronger trade unions than the United States. The absence of any protection for workers, any bargaining power, has had adverse effects in the United States. You [Australia] have a minimum wage of around $15 an hour. We [the US] have a minimum wage of $8 an hour. That pulls down our entire wage structure’.
Regardless of their comparative strength to unions in the US, Australian unions cannot afford to be complacent about their long term survival.
Recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, as analysed in The Guardian by Greg Jericho, paint a worrying picture for the Australian trade union movement. Jericho reports that ‘trade union membership in the private sector is now almost one in 10… And in a sign of further strife for the union movement, just one in 20 young workers are in a trade union’. The public sector (39.5%) and education (34.38%) industries have the highest percentage of trade union membership, but as the number of workers in traditionally strong union industries such as manufacturing decline, so too does union membership, particularly amongst male workers. In fact, Jericho points out, whereas men used to be more likely to be union members, women now make up a higher percentage of union members, with 15.9% of female workers members of a union as compared to 14.4% of men. The total percentage of trade union members in the Australian workforce is now 15.1%, and only 13.8% if you include workers in unincorporated enterprises. This compares to 40.5% in 1990.
Commenting on these figures, former ACTU official, Tim Lyons, says ‘Australian unions have only a few years to change or die’. Lyons is reported as blaming the ‘historic collapse in union membership’ on ‘an outdated approach that does not work across large parts of the workforce’, and admits the blame is shared by him as a ‘former senior ACTU officer’. He says that too often, unions are seen as only being concerned with their position in the political sphere and that ‘Political campaigning can’t ever be an excuse for not organising’. He goes on to argue that ‘The need for new models of membership and worker participation is long overdue’. Offering a potential way forward, Lyons suggests; ‘Strong, growing unions are ones that help give workers some power over their work and therefore their lives. There are no shortage of workplace issues to organise around, with penalty rates being only the most obvious’. Lyons sees unions’ futures in re-evaluating their value to workers and helping workers organise to help themselves, with less emphasis on political campaigning.
Amongst their assessments of the declining membership of Australian unions, Jericho and Lyons comment on some more positive news for unions by citing polling released recently in Essential Media’s Essential Report, October 27 2015. The poll asked ‘How important are unions for Australian working people today?’ and found ‘The majority of respondents regarded unions to be important for Australian working people today (62%), whilst 28% believe that they were not important’.
Ged Kearney, President of the ACTU, responded to the ABS’s declining union membership figures by pointing out that ‘while union membership density is hovering around 15% of workers, more than 60% of Australian workers are employed under conditions that were collectively bargained for’ and ‘Even for workers not covered by collective agreements, they still directly benefit from their broad acceptance. The ubiquitousness of such agreements has led to them becoming the de facto base rate across much of the workforce, rather than the relevant award’.
The challenge for Australian unions is to translate the belief amongst workers of the importance of the role of unions, and the reality of unions’ benefit to wage growth, into a belief that union membership is a valuable investment for workers’ individual job conditions. A strong, united workers’ trade union movement is the best line of defence, as pointed out by Stiglitz, to defend against growing economic wealth inequality.
Victoria Rollison is a political blogger, working in marketing and communications. This article first appeared in ‘Equality, a journal of Australian Fabians’.