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We are union drummer

Reinventing unions in the age of disruption


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By Mark Phillips

Monday, 16 November 2015

IF the union movement didn’t exist, and you had to start it from scratch today, what would it look like?

That was the question ACTU secretary Dave Oliver put to us at the beginning of the ‘Australia Disrupted’ symposium on the 40th anniversary of the Whitlam Dismissal last Wednesday.

And a tantalising question it is, but before answering it, let’s consider what our world would look like without unions.

We would have a poorer and much less fair society, for a start.

We wouldn’t have a minimum wage, weekends, a 38-hour week, safe workplaces, superannuation, equal pay, paid parental leave, paid holidays, unfair dismissal laws, or sick leave.

We wouldn’t have a progressive tax system, a universal health care system, affordable school and tertiary education, or a social safety net.

But we would still have child labour, sex and racial discrimination, an underclass of working poor, extreme rates of death and injury from workplace accidents and disease, and a culture where workers were treated as a disposable commodity.

Community support for unions is strong

People instinctively grasp that, on balance, unions have been a force for good for many decades, which is why surveys regularly return results like 62% of people believe unions are important for workers.

But the harsh reality is that while people may agree in some abstract way with the notion of unions, they ain’t joining.

Union membership has been on the decline for well over two decades, but it is now reaching truly existential proportions.

The most recent ABS data for the past year, revealed that union membership had fallen to 15% of the workforce, and as low as 10% of the private workforce. If it continues falling at this pace, it will be at the same low points as the United States in a few years time.

High membership numbers should never be an end in themselves, but it is true membership does matter when you understand that without the collective strength that comes from large numbers, workers have very little power in an industrial or a political sense.

And, if we are to be honest, it is not just falling membership density that poses an existential challenge for unions.

Some of the reasons for this declining membership have been external: structural economic change that has devastated industries where union density was traditionally high, and a concerted campaign of de-unionisation by the free market corporate lobby are two major reasons.

But some are also the fault of unions themselves. The royal commission, which has now been running for almost two years, has lifted the scabs on corruption, poor governance, and nepotism which is far from rife in the union movement, but prevalent enough to suggest cultural change is needed.

The image of unions is too often connected to conflict; and for many, peddling influence in the Labor Party has superseded politics as a means to advancing their members’ interests. This combined brand damage cannot be under-estimated.

Atomised, powerless workers joining a movement for change. Now that’s an idea.

Some question whether unions have focused too much on political tactics and campaigning and failed to make strategic investments in ideas and policy; or that some unions have lapsed into a service-delivery model at the cost of true organising in workplaces.

There are also societal changes: the lack of trust in institutions and the prevalence of individualism over collectivism; the difficulties of organising and representing a transient casual workforce with the associated churn through jobs and problems of tracking and retaining workers as union members; and now, the threats of robotics, automation and digital delivery to jobs.

But let’s not prematurely predict the death of the union movement.

Statistics are one thing, but while the media may be fixated on membership numbers, they are far from the only measure of the health and vitality of unions in Australia.

Every day, unions are winning new rights, better entitlements and higher pay for their members and millions of workers. They are campaigning for justice and influencing political debate. And they are very good at it. Just look at how unions are winning the fight to protect penalty rates, or how they won significant concessions for extra labour market tests in the China free trade agreement.

That’s why a recent newspaper editorial which accused unions of having a disproportionate voice and influence in political debate when they represent so few private sector workers completely misses the point.

Because if it isn’t unions, who is going to speak up for working people? It won’t be business, and without a good, solid nudge from their union affiliates, it won’t be the Labor Party either.

Look to the US for answers?

While understanding the reasons for the membership decline will help inform the solutions, it is counter-productive to dwell on them for too long. More constructive is to consider how to rebuild or reinvent unionism in a twenty-first century context.

Or, to go back to Dave Oliver’s question: if you were to start the union movement from scratch today, what would it look like?

Well, a starting point is to look at why unions were created in the first place.

It wasn’t to create vast bureaucratic institutions with layers of hierarchy and rules. It wasn’t to charge large fees to deliver services like banking and insurance.

Unions were created as loose collections of workers, united by common values and motivated by an injustice or a campaign.

In the early days, it was the principle of the eight-hour day: eight hours work, eight hours play and eight hours rest.

That’s why we had unions.

If we were to create unions today, perhaps we could look at the Fight for 15 movement in (of all places) the United States. History will show whether it is a success or failure, but at its core, this is an attempt to reinvent the US labour movement, which is in a far more dire state than Australia’s.

The cause is very simple: the establishment of a living wage of $15 an hour for millions of working poor in industries like fast food, retail and cleaning. The catalyst has been the widening inequality in the US, and while unions have given resources to the campaign, it is very much worker-led.

Atomised, powerless workers joining a movement for change. Now that’s an idea.

In Australia, the issue would be more likely to be insecure work than a low minimum wage, but the key is unions showing people that they can change their lives for the better, if they organise not only in their workplaces, but the communities in which they live.

Or perhaps we would look at New Zealand, where the recently-retired NZ Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly has studied the likes of Greenpeace and Amnesty International to redefine unions as a social movement rather than a group of industrial organisations.

Recognising that the modern workforce is diverse and disparate and not everyone works in a big workplace, the NZCTU has begun to provide multiple gateways to participate in the union movement, whether as a campaigner or supporter, or someone drawing on the services of collective bargaining and other workplace support. The result has been Together, a basic form of union membership that costs just $50 a year.

In Australia, the National Union of Workers has begun experimenting with a similar model through its community membership.

We need to provide alternative ways for people to join who the union movement struggles to reach at work, and to give retired workers, the unemployed, students and others an opportunity to be active in our movement.

A change of tone is needed

This is not to say that there won’t still be a place for the traditional model of unionism in the workplaces of the future. There is no one-size-fits-all rule.

But even then, the way unions operate and how they are perceived will need to change subtly.

The language of the union tribe – celebrating militancy, solidarity, fighting – is a turn-off to many people who do not come from that tradition.

We should continue to celebrate our wins through history, but it is dangerous to overly-dwell on them lest we be seen as a movement stuck in the industrial revolution of 200 years ago. How relevant to a 19-year-old just entering the workforce, for instance, are the old battle chants and songs?

And unions must acknowledge that people’s perceptions of themselves have changed. Most like their job; many think of themselves, rightly or wrongly, as almost entrepreneurs. They want to control their destiny, realise their potential and career goals and are looking for help from unions to achieve this.

Boss bashing doesn’t appeal to these workers, nor does the idea that some of their membership fees are being spent as affiliation fees to political parties.

They want a union that is practical and delivering for them.

The biggest challenge for unions – bigger even than digital disruption – is how to reconcile the essence of unionism – the solidarity of the collective – with today’s individualistic society, when much of what unions preach is an anathema to how young workers in particular see themselves.

No-one pretends to have all the answers, but at least last week’s ‘Australia Disrupted’ symposium was a start to finding them.

The author was the founding editor of Working Life. All views expressed are his own.

Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.


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We believe in the free flow of information, and content on Working Life is available to be republished online or in print under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


  1. Cassandra
    Monday, 16 November, 2015 at 2:26 pm · Reply

    A very good, thought provoking , article.

    There is no doubt that the Union movement has largely failed to respond to the incessant negative warfare that has been waged against it in the Tory owned media even though union membership has been steadily declining, due in no small part to the changing face of the workplace over the last 20 years.

    The fact that this ‘warfare’ has not only been maintained but has been ratcheted up the more the Tories perceive the unions to be weakening, far from being cause for despair and alarm , should be taken as the strongest affirmation there can be that the union movement is still perceived by the Tories as a serious threat to its undeclared aims of a low paid, subservient workforce bereft of any effective industrial or political power.

    This is indeed a solid launching pad for a reinvigorated union movement.

    What we need is a a nation wide education campaign to alert the young in particular but also those in the non unionised sector and the retired that the combine resources of the Trade Union movement can be at the disposal of all who fear , not only for their own welfare but also that of others and for the threat to the democracy won by the Trade Union movement presented by the unelected multinational corporate sector and its subservient political parties in Australia.

    There is a growing feeling of resentment in the community that is currently not being tapped by the Labor Party or the Trade Union movement. That resentment can be summed up as anger at what I call preventable poverty.

    In a country as rich as Australia why should life for most of us be a daily struggle to make ends meet? Why should we be in fear of losing a job or getting sick. Why should obtaining an affordable home be a fast receding dream?

    It is a resentment, not just in Australia, but around the world that is being tapped by religious extremist, not for the good of all but for the promotion of their own brand of religious fervour and undemocratic desire to dominate, citing the will of their ‘God”. The Union movement can offer a far more constructive and meaningful channel for people to take action to obtain their just share of the worlds resources and to conserve or fragile environment for ourselves and future generations.

    The question is “We have the resources – do we have the will?””

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