Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

New approach needed to halt union membership decline

Across Australia union membership is in a spiral of decline. A survey from Ray Morgan Research has revealed that only 17.4% of all working people are members of their trade union. Previous ABS findings from 1996 showed that around 31% of Australian workers were union members, meaning an almost halving of membership in 20 years.

The reasons for the decline are stark. Both the Liberals’ Work Choices laws and Labor’s Fair Work Act have made union organising more difficult. The lack of the right to strike, restrictions on the right of entry to workplaces, and individual contracts have been a key part of both acts.

Just as important however has been the political response of the trade union leaders. Recent decades have seen a significant shift to right in the union movement. A number of corruption scandals have also discouraged people from becoming members.

Recent incidents such as Kathy Jackson’s mafia style embezzlement of member’s funds and the corrupt deals that benefited bosses signed by the SDA have discredited the entire union movement.

The beginnings of this decline however began in the 1980’s. Then the percentage of union membership stood at almost 50%. Things began to change in the Accord years of 1983-96 when unions signed up to a sham Labor deal that capped wages while allowing profits to balloon. At the same time the union leaders pledged industrial peace.

The “cosying up to the bosses” approach has clearly been a disaster. We need to rebuild the unions into fighting organisations where the rank and file have a real say in decision making. We also need campaigns against casualisation, for an increase to the minimum wage, and for the right to strike.

Only a new political approach will stem the membership decline and open the way for a renewed period of growth. This in turn can help close the gap between rich and poor.

By Corey Snoek