Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Young workers and unions in Australia

Reading Time: 7 minutes

In July Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures revealed that trade union membership is continuing to decline. This trend is particularly pronounced among young workers. In fact, The Australian newspaper pointed out that if current trends continued there would not be a single union member under 35 years of age by 2018!

Why is it that young people are not joining unions and what should the labour movement do to turn this trend around? UNITE Secretary and Socialist Party member, Anthony Main addresses some of the most important issues facing trade unions today.

The facts

Trade unions have been in steady decline in Australia for the past 20 years or more. Private sector membership has now fallen to 13.7 per cent. The overall population of workers belonging to a union stands at 19 per cent. This is because of high membership levels in the public sector at 41 per cent.

Recent figures confirm that union membership rates have fallen across all age groups, but the drop is sharpest amongst youth. Only 10 per cent of workers under 25 belonged to a union in 2006 compared with 36 per cent in 1986. For workers aged 25 to 34, union membership has dropped from 48 per cent to 15 per cent over the same period.

Over half of young people are in some form of paid employment by the age of 16. Of those, 46 per cent work in the low paid industries of fast food, retail and hospitality. Because of the lack of industrial representation in these industries young people often face super-exploitation at work.

Almost all workers under 21 years of age are paid poverty wages in the form of youth wages. While the minimum wage in Australia will increase in October to $14.31 per hour, this is a dream to many young workers who sometimes only receive 50 per cent of this amount.

It is estimated that 70 per cent of young workers are employed on a part-time or casual basis. This means many have next to no employment security. The rate of union membership among casual employees has slumped from 14 per cent to 7 per cent over the past decade.

A recent study by Unions NSW found that more than 50 per cent of the young people interviewed could not even explain what a union is. All this paints a dismal future for the union movement unless some dramatic changes take place. It also explains why many young people describe their first years in the workforce as a living hell.

Why young people are not joining unions

There are several reasons why young people are not joining unions. The ACTU are correct when they say that John Howard’s Work Choices legislation has contributed to the problem.

The policies of the Howard, and now the Rudd Government, have definitely made it more difficult for unions to operate. Work Choices was designed to weaken the influence of trade unions by reducing collective bargaining rights, curtailing union entry into workplaces and promoting the use of individual contracts. But Work Choices is not the only reason.

High levels of casualisation have also contributed to low levels of unionisation. Thousands of traditionally unionised blue-collar jobs in manufacturing have gone offshore in recent years. On top of this many more thousands of jobs have been lost in the public sector due to privatisations and cuts.

It is no longer the case that young workers are likely to walk into a unionised workplace in their first job. The main area of jobs growth has been in the service sector (fast food, retail and hospitality) which has traditionally been poorly organised. This has meant that the culture of ‘being in the union’ has diminished.

Unfortunately there has been no serious attempt to unionise the service sectors. Most union leaders have also been unable to outline an alternative to the policies of off-shoring, privatisation and cuts. This has meant they have concentrated on negotiating redundancy deals rather than leading the fight against job losses.

Recently the ACTU and Unions NSW announced plans to launch a pilot program in Sydney targeting 14 to 18 year old student workers. Recruitment proposals include offering discounted union fees to student workers and providing services that assist young people find better paid jobs in unionised workplaces.

The fact that the union leaders are talking about the problem should be welcomed but this program will go nowhere unless it is linked to a fighting campaign that draws together all the issues effecting young workers.

The New Zealand experience

Perhaps the best example of a union having success at recruiting young workers is the Unite Union in New Zealand. While there are some differences between the New Zealand and the Australian situation, it is well worth looking at the methods employed by Unite across the ditch.

The most successful campaign that Unite has run was the Supersize My Pay campaign. This campaign had three main demands: end youth rates, introduce a $12 per hour minimum wage and provide secure hours. Their aim was to combine the three main issues effecting young workers.

This campaign led to Unite organising strikes in all of the major fast food chains including KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Burger King and McDonald’s. These strikes forced all of these companies to sign collective agreements which included significant pay rises. Under pressure they also agreed to phase out the discriminatory policy of youth wages.

This high profile campaign was first and foremost political. It coupled on-the-job pressure with the mobilisation of young people on the streets. The victories of the campaigning work of this small union forced the government to respond in 2007 by introducing legislation that effectively abolished youth rates. Now in New Zealand youth rates can only last for a maximum of 3 months or 200 hours.

What the New Zealand experience shows is that young people will join unions if they are convinced it will improve their lot. When young people in New Zealand realised joining the union and getting involved in the Supersize My Pay campaign could lead to them winning better wages and secure hours they did so in the thousands. Unite remains one of the fastest growing unions in New Zealand.


Unfortunately this fighting approach is totally at odds with the approach of the main union covering young workers in Australia – the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA). The SDA is the largest trade union in Australia with more than 230,000 members in retail, distribution and fast food.

You can not analyse declining union membership and young workers without looking at the politics and approach of the SDA. The SDA leaders are in fact the most reactionary component of the Australian labour movement and, in close collaboration with employers, actually help to maintain the low levels of pay and poor conditions in fast food and retail.

The SDA leadership is not only pro capitalist and opposed to fighting, but they are extremely socially conservative. They trace their politics back to the Industrial Groups which were formed by sections of right wing Catholics active in the Labor Party in the late 1940s. Their main role was to combat the fighting approach of the Communist Party in the unions and push their right wing conservative agenda.

To this day the SDA still play an influential role in the Labor Party. As the largest affiliated union, the SDA hold key numbers at all ALP conferences therefore helping to maintain the Labor Party’s right wing policies. Among other things the SDA is staunchly opposed to abortion rights for women and to rights for same sex couples.

Most SDA members are totally unaware that their ‘leaders’ have such reactionary views. In fact many of their members are not even aware they are in the union! It is a rare SDA member who has ever seen a union organiser or received help from the union. For the most part employees at the major fast food and retail chains are encouraged to sign up to the SDA during their induction. They sign a membership form at the same time as they sign a tax declaration or a letter of appointment.

In this sense the SDA is a paper organisation. While they boost a large membership, this is only maintained by sweetheart deals with the bosses. The employers are more than happy to oblige with this dodgy arrangement as they know the SDA will sell all sorts of rotten deals to their workers.

For example in March 2006 the SDA negotiated an Award for McDonalds workers in New South Wales. This deal stripped back their penalty rates on weekends to a level less than the previous Shop Award they were employed under. It also increased the spread of hours with no compensation. Compare this to the agreement Unite in New Zealand have with McDonalds which not only maintains penalty rates but has no provisions for youth rates.

How to reverse the trend

It is absolutely clear that the current policies of the ACTU are not working. Under the current leadership we have almost lost the lot. If we are serious about recruiting young people to trade unions an entirely different approach is required.

Membership drives can not just be looked at in the abstract. They must be linked to fighting campaigns which will actually improve wages and conditions. Promises of free movie tickets or cheap computer deals without a fighting approach will not make unions more attractive to young people.

The ACTU should immediately implement a campaign that ties together all of the issues that are important to young workers. This campaign should include demands to abolish youth wages, substantially increase in the minimum wage, scrap all individual contracts and for secure hours. A campaign aimed at wiping out workplace bullying would also be hugely popular amongst young people.

Unfortunately at the moment the only organisation campaigning around these issues is UNITE, the small but fighting union for fast food and retail workers in Victoria. While UNITE is small and struggling with next to no resources, they have had some success. If this approach was taken on by all unions that represent young workers we would see spectacular results similar to, if not better than, those in New Zealand.

The main contradiction that exists in the union movement is that even if the ACTU did implement such a campaign they would be ineffectual in carrying it out without the co-operation of the SDA. On that basis challenging membership decline needs to go side by side with challenging the rotten pro capitalist politics of the SDA.

The task of reversing the trend of declining union membership is primarily political. There are no organisational solutions to the political problems facing the labour movement. Without the right politics being taken on by our organisations all efforts will be futile. On that basis the task of recruitment is directly linked to the task of rebuilding our unions as fighting organisations. It is the job of trade union activists in every union to campaign along these lines.

By Anthony Main