Trade unions have been very significant in Australian society in terms of social justice and improving the living standards of the workers. Union campaigns have resulted in improved health and safety, shorter working hours, superannuation, equal pay for women, holiday time, among other aspects of Australian working life. Because of these benefits, it’s thought that the unions continuously become stronger in terms of membership; however, statistics show the reverse. The unions have experienced declining rates of union membership since 1990. This has directly affected the organization of work in terms of bargaining power, employee involvement, and representation of the interests of the employees. Patterns of union wage have also been affected. This paper highlights the factors that might have contributed to this decline.
The decline in trade union membership in Australia is attributed to structural changes in the labor market, institutional factors, and the new strategies employed by employers (ACTU, 1999). The labor market has experienced several structural changes including the growth of part time work, casualization, the growth of alternative employment arrangements including self-employment, and the growth of occupations and industries where union density is traditionally low such as SMEs (ACTU, 1999). Just like any other industrial country, Australia has experienced a relative decrease in the proportion of workers who are engaged in manufacturing, such as the heavily unionized heavy industries like steel-making (Svensen et al., 2000). The relative size of the public sector has also reduced (Patmore, 1992). Besides, there has been a fragmentation of the former public sector bargaining units. These factors directly contribute to about half of the decline of the union density.
According to ACTU (1999), the institutional factors responsible for the decline of the union density include legislative changes that have had adverse impacts on the union membership. These include the withdrawal of union recognition and the de-collectivization of the employment relationship. The decline of compulsory unionism has adversely affected the memberships (Caspersz, 2008). With the continuous dependence on legislative provisions, the unions continue to be at great dangers. In 1990s, reduction of compulsory unionism was the main reason for decline of unions. It’s still an important reason.
The decline in union membership is also due to the new employer strategies and attitudes towards unions. There has been increased government and employer opposition to unions (Svensen et al., 2000). As compared to United States, the Australian unions are twice as effective. This is because the American employers are aggressively anti-union and more ruthless than their Australian peers. Because of globalization, some American style anti-union trends have been adopted in Australia. Unions have failed to respond appropriately to these new employer attitudes. Failing to counter these attitudes and behaviors of employers has resulted in poor strategic choices made by the unions. For instance, Australian unions continue to concentrate on 'market share' instead of 'expansionary' unionism. This poor strategy has resulted in waste of resources as the unions fight expensive coverage disputes (ACTU, 1999).
The effect of government and legislation on unions (political factors) is believed to be another cause of the decline (Patmore, 1992). Prices and Incomes Accord or simply the 'Accord', is believed to have caused union inertia and decline. In the 1980s and 1990s, the labor governments adopted neo-liberal policies of privatization, free trade, and deregulation. From late 1991, decentralization of bargaining structures gathered momentum under the Labor governments and is associated with the decline of union membership (Cranston, 2000).
Generally, there has been a reduction in workers’ confidence, especially in the union’s capacity to deliver services to its members. To some unionists and non-unionists, unions have increasingly become toothless. The demand of workers for unions has decreased as the attitude towards unions continues to worsen. According to some studies, union amalgamation has been identified as a factor responsible for de-unionization (Svensen et al., 2000). Member dissatisfaction, especially in the manners in which amalgamation issues are handled, and the dissatisfaction with the accord, also contributes to the union decline. It is therefore important to improve the strategic management and union infrastructure in order to make the unions more significant.
In conclusion, structural and institutional changes have had adverse effects on union membership. Some factors are external (exogenous) while others are internal (endogenous) (Caspersz, 2008). Change in attitude and strategies of the government and employers also explain the decline in unions. In shaping their future, unions have the powers to control the internal factors like union structure, resources, union governance, human resource policies, and other factors constituting the strategic choices. Australian society is economically advanced, with stable political institutions, commitment to democracy, and relatively egalitarian culture. The workers, through their unions, have passed the culture to the entire Australian society. The union movement has performed both social and economic purposes, such as the equal pay for equal work. Through strategic planning and continuous reform of union infrastructure, unions shall play more progressive economic and social roles in Australia and the membership shall surely increase.
ACTU, 1999. The Future Of Australian Unionism In The Global Economy. Retrieved September 30, 22012 from http://www.actu.org.au/Images/Dynamic/oldsite/public/papers/futa/futa.rtf
Caspersz, D., 2008. “Responding to Trade Union Decline in Australia”. Retrieved September 30, 2012 from http://www.tasa.org.au/conferences/conferencepapers07/papers/294.pdf
Cranston, M., 2000. The Terminal Decline of Australian Trade Union Membership. Retrieved September 30, 2012 from http://www.ipa.org.au/library/Review52-4%20The%20terminal%20decline.pdf
Patmore, G., 1992. The future of trade unionism - an Australian perspective. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 3 (2). Retrieved September 30, 2012 from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09585199200000148
Svensen, S., Small, R., & Griffin, G., 2000. Trade Union Innovation, Adaptation and Renewal in Australia: Still Searching for the Holy Membership Grail. Retrieved September 30, 22012 from http://socserv.socsci.mcmaster.ca/fun/grif2.pdf