Struggle can reverse union membership decline

NEW FIGURES showing a dramatic drop in union membership in 2007 highlight the challenges facing the labour movement as it attempts to rebuild after the Howard years.

ABS data shows that total membership fell by 5 per cent, or 89,000, in the year to August 2007. Union coverage of the workforce is now less than 20 per cent, and just 13.7 per cent in the private sector. The latest fall continues a long trend of decline. The drop is a blow to hopes that the unions’ campaign against WorkChoices would lead to a rise in membership. It demonstrates that although the unions’ political campaign was very successful, it has not yet translated into more recruits on the shop floor.

ACTU president Sharan Burrow blamed the drop on the Howard government’s WorkChoices laws, which have made it much harder for unions to organise and recruit.

A major factor behind union decline is undoubtedly structural changes to the economy-permanent, unionised jobs in the “old” economy such as manufacturing are being replaced by service sector jobs which are often casual and temporary, and where traditions of unionism are weaker.

But some unions have defied the trend and their successes are an example of how to reverse the decline. The Electrical Trades Union in Victoria, for instance, has doubled its membership in the last decade, by taking a militant stance and winning better pay and conditions for electricians.

The Australian Education Union grew by 20,000 members in the last year alone, mainly on the back of a strong industrial campaign in Victoria. The lesson is that unions can reverse the decline if they involve their members and engage in action over pay, conditions and wider political issues.

By Jarvis Ryan


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  1. Why would socialists want to promote union membership in Australia? Some trade union leadership positions are made of workplace supervisors who are linked directly to bosses. This is just some blind loyalty to the quaint notion that trade union leadership contains advanced elements of the working class. While this might have been true in the past history of trade unionism, the truth today is that trade unions have become a bureaucratic excrescence and a financial imposition on workers in Australia. They can only justify their existence by appealing to worker’s pockets by making outrageous pay demands on employers that cannot be met in economic terms. Their demands have been grossly unrealistic and force companies like Pacific Brands to take the action they have. While I express solidarity with workers, as a consumer I don’t relish the prospect of paying $40 for a pair of underpants or socks to meet excessive wage bills brought about by trade union irresponsibility. While trade unions have an historical place in fighting for worker’s rights in 19th century England say – when workers were un-educated and ignorant and had no access to bosses, today the working class if you like, is well educated and articulate. The Boeing strike in the US a few years ago was conducted by shop floor committees. These advanced elements of the factory workers were able to articulate demands and negotiate a resolution before trade unions could impose themselves and spread the strike according to their agenda. The educated Boeing workers argued to keep the trade union officials out. The future for worker’s organisation is the shop floor committee or the workplace action group. Socialists must embark on education programs among workers to facilitate their self expression as conscious elements who can take on the bosses without fear. Having to rely on self interested trade union officials instills them with no confidence to take control of their lives. The Pacific Brands workers should have organised among themselves and all gone on strike until jobs were reinstated. What happened to the trade uions here?

  2. Certainly it would have been good for Pacific Brands workers to go on strike until all their jobs were saved (or to occupy their factories & “work in” in the event of closure) but your comment on this sits at odds with your other comment that trade unions “can only justify their existence by appealing to worker’s pockets by making outrageous pay demands on employers that cannot be met in economic terms. Their demands have been grossly unrealistic and force companies like Pacific Brands to take the action they have.” I’m not at all clear if you want Pacific Brands workers to win, or alternatively to stop making “outrageous” demands.

    Your comments about outrageous pay demands are just not true, which is probably the kindest thing I could say about them. From memory the median wage (the point where half of all workers earn above and half below) is currently around $40,000. In the current economic climate where CEO’s earn multi-million dollar salaries yet keep sacking workers, its “outrageous” to talk of outrageous pay demands from workers. Workers nowhere get paid the full value of their labor, instead it gets taken as profit (which goes to business owners or shareholders, who don’t actually work), which is theft. The national share of income going to profits (rather than wages) has increased from 13% in 1978, to a record high of 28% now.

    For the actual reasons behind Pacific Brands announcement, I cut & paste from another Solidarity article:

    “The company has taken $17 million in subsidies from the government in the last two years and while boss Sue Morphett has more than doubled her own pay packet from $685,775 to $1.86 million, which included “incentive payments”—bonuses for axing jobs. The 13 Directors now get $15.5 million between them—an average of $924,000 each.
    The announced closures have all the hallmarks of an asset stripping exercise that demands immediate intervention by the government. The company was taken over by private equity funds backed by the Macquarie Bank in 2001. According to union sources in New Zealand, the private equity funds took $A100 million out in cash, loaded the company with debt and then sold it on the share market for $A1 billion. Now they are closing operations, lining their own pockets and selling off the brand names.”

    If union for all their faults hadn’t made a fuss at Qantas, this could easily have their fate, as Qantas, was subject to an attempted private equity buy-out.

    The trade union movement mobilised hundreds of thousands of workers in the Your Rights At Work campaign (the left wing Victorian unions were key to this), which was crucial in kicking out the Howard government. Union leaders in my opinion then later wound this struggle down and directed their focus towards the election, but the continuing level of union organisation (despite its decline) was crucial to how widespread this struggle was.

    Its all very well to encourage workers to go beyond the limited vision of union leaders, and union leaders can and do sell struggles short, but struggles tend to happen much more often in unionised, rather than non-unionised workplaces, precisely because those workplaces are organised. There are some exceptions, like the taxi drivers explosive dispute in Victoria last year (the taxi drivers were mostly un-unionised), but they came up against the same questions of organisation that have driven workers to organise into unions again and again: the need for ongoing organisation, the need to organise wider layers of workers than a single workplace and for democratic representation within that organisation. What we need is unions, that have socialists and other militants active and organised within them, trying to take struggles forward at every opportunity.

  3. Our article on the FBEU elections was removed from the site since it was inaccurate and out of date. The article stated that outgoing NSW secretary Simon Flynn was backing the ticket headed by Jim Casey and Darin Sullivan. On the basis of consultations with various members of the union, that was our understanding at the time our last magazine went to print.

    However, Simon is not endorsing the Casey/O’Sullivan ticket. As it turns out – the Casey/O’Sullivan ticket is challenging the Team Flynn ticket that has Simon Flynn as union president, with Mark Erwood as candidate for secretary.

    That the ballot has been contested by two left tickets seems to have caused serious divisions within the FBEU. We have not been able to ascertain the political reasons for the challenge or the divisions that clearly exist between those on the left within the union. The election result is now in the hands of the rank and file.

    Balloting has been extended until 23 June to allow time to vote for 23 FBEU members who did not initially get their ballot papers. It is expected that the result of the ballot will now be known by 25 June.

  4. I write to inform readers of “Solidarity” of the results of the Fire Brigade Employee’s Union (FBEU) elections.

    The Casey-Sullivan ticket was elected in a landslide, with all of our candidates receiving outright majorities. For the position of State Secretary i polled 67%, and my running mate Darin Sullivan, for State President, was elected with 61% of the vote.

    Comrades have asked me on what the basis the election was fought. Sadly the contest was between two left tickets – ours and a ticket led by the outgoing Secretary Simon Flynn. Flynn had announced he would not be contesting the election, leaving one left ticket in the race, but at the last minute nominated for the position of President (the senior honorary official) with one of the FBEU’s staff members running alongside him for the Secretary’s position.

    We ran on a detailed policy platform, which emphasised enhancing and expanding the delegates structure of the Union, various industry specific and union specific reforms, and responding to both the GFC and the challenge of global warming. Our opposition’s campaign focused on the virtues of Simon Flynn’s incumbency.

    The question of a non-firefighter leading the FBEU proved to be the pivotal question in the campaign. Flynn’s ticket argued that we needed an “industrial relations professional” to lead us. Clearly this did not resonate with rank and file firefighters.

    Whilst the spectacle of a split left has not been useful inside the FBEU, the result itself was a ringing endorsement of my ticket. With a unified committee, the beginnings of a delegates structure, and a mandate to fight we are well set for the next three years.

    On a personal note, thank you to those comrades who have left messages of congratulations on our election victory.

    In solidarity,

    Jim Casey
    State Secretary
    Fire Brigade Employee’s Union

  5. […] term casual workers imported under free trade deals. He says that comments by Trade Minister Phil…Solidarity Online Struggle can reverse union membership declineOn a personal note, thank you to those comrades who have left messages of congratulations on our […]


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