History of our unions from high point to retreat

Review: Trade Unionism in Australia: A history from flood to ebb tide, By Tom Bramble , Cambridge University Press, $49.95According to the most recent ABS statistics taken before the Your Rights @ Work campaign had fully mobilised for the 2007 federal election, union membership density is sitting at roughly 19 per cent, down from 20 per cent in the previous year.
With each new announcement of further decline, right-wing commentators rush to gloat over the deepening woes of a once formidable adversary, even going so far as to announce the movement’s inevitable demise.
Offering a welcome antidote to the doom and gloom, long-time socialist activist, Tom Bramble, examines the postwar history of the trade union movement in an effort to record what has effectively built union strength and vitality in the past as valuable ammunition for workers facing the current economic crisis and beyond.
Bramble argues that the “flood tide” of unionism took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s when unions with more left-wing leaderships and movements campaigning over the Vietnam war, apartheid in South Africa, equal pay for women and Aboriginal land right joined forces in a heady mix of outrage and determination to effect change.
Workers repeatedly took action to improve their pay and conditions and, in the process, threw off the deadweight of official indolence and struck a decisive blow against draconian anti-union legislation—the much hated ‘penal powers’.
The link between union militancy and membership was obvious—when strike days trebled from two million in 1972 to over six million in 1974, union membership leapt by 300,000.
But when economic crisis hit the world economy in the mid-1970s, the space within which unions could demand better conditions and employers could make some concessions in order to keep production going contracted dramatically.

Anti-union offensive
As Bramble illustrates, the government, employers and even some union officials joined forces in an ideological offensive against the ‘greedy’ unions, blaming them for demanding too much and causing inflation; this fallacious mantra is, of course, still chanted today.
Although defeat of militancy was never inevitable or even complete, the union movement leadership failed to build the kind of mass campaigns that could have turned back employer and government attacks.
Most significantly, spurred on by economic recession in the early 1980s, the decline of shopfloor organisation started to bite into the movement’s ability to protect and renew itself.
More and more, union officials became convinced that better living standards for workers were integrally linked with national prosperity—which led them into sell-out after sell-out of their members’ interests from the Fraser years into the Hawke/Keating Accord period and, even more astonishingly, throughout the Howard government’s harsh anti-union regime.
Bramble pays particular attention to the Accord years where the union leadership, in return for shiny trinkets like appointments to industry councils, advisory bodies and statutory authorities, disciplined their own rank and file and clamped down on signs of militancy wherever it dared to sprout.
Importantly, even those left-wing leaders who may once have been prepared to lead a fight became outspoken acolytes of wage restraint and work intensification in the name of higher productivity.
In 1994, John Halfpenny, former Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary, seemed genuinely puzzled when he said, “At a time when we are more popular than ever in the boardrooms and cabinet rooms, we are less popular in the workplace.”
As enterprise bargaining has spread, Bramble’s focus on long working hours and work intensification masquerading as increased “flexibility” is particularly important, because it challenges claims that raw wage and job creation data are any indication of industrial success.
Given the timid union responses to WorkChoices Lite so far, it appears that the lessons are still unclear.
Bramble’s book finishes with a call for activists to rebuild those workplace networks of union fighters who are prepared to take on the boss and the government.
Despite the unpredicability of the system, we can be assured that the conditions of exploitation that forced the formation of unions in the first place will continue to foster the discontent, from which those networks can build.
This book gives us some confidence that the lessons of history are on our side.
By Sarah Gregson


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  1. Sarah,

    I was at book launch for this book. Sally McManus, who was on the panel to speak about it, noted that while there were things that she agreed and liked with she had one major criticism. Her criticism was paraphrased that A villian emerges a few pages in with everything but a cape and fangs and that villian is the trade union official.

    When I read the book. I noticed the same thing. Pretty much the story is the story of the union officials selling out time and time again.

    While this argument is a perfectly acceptable one for Tom to advance. Don’t you think that it ends up being a question about time and time again why workers let that happen?

    Wouldn’t a plausible explanation be that often the officals have delivered? Otherwise they never would have got those positions.

    Pretty much it is consistent with what SA argue in general everyone else is wrong “if only the workers did what we say”.

    Furthermore the book deals with huge Union campaigns like YR@W and the martime dispute with little more than a couple of pages. There is little research done in relation to these campaigns and no new evidence presented. We just get Tom’s opinion.

    I wouldn’t have minded a detailed survey of Australian unionists to see what they wanted unions to do. We don’t get that though.

    I was pretty dissapointed by the book and I question why a trade unionst would want to pay the $50ish for a book that basically says don’t trust your leaders when they can get that for $2 in any copy of SA’s magazine.

  2. Agree with above comment. The book is too simplistic. Doesn’t really understand the balance between activists and organisers in the labour movement. I agree that a lot of the union leadership and officialdom are shite – but this book doesn’t much help anyone who wants to change that.

  3. There are many good union officials, but the leadership of all but a very small number of unions are prone to be conservative, remote from members and dominated by the ALP machine.

    It is up to members to get organised and change this. A positive program for change needs to be put forward, not just complaining about how shit things are.


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