The Australian union movement has long considered itself in a density crisis. Union density has dropped from a peak of 58 per cent in 1959 to approximately 23 per cent today. Under the 1996 Workplace Relations Act (WRA), unions are finding it increasingly difficult to implement strategies for recruitment as a result of the outlawing of closed shop workplaces and the introduction of Australian Workplace Agreements (AWA) as the preferred method of bargaining. Unions also face increasing limitations on access to workplaces and the systematic dismantling of the system of compulsory conciliation and arbitration, mainly through the reduced powers of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC).
Of course, it is not only through the WRA that the government has attempted to undermine unionism in Australia. The Howard Government has undertaken both covert and overt action to weaken and demonise some of the strongest unions in the eyes of the Australian public. The clearest example of this is the waterfront dispute of 1997-1998, when the government collaborated with the employer Patrick’s to remove unionised workers through the creation of a subsidiary company. There is a diverse range of literature on this particular dispute but one particularly good article is ‘Here to stay? The 1997-1998 Australian waterfront dispute and its implications’, by John Wiseman. A more recent incident occurred in 2003 during negotiations between the University of Sydney and the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). Negotiations had almost been finalised and the agreement even included a clause for paid maternity leave (a provision that neither the USA nor Australia have introduced, making them the only two OECD countries not to have done so). At the last minute, the Howard Government intervened in negotiations and offered the university more funding if it introduced AWAs as an option for negotiation. The government justified its action by claiming it only wanted AWAs as an option rather than as the only method for negotiation. What it failed to mention was that if AWAs were introduced as an option, the university could purposefully recruit staff willing to sign AWAs over those who preferred to operate under a collective agreement. The union undertook strike action and eventually the government was forced to back off.
The government has been under investigation by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as a result of complaints lodged by the Australian Council of Trade Unions. One of these investigations has been in response to action taken by the government to ban secondary boycotts, industrial action taken by unions in sympathy for other unions experiencing particularly harsh circumstances or, in some cases, for particular international causes. The Trade Practices Act has been used as the provision to ban secondary boycotting. Earlier this year, the AWU and a number of smaller unions were fined $100 000 each for breaching section 45D of the Act. According to the ACCC there is a maximum penalty of $750 000 per breach. The ILO views secondary boycotting as a legitimate form of industrial action and as such the Australian government is in breach of this convention. The ILO has also investigated Australia in regard to breaches of collective bargaining rights and affiliation to international workers’ organisations.
Of course, these investigations have fallen on deaf ears under the Howard Government, which has significantly reduced its participation in the ILO. In 1997, the government removed the full time Australian representative to the ILO. Furthermore, it has stopped funding Junior Professional Officers who are trainee officers in the ILO that are likely to become Australian representatives to the organisation. These JPOs now rely on funding from international governments if they aspire to become officers within the organisation. The government has also refused to ratify two of the eight fundamental labour rights of the organisation that relate to child labour. The government argues that this is because child labour is not a problem in Australia. However, this is confusing logic considering the fact that if child labour is not a problem then there should be no harm in ratifying this convention.
Although unions are victim of this government action, they have been particularly slow in taking action to combat this. Some have argued that unions have become completely reliant on the compulsory conciliation and arbitration system that has developed in Australia and have become ill-equipped to fight for workers rights through alternative methods. Unions have become accustomed to a system where conflict can be resolved through the AIRC. However, the government has reduced the powers of the AIRC and subsequently the ability of the union movement to fight for workers right’s through this institution.
Furthermore, the union movement has been slow to react to changes in the labour market as a result of global economic changes. The increase in casual work and the greater participation of women in the workforce have meant growth in areas that are not considered strong union bases. Australia has one of the most gendered workforces in the developed world. Presently, industries that are dominated by women (nursing and education) are also the most unionised. However, this is not reflected in union hierarchy, with women only taking three secretary positions of all the unions in NSW.
Factional conflict, a legacy of the power of union officials during the years of high union density, still dominates the union movement. This was exemplified in 2003 when during an attempt to re-organise the Pilbara mining region, a collective of unions was created that included the AWU, AMWU and CFMEU-mining. The effort was proving successful until the AWU undermined the collective by negotiating an agreement with BHP-Billiton without the knowledge and consent of the other unions in the collective.
Further to the factional conflict, and perhaps a reason for its existence in the first place, is the way in which many union officials exploit the movement as a stepping-stone into politics. This is not to say that unions shouldn’t be represented in the political arena, but it’s not hard to get the impression that these individuals are more interested in furthering their own careers than improving the working conditions of those they are supposed to represent. One clear example of this is the current NSW Minister for Transport, Michael Costa, who was once Secretary of the NSW Labor Council and is now contributing to the poor conditions of workers in the transport industry.
Fortunately, the Australian system is not yet at the point of its US counterpart. In the US, union density is at approximately 8 per cent, a level that many have argued signals an irreversible decline for unions in that country. Union-busting has become a business in itself in the US, with many consultancy firms employed to do just that. It’s not just private enterprise that is implementing these techniques – government is also deeply involved. In the name of national security, the Bush Administration has banned unionisation in the Homeland Security Department, a department made up of airport security and customs officials that were once highly unionised. It is no surprise that low union density is coupled with extremely poor conditions for unskilled and low-wage workers. The federal minimum wage in the US is $5.15 an hour (a wage which has not changed since 1997), and tips can be credited against this. By comparison, Australia’s minimum wage is updated on a yearly basis.
Is Australia heading down the path of the US? Early trends would indicate such. The Howard Government has set about dismantling the award system and the power of the Commission. However, most attempts to make dramatic changes to the system have been blocked by the Senate, where the Howard Government did not hold a majority. In the new Senate after the 2004 election, Howard is set to hold a majority, giving his government free reign to implement long awaited changes. One of the most notable items on the agenda has been the Fair Dismissal Bill, which would exempt small business from unfair dismissal legislation. To date, the Bill has been blocked 41 times. With the likely implementation of the Bill, the 44.5 per cent of Australian workers employed in a small business can expect greater job insecurity, which will ultimately lead to a deterioration of their wages and conditions.
There are also plans to implement separate legislation for independent contractors that will aim to remove this form of employment out of the employment relationship. The effects of this would mean that independent contractors, many of which are employed on this basis so that employers can avoid superannuation and compensation responsibilities, would not be subject to the same rights entitled to full-time employees. Government legislation would also increase the number of independent contractors making it far more difficult for unions to recruit more members.
The Government has plans to further tighten the restrictions to right of entry for union officials to non-union workplaces. Currently, union officials must give 24 hours notice and have a permit from an Industrial Registrar in order to enter a workplace to discuss matter with members and potential members. Many union organisers have been forced to make contact with employees outside work hours, including home visits. In one case, a union organiser, who was organising miners in remote areas of Australia, was forced to meet with employees under the cover of darkness at the local sports ground to discuss workplace safety issues. So far, the union has had the benefit of more lenient State laws with regards to access (including NSW, where officials can seek exemption from the 24 hour notice period if they can prove it will defeat the purpose of going in the first place) however, the government is making plans to streamline the system so that federal laws with regard to access will override those of the States.
With the re-election of a more powerful Howard Government, the union movement has an uncertain future ahead of it. Ultimately, the government has been able to exploit the reliance of unions on legal framework and institutions in order to undermine their power. By creating a legal framework that is hostile to unions, the movement must look to other methods of organising if it hopes to reverse the crisis. The renewed focus on member activism is a step in the right direction. The next few years will see unions adapting to suit this new framework. What this will mean is new forms of industrial action that do not cause economic harm (red shirt days, petitions etc.) and a greater focus on workplace delegates to stir up activism and action around specific workplace issues. Whether workers and union members will respond to these new calls for action is yet to be seen. One thing is definitely clear though, the future of the union movement depends on it.
George Simon is in his final year of an Economics and Social Science degree at Sydney University. He is also a member of the newly formed Working Students Unions Network, an initiative of the NSW Labor Council.