One of the talks at Marxism 2011 on Saturday was about rebuilding grass roots unionism today. A few facts make for stark reading.
In 1986 union density was 46 percent of the workforce. This fell to 19 percent in 2007 and was at 20 percent in 2010, the first rise in 20 years.
1982 to 1996 were the Accord years, the years of the agreement between the union leadership, left and right, to collaborate with capital and its agents, the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments.
These are the years union leaders concentrated power in their own hands, destroyed rank and file organisation and eschewed industrial action. It is no accident not only that faced with this inaction workers didn’t join or left their unions; the bosses reaped the rewards too. The share of national product going to the bosses is now near its highest since records were kept and the share going to labour its lowest ever recorded.
The collapse in action is stark. In 1987 there were 1519 industrial disputes. This had fallen to 135 in 2007, the lowest ever. In 2009 there were only 89,300 workers involved in strikes. Last year that figure was even lower – 54,800.
It’s a funny thing however. When unions do take industrial action, workers join.
The Australian Services Union has been running a campaign for equal pay for equal work in the community sector. The workforce is 87 percent female. They have for example called rallies to pressure the Government and raise the issue. They have involved the members. Guess what? ASU membership has increased 30 percent since the campaign began.
Instead of wine discounts and cheap movie tickets, maybe unions could offer what workers really want – an organisation in which empowered members take action to win real wage increases, better conditions and defend jobs.