ga('send', 'pageview');
John Passant

Site menu:

August 2011



RSS Oz House



Subscribe to us

Get new blog posts delivered to your inbox.


Site search


My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp this morning. The Royal Commission, car industry and age of entitlement get a lot of the coverage. (0)

Razor Sharp 4 February 2014
Me on 4 February 2014 on Razor Sharp with Sharon Firebrace. (0)

Time for a House Un-Australian Activities Committee?
Tony Abbott thinks the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is Un-Australian. I am looking forward to his government setting up the House Un-Australian Activities Committee. (1)

Make Gina Rinehart work for her dole

Sick kids and paying upfront


Save Medicare

Demonstrate in defence of Medicare at Sydney Town Hall 1 pm Saturday 4 January (0)

Me on Razor Sharp this morning
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace this morning for Razor Sharp. It happens every Tuesday. (0)

I am not surprised
I think we are being unfair to this Abbott ‘no surprises’ Government. I am not surprised. (0)

Send Barnaby to Indonesia
It is a pity that Barnaby Joyce, a man of tact, diplomacy, nuance and subtlety, isn’t going to Indonesia to fix things up. I know I am disappointed that Barnaby is missing out on this great opportunity, and I am sure the Indonesians feel the same way. [Sarcasm alert.] (0)



The decline of Australian unionism

The trade union movement in Australia continues to endure a crisis. This is reflected on one hand in the loss of membership: after increasing every decade since the 1940s, over the last 20 years union membership has fallen by almost 1 million, from 2.66 million to 1.79 million. In density terms it is a decline from 41 per cent to just over 18 per cent. On the other hand the crisis is qualitative, with delegate structures lacking influence or non-existent across most industries.

Why has this happened?

The twentieth century Australian industrial relations system was characterised by centralised wage fixing and a model of arbitration in which unions were both formally recognised and held exclusive powers in representing sections of the working class. It was under this model that they gained a solid base in workplaces across the country and built a density above 50 per cent from the 1920s to the 1980s (with the exception of the period around the Great Depression).

The 1980s was the beginning of a period of dramatic change. The federal Labor government, led by former ACTU secretary Bob Hawke, introduced neoliberal reforms aimed at boosting the profits of industry and reducing government expenditure on workers and the poor. The ACTU went along with it, entering a pact with the government (the Prices and Incomes Accord) which promised wage rises for workers in exchange for an end to union militancy. The union leaders also saw the deal as a way to protect manufacturing jobs through participation with government and industry in managing Australian capitalism.

In part they wanted to stem the decline in unionisation that occurred as the economy began to restructure in the wake of the economic crises of the 1970s and early 80s. More importantly, union leaders like ACTU secretary Bill Kelty saw themselves as more farsighted partners for government and wanted a seat at the table. As Kelty’s ACTU profile states:

When Labor was elected in 1983, the first priority was restoring growth after the recession of the early 1980s. A key factor in achieving this was [delivering] restraint and certainty to employers.

At a time when unions should have been calling strikes to push back against the neoliberal offensive, the officials were holding love-ins with the New Right. This “sit at the table and show restraint” strategy saw industry Awards restructured to make wage increases dependent on increased productivity.

Restructuring was followed by enterprise bargaining in 1991, which undermined industry-wide agreements in favour of single workplace agreements (again dependent on productivity gains). Enterprise bargaining was an attack on workers in all but the most organised industries and workplaces. After all, who but the most organised workers could hope to strike a “bargain” with their employer? Non-union agreements were then introduced in 1993, allowing many employers to ignore the unions entirely.

Not only did the deal between the unions and the government fail to deliver the promised wages gains (the wages share of national income fell precipitously) the result was an accelerated decline in union density.

Rank and file delegate structures, many built up in the waves of militancy during the 1970s, were completely undermined by the union leaders’ strategy. The ACTU, the peak organisation of the union movement, played the role of workplace cop, determined to deliver industrial peace to the employers and government. The idea of independent activity by the rank and file was anathema to much of the union leadership. Those unions that attempted to fight for their members’ rights, like the Builders’ Labourers Federation and the Pilots Federation, were isolated or crushed by the officialdom in the name of “the betterment of workers”.

By the end of the 1980s the officials were debating how to stop the now serious decline in union membership. The bureaucratic option of merging existing unions into larger industry unions was tried, reducing the number from 295 in 1990 to 157 in 1994. Unsurprisingly it didn’t work – its primary goal actually being to centralise the movement under greater ACTU control. Density continued to decline, and absolute membership with it.

A section of the bureaucracy within the ACTU looked to other organisational solutions. The problem, they concluded, was the particular way the unions themselves were organising workers. Too often, they said, unions were presented as a provider of legal advice; an external support providing piece of mind in case times get rough at work; or simply an advocate involved in settling wage claims. Borrowing jargon from the United States, they dubbed it the “servicing model” of unionism: passive memberships recruited on the basis of being customers entitled to a service.

Through the 1990s the ACTU clarified its strategy for rebuilding. Again following the US, they labelled it the “organising model” of unionism. The organising model was promoted as an attempt to win the union movement to unionism as practice, with members recruited to the idea that the combined and amplified strength of the membership is the union. The idea was not to simply “recruit”, but to organise and train members as activists and union builders within their own workplace.

An organiser training program, Organising Works, was set up in 1994. Over the next decade it was transformed into the Organising Centre – a priority into which the ACTU at times devoted up to 40 per cent of its budget and through which dozens are trained every year.  

The organising model was not the revolutionary strategic shift that some hailed it. It was an adaptation to the changing environment that the union movement had broadly helped to bring into effect: the move from centralised wage fixing to enterprise bargaining was a process promoted by the ACTU as an opportunity to make unions relevant at the level of the shop floor. The organising model fitted nicely with a retreat from industry-level wage pegging and the decline of the power of Awards as industrial instruments.

It was also a rearguard action in response to the collapse of delegate structures. The ACTU didn’t acknowledge its own role in the decline it was attempting to stem. Instead it took a situation that previously existed – strong employment standards being benchmarked across industries, wages being taken out of the competition between firms, and a healthy rank and file able to act independently of the union leadership – and promoted it as something to aspire to, without acknowledging that it had already destroyed or undermined it.

So the distinction promoted by the ACTU between the servicing model and the organising model is both a furphy and a secondary question. It is a furphy because a so-called “servicing model” existed for the better part of the union movement’s history in the form of an arbitration model that saw the Industrial Relations Commission rule on a wage case, which then automatically flowed on to the rest of the class through the Awards system. Under this “servicing model” density grew and maintained itself at high levels.

It is a secondary question in the sense that both the servicing model and the organising model adhere in practice to a class collaborationist approach that is ultimately the great weakness of the workers movement. Previously, delegate structures were often strongest in those areas where militancy was highest. One of the very sources of the collapse of rank and file unionism in the 1980s and 90s was the trade union leadership stamping that militancy out.

So this is not simply an historical curiosity. The union leadership today continues this approach, tying itself to the Labor government, and cheering on industrial peace in the name of a healthy national economy. This is the guts of the issue. The “organising model” is just another part of the broader strategy of the trade union leadership to seek accommodation with the bosses and enshrine deals that prohibit independent rank and file action and put a dampener on militancy. That this may not seem that important right now is only because there is a general lack of militancy to be contained.

What does it mean to rebuild?

Rebuilding the union movement requires increasing membership, increasing density and rebuilding delegate structures. But “rebuilding” also means more than this.

Density could conceivably be increased simply through membership drives. Yet increasing density alone will not necessarily take anything forward. Is there that much evidence, for example, that Finland, with union density of 74 per cent, has a higher level of working class consciousness than does France, with its density of only 8 per cent? Ireland’s density of 34 per cent has done little in terms of promoting a fight back against the greatest attacks on the working class in nearly 100 years; the unionisation rate in Greece is one third lower (23 per cent), but the fight back against austerity has been immensely greater.

Every significant revival of trade unionism has been the result of workers launching industrial struggle, not through union leaders gaining a seat at the table with employers and government. Through actually fighting for their rights, workers gain the confidence to assert themselves in both the industrial and political fields. That is as true today as it ever was.

Some converts to the organising model will argue that trying to rebuild delegate structures is at least a step in the right direction to developing working class confidence. It sounds good in theory, but an important lesson of the crisis of Australian unionism is that, for the union leadership generally, delegate structures are a means to pressure the bosses into making a deal, but are ultimately dispensable. For this reason, the delegate structures need to be independent of the officials and have a class-struggle orientation. The organising model is absent of any such perspective.

The attitude of many officials and organisers is that there simply is not the will on the part of the membership to come out in action, therefore all we can take are baby steps. If workers can’t deal with issues at their own workplace, they can hardly be expected to come out in generalised strike action. This is disingenuous. You would be hard pressed to name a union that spends even 1 cent producing information packs that run delegates through the arguments they should make with their co-workers about taking industrial action.

There have been very few attempts from the leadership to even try to launch any serious struggles. And reports from delegates’ meeting after delegates’ meeting testify to bureaucratically-run sessions in which any attempt to stir action or debate possible action is quickly shut down from the front.

Those moments where a new fighting unionism could have been rebuilt have been generally passed over in silence. So the lack of a general strike – or any serious strike action – during the campaign against WorkChoices was not the result of a lack of delegate structures or the low level of union density; nor did it result from a lack of will on the part of rank and file unionists. Likewise, the absence of a solidarity strike wave during the 1998 waterfront dispute can’t be put down to these factors. These were times when a generalised fight back against the bosses and the government could have happened. Victorian delegates in a state-wide meeting in fact voted for a general strike during the WorkChoices campaign. The officials manoeuvred around it.

The organising model strategy superficially looks like a way forward. It is actually a way to dodge the issue of leadership by insisting on the importance of what happens at the coalface. “The union is you” sounds like a return to a rank and file focus, but it is simply another distraction from the fact that the officials hold the reigns and in fact do everything they can to prevent a fight from occurring.

The bigger problem than declining density is the lack of any real fighting militancy and class struggle politics from any section of the union movement.

This article, by Ben Hillier, first appeared in Socialist Alternative.



Comment from Terrance
Time August 18, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Good article, thanks for posting it. My only issue (as a union member of 35 years standing) is about strikes. I lived in the NT when the ABC and Australia Post both went on strike – no news and no mail for all residents. This caused a backlash against both. Although the claims were justified, sometimes widespread industrial action can set a union back, so I think it is a weapop0n to be used with caution and precision. Qantas is an example – a strike now would be a perfect reaction to Joyce’s axe.

Comment from Gypsy Tom
Time August 19, 2011 at 9:58 am

Well written article, For many years up till 1995 I was a union member and a shop steward for part of that time. I witnessed the decline in the union membership which I beleive can be attributed to the Union Hierarchy who have sold members out.
Look at the once strong union leaders such as Greg Combet and Bill Shorten wo are now Federal members of Government. They have become sheep adhereing to labor party policies which often are not the peoples policies. Many of my freinds who were once advocates and members of trade unions have resigned their union memberships. Unions will continue to decline until they no longer exist.

Comment from Phil
Time August 19, 2011 at 8:51 pm

I used to be an active union member but now it is just a waste of money. In today’s world – where everyone is up to their backsides in debt – there is no sticking together in the workplace, anywhere. In every workplace people put their own interests first and devil take the hindmost. This is the age of corporate feudalism, so do what your masters tell you or get used to sleeping in your car.

I’ve met Ben Hillier. There’s nothing wrong with him that getting a job in the real world wouldn’t fix.

The class war is over, we lost, so we may as well suck it up and get used to this wonderful new world of corporate totalitarianism. As for the ACTU, they may as well stick those losers in a museum. The fact that Gillard and Rudd kept workchoices largely intact (AWAs just became common law contracts or ABN ‘subcontracting’ jobs) shows how useless the union movement is. If they had any brains they would have kept the Your Rights At Work campaign as an ongoing community based campaigning organisation, but no, once they had the ALP in office they went back to picking their noses and gossiping about arcane ALP factional wars. In the meantime the cleaner at my work hasn’t been paid for six weeks, but he’s on a 457 Visa, so what can he do? And the care factor from everyone else at work? Less than zero. We are toast.

Write a comment