Tim Lyons: the future of the union movement

Historian Arnold Toynbee said civilisations don't get murdered, they die by suicide. After the release of new ABS statistics on union membership, we will soon find out if the dictum holds for organisations. Australian unions have only a few years to change or die.

After a brief period of stability, union density in the workforce is again falling sharply.  Under 14 per cent of workers now hold a ticket. The headline number is propped up by the public sector (of about 39 per cent) and strong performances in the health and education sectors.

Historian Arnold Toynbee said civilisations don't get murdered, they die by suicide. After the release of new ABS statistics on union membership, we will soon find out if the dictum holds for organisations. Australian unions have only a few years to change or die.

After a brief period of stability, union density in the workforce is again falling sharply.  Under 14 per cent of workers now hold a ticket. The headline number is propped up by the public sector (of about 39 per cent) and strong performances in the health and education sectors. 

In the private sector, only about one in 10 workers is a member. Then there is the demographic challenge. Membership among young workers is almost at trace levels.

To say this causes me great pain. As a lifelong unionist who still works with a range of unions. As a former senior ACTU officer who shares the blame. I know unions and collective bargaining are good for growth and productivity and ameliorate inequality.

And I say it as a democrat, who believes strong civil society organisations, like unions, are vital to a healthy commonwealth.

But there comes a point when silence is complicity in failure. The official ACTU response to cavil at the ABS numbers was more than faintly pathetic. It's quibbling over whether catastrophe is immediate or merely imminent. Nor is a flagged focus on digital disrupters going to cut it.

Worrying about the relative handful of people who work for outfits like Uber when you can't organise millions in conventional employment relationships is like focusing on a dripping tap when there is a huge hole in your roof.

The numbers have been predictably seized on by those with an interest in unionism continuing to decline. This included erstwhile ACTU president Martin Ferguson, loyally mouthing the views of his industry clients. 

The commentary was confused. People don't like "militancy", but the bright spots for unions are where they have aggressively pursued wages and conditions. Unions are weak but are on the rampage through the Fair Work Act, and must be subject to immediate and severe restrictions.

The truth is that the remaining redoubts of high-density unionism in the private sector are under attack precisely because they are isolated and unusual. And the Fair Work Act is no collective paradise. It's a scheme of individual rights and entitlements, with very limited collective rights constrained by complex procedures.

But released the same day as the ABS data was an Essential Media poll showing almost two-thirds of Australians think unions are important and that almost half of us think workers would be better off if unions were stronger. There is a message and clue in these numbers.

The message is that although the public still instinctively understands and values the role of unions, union leaders aren't managing to offer people a membership proposition that makes sense to them.

Unions have one, unchanged, membership model. It delivers terrific outcomes in large factories, and still works brilliantly in places like hospitals. But it doesn't work, and unions have no capacity to deliver it, in large parts of our economy. The need for new models of membership and worker participation is long overdue.

The clue is in the framing of the question – and specifically the use of the term "workers".  Unions speak with authority about work. It's what people want unions to do, and it must be the focus.  There is considerable research evidence that people see unions as "too political".

This is cancerous, and fed by the fact that visibility of unions is almost exclusively about politics (or corruption allegations) and that a union voice is too often absent from debates about the nature of work. 

The routine calls by unions for governments to "do something" obscure the fact that unionism is about people doing something for themselves.

Political campaigning can't ever be an excuse for not organising. As the workers who built the labour movement found out, there are some things you can't win at work and political representation is vital. But as they say in the US civil rights movement, an election measures the temperature of a society, a social movement is a thermostat that permanently changes it.

A retreat from workplace organising and serious engagement with public policy in favour of an almost exclusive focus on electoral politics is a dead end. Organised labour will not be rebuilt with internet memes. The answer is not, and never will be, the election of one more Labor government.

Telling workers that voting will change their lives is a problem when they do and it doesn't. Strong, growing unions are ones that help give workers some power over their work and therefore their lives. There are no shortage of workplace issues to organise around, with penalty rates being only the most obvious.

Unions are still the biggest membership based show in town. By far. The future is grim, but not terminal. Provided unions take their last chance and make it count.

Tim Lyons is a Research Fellow at the think tank Per Capita and former ACTU assistant secretary.