‘...the Australian union movement is in crisis’ (Cooper, 2005, p. 96). The early 90’s in Australia saw a significant drop for trade unions as a whole in both membership and density. Strategies were introduced to curb the decline but both changes to the Australian labour market and Government legislation have been too much for the unions to handle. This paper will discuss and critically examine the current state of trade unions, past strategies of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to combat their decline in density levels, the effects of Government legislation and what the future holds for trade unions in Australia. ‘It is undeniable that union power has declined significantly during the past 15 years’ (Cooper, 2005, p. 95). According to the most recent figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2008, trade union membership stood at 1.8 million with a density of 20.3% in August 2006 (No. 1301.0, 2008). The trade union movement in Australia has experienced nothing but decline since the mid 1970’s. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) have introduced several strategies to combat the decline, most notably with a mammoth amalgamation process through the early 90’s, then onto the recruitment strategies of unions@work 1999, Unions 2001: A blueprint for trade union activism, Future Strategies - Unions Working For a Fairer Society in 2003, and finally, to increase younger members and greater female representation through the Organising Works strategy.
Possibly the most significant strategy introduced by the ACTU as a reaction to their decline in membership was the amalgamation process that took place between 1989 and 1995 as part of the Future Strategies for the trade union movement - 1987. The aim: to create larger and more effective unions. This period saw a move from 299 unions to the point where ‘...close to 100 per cent of the members of ACTU affiliates were members of the largest 20 unions’ (Cooper, 2005, p. 103). It is generally regarded that the amalgamation process did not have the desired effect in terms of attracting new members to these great big, new ‘super’ unions. According to data from the ABS in the period 1990-1995 trade unions experiences their greatest decline in density, a total of 7.8%, from 40.5% down to 32.7% (No 6325.0, 1996, 6310.0, 1997). It has been considered that ‘preoccupation with the union amalgamation process...’ meant that ‘...concerns of rank and file membership were neglected’ (Edmond, 2004, p. 67). As will be discussed shortly, it is important to note that many other factors have contributed to the decline in density, not simply that the amalgamation process failed to deliver on its promises.
Looking a bit closer at the recruitment strategies introduced by the ACTU; Unions@work: For a just and fair society strategy, was an effort to allocate union resources into four specific areas; strength in the workplace; growth in new areas; technology for the times; and a strong union voice. ‘A fundamental argument is that unions must reallocate resources in order to strengthen and protect existing membership, achieve growth, and make industrial and social gains’ (ACTU, 1999, p. 3). In 2001 the Unions 2001: A blueprint for trade union activism commenced. The basic message from Unions 2001 is that unions can only rebuild if they amalgamate and rationalise. Its main purpose was to focus more staff and funds in larger headquarters and to encourage vigorous workplace union organisation. Both these ideas were on the table in the late 1980’s as previously discussed; neither reversed the downward movement in unionism.
2003 saw the introduction of the Future Strategies: Unions for a fairer society strategy that built on the areas first introduced by the unions@work strategy and contained three sections; unions and the wider society; unions and the workplace; and unions reaching out to new members. ‘To...
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