Beyond Belief? John Button on the decline of Australia's Unions

By Mark Hearn*

Button identified the heart of the union movement's membership problems in its unwillingness or inability to follow the growth of employment into new areas of the economy.

John Button, who died in early April 2008, served for a decade from 1983 as Industry Minister in the Hawke and Keating Labor governments. After retirement from politics Button remained a shrewd commentator on the Labor Party, particularly as it languished in opposition from 1996 until the election of the Rudd Labor government in November 2007.

In his essay Beyond Belief, published in 2002, Button's critique of the dysfunctional culture of the Australian Labor Party was focused on the debate then taking place about union affiliation to the ALP. The Party was debating a proposal to reduce the level of union representation at Labor Party conferences, and hence reduce the level of union influence on policy making. In the end, the ratio of 60% union delegates to 40% branch representatives was modestly reduced to 50:50 representation.

Button argued that the unions and the ALP should have filed for divorce. Their prolonged relationship was little more than ‘a bad habit', that stifled party debate, led to the domination of Party affairs by a narrow base of senior union officials, and distracted the union movement, during the years of the Accord partnership with the Hawke Government, from focusing on membership needs and recruitment, at a time when union membership levels were beginning a disastrous decline.

As Button observed: ‘What the ALP and the union movement have most in common now is a membership steadily declining, and for similar reasons. Both have been slow to adapt to changing social circumstances; both share, in various degrees, an aversion to democratic member participation; both have hierarchies often seen as out of touch. The ALP and the unions are like two old mates waiting at a bus stop on shaky legs, leaning on each other for support, reminiscing about the past and hoping something will turn up; a bus, an ambulance or someone like Bob Hawke.'

At the time that Button wrote in 2002, union membership had collapsed to less than 25% of the workforce, and only 19% of the private sector workforce, from coverage of 57% of the workforce as recently as 1978. In 2008 union membership is just 19% of the workforce, and 14% of the private sector.

Button identified the heart of the union movement's membership problems in its unwillingness or inability to follow the growth of employment into new areas of the economy:

‘The past twenty-five years have seen no new union affiliation to the ALP in technical and professional areas. Membership of unions in the growth sectors of the economy – information technology, telecommunications, electronics, biotechnology and financial and business services – is low, sometimes tiny. Jobs in these industries are often occupied by skilled younger workers used to moving from one job to another, many of whom prefer contract employment to award coverage. They work in jobs where demand for skilled labour usually exceeds supply; their salaries and conditions are such that they see no need for union membership.'

Button believed that the union movement tied the Labor Party to a structure no longer representative of the constituency to which the Party had to appeal. The political effect of the Howard Government's divisive WorkChoices reforms may have served to draw the political and industrial wings of the labour movement closer together to fight a common enemy, but the changes to the economy and the workforce, and the structural problems besetting the union movement, remain in place.

Kevin Rudd is not Bob Hawke; he was no cultural background with the union movement, and he is an enthusiast for leading Australians to embrace the new economy and the benefits of less economic regulation. These economic and political imperatives will test the relationship between the unions and federal Labor as the government prepares the details of it new industrial relations system.

As Button concluded in Beyond Belief: ‘It's time to consider other models that might work better for both the unions and for Labor, and preferably a model in which neither takes the other for granted and each stands on its own feet.'

John Button, Beyond Belief, What Future for Labor? Quarterly Essay Issue 6 2002, published by Black Inc. 

* Mark Hearn teaches Australian History at Macquarie University, and is the editor, along with Grant Michelson, of Rethinking Work, published by Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Posted 14 April 2008

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