Book Review

Power At Work: Rebuilding the Australian Union Movement

Review by John Murray*

Michael Crosby, Power At Work: Rebuilding the Australian Union Movement, The Federation Press, Sydney, 2005, pb. 320pp, $39.95. 

There remain a number of tensions throughout the book, some contradictory and others simply unaddressed.

Crosby's addition to the literature on union renewal sets out to identify and resolve a range of shortcomings in the union movement, and then provide a working blueprint that union officials can use for the challenges that need to be addressed going forward. His book is specifically targeted at a practical level in the hope that he will find a market that will take in the lessons before setting out to correct the imbalance, with “no time for an airy fairy theoretical discussion” (p63). 

Correcting the imbalance is centred entirely around the issue of power. As is the case throughout, the issues are presented in a clear cut manner. Crosby outlines how the union movement has historically had significant power as a by-product of a uniquely favourable environment. This environment has allowed complacency to permeate throughout union structures, strategies and officials, rendering them ill-equipped for the hostile environment they currently face. In particular, trade unions had not been driven to accumulate the surplus resources that would now have them positioned more promisingly for the task ahead. 

This assessment provides Crosby with a framework to work within. Unable to rely on institutional support from above, unions must accumulate power through grassroots activism building density from below. The parlous financial situation of many unions must be addressed with a more strategic approach to capital accumulation designed to meet the needs of each campaign. These are not new suggestions, yet Crosby brings a wealth of personal experience to the discussion. Often, this takes an autobiographical turn, likening recent lessons for both himself and the union movement to a progression from amateur to professional. With this progression in place, Crosby offers resolutions to the problems he presents with examples that provide effective templates for union officials to work through.

However, taking lessons from personal experience also renders the focus of the book one-dimensional, in a manner that an academic audience may eschew. There remain a number of tensions throughout the book, some contradictory and others simply unaddressed. For example, the reader is led through a progression that unions need power, where power will inextricably come from building density, which can be achieved by implementing specifically targeted strategies. Unfortunately many of these strategies appear to pull in several different directions simultaneously, and the reader is left to ponder the requirement that leaders build grass roots activism (p263), that unions rely on passionate union activists and volunteers to build professional financial and administrative structures (p105,106), the commitment to invest heavily in campaigns for membership growth when many unions are already “running to stand still” (p258), and ultimately the need for the union movement to derive and realise power in this manner. Further, there must be some irony in the advocacy of a blueprint for union growth that follows the all too familiar big business approach of cost cutting and restructuring (p180). More than anything, this may reflect a broader tension within the union movement, calling on experienced leaders to implement reforms that have little resemblance to the systems they have used to succeed in the past.

Overall, Crosby presents a book that is unquestionably valuable for union officials, especially if they can take on the lessons from individual issues. The book will also be valuable for the union movement if it can open a discussion around the issues that arise when trying to implement the change agenda Crosby advocates. This audience may be further enamoured by the reliance on personal experience and the successful attempt to draw on practical examples. In doing so, Crosby rarely interacts with any of the academic literature available, which makes it difficult to place the book as a contribution on that spectrum, despite its value for the union movement.

* John Murray is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sydney

Posted 3 February 2006

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