Organising the Future

Developing Strategies for Private Sector Union Revival

By Mark Hearn*

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Banner of the Blacksmith's Society of Australasia, c1914. In the early twentieth century, the union movement grew with the changes underway in the economy and in society. The union movement imagined itself as part of the future.
Banner Source: State Library of NSW

The problem confronting the Australian trade union movement's coverage of the private sector workforce is devastating in its brutal simplicity: eighty per cent of Australian workers are in private sector employment. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released in April 2009, just fourteen per cent of these workers are union members. Yet this fundamental problem of organisation, political relevance, and sheer survival is rarely debated or confronted by the union movement.

Although a number of unions are engaged in important and urgent recruitment strategies within their own areas of coverage, there is no over-arching union strategy to respond to a much wider problem: the disengagement of the union movement from large areas of private sector growth and employment.

The private sector is the engine room of the economy, driving economic growth and responding to the changing dynamics of trade, technology and culture. For economic activity and employment relations it's the main game. If unions cannot thrive in the private sector the movement cannot survive. Slightly higher levels of public sector coverage are not an adequate compensation for the loss of strategic industrial power and the political influence that flows from a strong base within the heart of the economy and society. Even taking into account public sector members, trade unions now represent only nineteen per cent of the Australian workforce.

The union collapse in private sector coverage is not entirely the fault of the usual suspects: globalization destroying manufacturing sector jobs; the information revolution fundamentally changing the nature of work - and creating whole new sectors of employment; hostile employers and government policy designed to frustrate union access to workplaces and bargaining. All those problems and challenges are daunting enough; however by embracing a structural resistance to change, unions have intensified their membership dilemma.

The Problem of Union Structure
According to the structure of the Australian trade union movement in 2009 - that is, the demarcated division of the union movement into the various affiliates of state and national peak councils - the economy in which it organises remains a product of an industrial era dominated by the manufacturing sector, as you might have experienced in the 1950s, when unionisation reached sixty per cent of the workforce, one of the highest rates in the world. That society and that economy no longer exists.

Since the 1970s Australia has been transformed by the requirements of a globalised economy, and the creation of a culture of enterprise, where the role of the individual is privileged over traditional notions of community or solidarity.

Traditionally, unions defined their solidarity by demarcation. The adherence to an industrial era notion of demarcation is a significant source of trade union decline, and a powerful barrier to trade union revival. Demarcation holds the union movement imaginatively and structurally in the past.

It may be argued that the amalgamation program of the late 1980s and early 1990s was an attempt to restructure the union movement. After all, it was the manifestation of a document called Future Strategies for the Trade Union Movement. The amalgamation program is better understood as a consolidation strategy, consolidating existing union structures, rather than generating new ones. The amalgamation program was specifically designed to consolidate existing union structures in order to try to protect the familiar industrial and political demarcations of the union movement.

The essentially static and defensive nature of the amalgamation program is reflected in the fact that it did not specifically require any further changes to occur after the amalgamation process. Over time, a number of unions have changed, and taken a new approach to organising, but such reforms were not required by the amalgamation program, and nor did amalgamations encourage unions to evolve new forms of organisation. Union organising strategies have been fatally constrained by maintaining the old demarcated structures. There has been no sustained effort by unions to enrol new members from new areas of the economy - that is, from outside the old demarcated zones of union coverage.

As these new areas of the economy have grown, old areas of industrial employment have shrunk. There has been little development of specific strategies to more effectively organise these new generations of private sector workers, and overcome the disastrous collapse in private sector union coverage.

There are a number of important and innovative campaigns by unions in the private sector: the LHMU's campaigns on behalf of hotel workers, cleaners and child care employees, or the Transport Workers Union's long-term organisation of independent contractors, and its recent '100 Days' campaign to organise non-unionised companies in the bus industry, long distance truck drivers, and workers at Sydney airport. However the existing unions face a significant challenge in recruiting and organising new members within their traditional areas of coverage, and in maintaining services and representation on behalf of their membership. Most unions have neither the organising capacity, nor the financial resources, to undertake exponential membership growth in new sectors of the economy or the workforce.

The ACTU's Fair Work Bargaining Guide, distributed to affiliates in July 2009, implicitly acknowledges that multi-union bargaining based on traditional demarcations is increasingly undesirable or unrealistic under Labor's Fair Work laws. The ACTU Guide recommends a 'single unit bargaining' approach that effectively overrides union demarcations, and cautions against competing against each other in the bargaining process.

To organise in new sectors of the economy, it may be necessary to develop innovative and non-traditional union structures beyond the established areas of union organisation and demarcation. These greenfield union structures will have to reflect the conditions in which they organise, the conditions of an enterprise culture. They will need to be flexible and decentralized, organised not so much by industry, as by geography. While an integrated strategy is needed to grapple with the problem of private sector coverage, particularly in non-traditional areas of union coverage, there's no one template for membership growth that can be neatly applied across industries and workplaces. It will require a series of targeted initiatives, taking into account the particularities of place, work and culture. Unions have done it before: the evolution of the Australian Workers Union in essentially rural sectors of Australian economy and society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was as much a cultural response, a desire to express and define an form of worker identity within the developing Australian nation, as a response to a demand for industrial representation.

A Macquarie Park Network
Take for example Macquarie Park, in Sydney's north-west. This area around Macquarie University was once predominantly bush and market gardens. In the last twenty years it has been transformed into a major work zone of the new economy. There are some 2,000 businesses in the area, dominated by technology related industries in IT, pharmaceuticals, medical research and communications. Macquarie Park is now the head office location for companies such as Siemens, Foxtel and Microsoft. Optus has recently moved its headquarters to Macquarie Park, bringing 6,000 workers into the area. The Optus 'campus' comprises six office buildings in the largest single tenant workplace in Australia. I have no definitive figures about the age of the Optus workforce, but it is a generally a younger workforce.

Overall, there are some 36,000 workers in the Macquarie Park area, a workforce planned to rapidly grow before the onset of the World Financial Crisis. The crisis will slow, but is unlikely to substantially displace the growth of employment and economic activity in the Macquarie Park area. According to the NSW government's 2005 Metropolitan Strategy, Macquarie Park will become a key site of Sydney's 'Global Economic Corridor'. This corridor of 700,000 concentrated jobs - in businesses and health, education and research facilities - stretches from North Sydney to Macquarie Park, and from the City to the Airport and Port Botany, an area described as 'the powerhouse of Australia's economy.' It's intended to make Macquarie Park the fourth-largest CBD in Australia, behind Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Over the next 25-30 years, official estimates are that new jobs in Macquarie Park will rise to around 150,000 workers. To what extent is the Macquarie Park workforce unionised? It probably reflects the national average for private sector union coverage.

Macquarie Park is just one example of the challenge facing unions: to grow new areas of membership, and to follow the growth of new areas of employment. Overall, the NSW Government's Metropolitan Strategy projects 500,000 new jobs in Sydney by 2031. Outside the global economic corridor, the Strategy also predicts growth of 230,000 jobs in greater western and south western Sydney.

Whatever the accuracy of the Metropolitan Strategy's employment projections, it does at least provide some insight into the future employment growth of the nation's most economically significant city. The questions that need to be addressed are: what sort of organising strategy is required to develop union growth in new areas of the economy, and what sort of union structures are most appropriate to facilitate this membership growth? The current union structures and strategies don't appear to facilitate the kind of recruitment necessary to make a substantial coverage claim of these new jobs - and potential new union members. Based on recent ABS figures, if we assume that eighty per cent of these 500,000 new jobs are in the private sector, then that's a pool of 400,000 workers; however if unions are only able to cover fourteen per cent of private sector workers, then unions can expect to recruit just 56,000 of them - and that's assuming that these new jobs fall within the limited reach of traditional union demarcations.

Macquarie Park suggests that a non-traditional form of union presence might be more appropriate as means of recruiting workers who may have little or no personal identification with the union movement. Rather than add extra strain on the resources of existing affiliates, perhaps it is necessary for the peak councils to stimulate the development of new forms of worker representation.

Unions NSW might for example facilitate the establishment of a Macquarie Park Network, with a specific focus and presence in the area that dispenses with traditional union demarcations. It might involve a shop front presence, where workers can easily - and confidentially - access union advice and representation; it certainly needs to be a decentralised and flexible structure, developing an identification with the needs of local workers and their workplace issues, and also an awareness of local issues about services, accommodation or transport.

The concept of membership may itself need to be rethought. A Macquarie Park network would also need to exist in cyberspace, reflecting a willingness to adjust to the more individual types of personal identification and affiliation that many younger workers accept as normal interaction - for example, through social networking sites, and blogs and twitters.

Labor's 'Competitive Economy'
Historically, unions have often looked towards political intervention to create or to sustain an environment conducive to union growth. The development of Commonwealth arbitration from the post-federation period after 1901 was a product of a decision by the political system to incorporate unions within the state, as legitimate representatives of their members. But in recent decades the prospect of governments, particularly Labor governments, to intervene in support of union growth has been almost entirely abandoned. Bowing to the pressures of the changing economy, the Keating government authorised non-union enterprise bargaining in 1994, and an apparently relentless trend to labour market deregulation has proceeded from that intervention.

Politically, unions helped the Rudd Labor government win office in 2007, and the Rudd government's Fair Work laws have created, in some measure, conditions in which the trade union movement can set about the urgent task of rebuilding membership. Labor has moved to strengthen award protection, and allowed greater provision for collective bargaining, and a number of unions are moving quickly to take advantage of a less hostile bargaining environment. Labor is phasing out Australian Workplace Agreements, the symbolic totem of WorkChoices. Yet Labor also accepts common law employment contracts for those who prefer an individualised alternative to the award system. Common law contracts currently cover about thirty per cent of the workforce, a far more extensive coverage than the take up of the Howard Government's AWAs. There is virtually no debate within the labour movement about the implications of allowing common law employment contracts to flourish, nor the implications of these common law arrangements for unions trying to substantially increase private sector membership.

The award modernisation process also reflects the ambiguity of Labor's response to workplace relations. On one hand, the process theoretically offers workers the chance to have their pay and conditions set against a new benchmark of National Employment Standards - a more substantial set of standards than applied under WorkChoices. However award modernisation is also leading to the new Fair Work Authority planning to cut wages and conditions in key awards in the airlines and clerical sectors, as the tribunal accepts employer submissions about costs and capacity to pay. In June 2009 Workplace Relations Minister Julia Gillard used her powers under the new legislation to make an extraordinary intervention, requesting the tribunal to redraft a new award covering restaurant and catering businesses in order to take into account industry costs in the current economic crisis. This intervention has led to protests from the ACTU and calls for similar relief from employers in other sectors, including retail and aged care.

Labor's embrace of a more deregulated workplace relations system is not a simplistic process of placating business demands and "selling out" workers. Labor policy is driven by a movement towards the future, fulfilling the historical dynamic that has been at work since the 1980s - the movement towards a post-industrial society and economy. There are some within the Rudd government who appear to be enthusiastically embracing these changes: Financial Services Minister Chris Bowen describes himself as a social liberal, who believes that a sophisticated, small 'l' liberalism is about the 'fulfilment of the individual' through extending the right of economic opportunity. The Minister for Small Business, Craig Emerson, describes himself as a 'market democrat'. Emerson argued in a speech to the Sydney Institute in June 2008 that market democrats believe that it is 'the role of policy makers to allow the market to create prosperity and out of that prosperity to expand opportunity, not the welfare state.'

Of the role of unions in a market economy, Emerson argued that modern unions must not only represent workers or contractors in collective bargaining, but increasingly through forms of individual bargaining and representation: members could subscribe to 'a bundle of services', an option that might be attractive to independent contractors. Emerson concludes that 'Unions offering such services to independent contractors would be doing so under commercial law in competition with employer organisations, law firms and anyone else who wanted to compete in the open market. This is a modern expression of freedom of association in an open, competitive economy.'

Where is a place for the union movement in the realm of social liberals and market democrats? However unpalatable some of Emerson's ideas or philosophy may seem, his description of individualised employment relations does capture a process that is changing the nature of work and the nature of society. Union structures, and union relationships with workers, also need to adapt to the changing nature of work and society.

An Imaginative Transformation
Unions need to think of new and creative ways of responding to change and rebuilding membership. As well as structural transformation, there also needs to be an imaginative transformation, of a kind embraced by the union movement in the past. This imaginative transformation is symbolized in the banner of the Blacksmith's Society of Australasia, created in the early twentieth century, when the labour movement embraced an optimistic spirit about its role not only on behalf of workers, but in Australian nation building. The front of the banner portrays a blacksmith working a forge. Beneath this are three inter-twined eights, symbolizing the campaign for an eight hour day. Around the banner are images of modern progress, including a train and an automobile - the future that blacksmith's were helping to create. There are also images of scales of justice and the clasped hands of brotherhood, the means by which workers and the state could organise and share the benefits of worker labour. On the reverse side of the banner are images of a warship, a plough, the Australian coat-of-arms and a blacksmith's anvil with the slogan, 'Forging Ahead'.

The banner represents the progress of the union movement, and its identification with the new forces of modernity and Australian citizenship at the turn of the century. The banner asserts that workers and unions have a legitimate place in making the nation, both in terms of material progress and creating a modern society, embracing the new technologies of the automobile and industrial development. There is nothing old fashioned about the Blacksmith's Society's banner. In the early twentieth century, the union movement grew with the changes underway in the economy and in society. The union movement imagined itself as part of the future.

* Mark Hearn is the co-editor of Rethinking Work: Time, Space and Discourse, Cambridge University Press 2006, and is a lecturer in the Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations, Macquarie University.

Published 23 July 2009.

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