Rebuilding Union Strength*

Labor Pains
LHMU Secretary Louise Tarrant (second from the left) with members at the launch of the LHMU's Big Steps in Childcare campaign

LHMU National Secretary Louise Tarrant argues that through sheer hard work and smart organising strategies unions can rebuild industrial strength and grow their membership base.

Louise Tarrant, the National Secretary of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, believes that unions are trying to rebuild membership and industrial strength at a time of profound changes in the global economy, society and the workplace. Unions have had to adjust to organising in a services rather than a production economy, and in a global economic environment. Over the last twenty years there has been an increase in management hostility towards unions.

These changes have compelled unions to think laterally about the nature of the management they are now dealing with; no longer is it so much of a focus on the traditional notion of the employer, but ‘who are the price fixers who impact on the worker? Unions have to identify and deal with the real employer who influences the workplace.'

Tarrant believes that unions need to more effectively organise the private service sector and ‘if we fail we will lose touch with the changing nature of the economy and the workforce.'

This requires a more rigorous approach to developing a strategic analysis of industry, its investors and employers, and the broader political and economic environment, and the LHMU have developed its in house research capacity in recent years. The LHMU has been developing a ‘critical information base' on every major building, tenant, owner and property trust in the hospitality sector in order to develop the platform for an effective collective bargaining campaign.

In order to maintain industrial power and organisational viability, Tarrant believes unions must organise on an industry scale, although she acknowledges the difficulties facing workplace organising. ‘Most organisers can only get to six to eight workers a day, and may only recruit one or two new members from that contact.'

Tarrant also acknowledges the difficulties of pursuing wage increases in the competitive and low wage services sector in which the LHMU organises, where there is also a high level of casual employment.

‘We need to be realistic about what employers can pay; and we need to organise market sector density before triggering wage campaigns' – a bargaining momentum across key sectors that can maximise a wage rise across the industry.

Tarrant says the LHMU wants to improve the conditions faced by workers in low wage jobs, and recognise their needs. The LHMU covers workers in child care, hotels, and cleaning, and has developed both industrial and political campaigns to highlight their needs and place them on the public agenda: ‘Clean Start Fair Deal' for cleaners, ‘Better Jobs Better Hotels' for hospitality workers, and Big Steps in Child Care' for often overworked and underpaid child care centre staff.

Tarrant says the LHMU aims to use communications and public relations campaigns to ‘mainstream' its message and place it on the Australian political agenda.

* This report is based on a paper delivered by LHMU National Secretary Louise Tarrant at the Unions after WorkChoices conference, conducted by Work and Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney, 14 November 2008.

Published 11 May 2009.

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