Where To Now for Union Campaign? Workplace Express


The unexpected results of the 2019 Commonwealth election have sparked many commentaries regarding what happened, and why. This article, reprinted with permission from Workplace Express, considers the role of the major #ChangeTheRules campaign mobilised by Australian unions in the lead-up to the election – and ponders the movement’s next steps in the continuing debate over labour market policies and industrial relations. It cites both our Economist Alison Pennington, and our Director Jim Stanford, as well as our previous research on the erosion of collective bargaining in Australia.

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Where to Now For Unions?: Experts

Reprinted from Workplace Express, May 27, 2019.

Future union membership numbers will depend on how effectively unions organise without being able to rely on the political system delivering changes to workplace laws, according to an expert on employment relations.

In the immediate aftermath of the Morrison Government’s election win, Griffith University’s Professor David Peetz said it was likely that it would be harder to grow union membership under the Coalition than under Labor.

“In the end, it’s up to unions to organise effectively, they can’t rely on the political system to deliver what they would like, even though it can’t be denied that politics makes a big difference,” he told Workplace Express.

Whether union membership would fall under three more years with the Coalition in power depended on a range factors, said Peetz, including the government’s ability to pass inhibiting legislation; the movement’s own organising performance; and the effects of underemployment, which both put a brake on union bargaining power and reduced wages growth.

“Has the focus on political campaigning taken the edge away from workplace organisation, or has it reinforced it?” said Peetz.

“Will union activists feel so disillusioned by the election result that they give up?

“Or will they put more effort into workplace action in recognition of the failure of political action?

“I think these are all things that will become clearer over the next couple of years.”

Deal ‘protections’ weaker at the margins: Peetz

Union membership is currently running at less than 15% of the workforce, with unions having a stronghold in the public or government sector thanks to nurses, teachers, public servants and police (see Related Article).

However, private sector membership remains a weak point, amid a shift away from enterprise bargaining to award coverage.

Peetz, who is currently a visiting fellow at City University of New York, said the fall in enterprise bargaining coverage was mostly a delayed result of the decline in union density.

“EB coverage held up for a while because it suited some employers to stick with union bargaining arrangements when unions were weaker,” he said.

“But eventually a point had to come where those employers would decide to circumvent unions altogether and/or the award simply caught up with what the EB rates were.

“Of course it means that fewer people are now getting the ‘protection’ of EBAs, but that protection was getting weaker at the margins anyway, and the bigger picture is the decline in the proportion of people getting the ‘protection’ of unions.”

Peetz said the biggest impact would be felt in non-union workplaces.

“In unionised workplaces, it’s workers’ own experiences of unions that will determine how well or badly unions go.

“Unionism is, to use econo-speak, an ‘experience good’.

“There, unions’ future is very much in their hands.

“In non-union workplaces, where quite a few employees have no direct experience of unions – or it was so long ago it’s not really relevant – the ideology that comes through the media is more important, and the question of who’s in government and what they say and do, and what employers with government support do, and what the media themselves do, becomes more important.”

Private sector bargaining ‘out of reach’: Pennington

Last year, the Centre for Future Work released a report, On the Brink, contending that enterprise bargaining was on the edge of collapse, largely due to its abandonment by the private sector (see Related Article).

The report, by Centre economist Alison Pennington, said that more than half of the reduction in private sector coverage is due to the termination or expiry of large agreements in the retail sector and the accommodation and food service sector.

She found that private sector agreements dropped by 46% between December 2013 and June 2018 (from 22,638 to 10,333), while the number of employees under agreements fell by 34% (from 1,950,561 to 1,288,100).

Last week, Pennington told Workplace Express that new data from the Department of Jobs showed the number of employees covered by enterprise bargaining has shrunk by another 170,000 in the six months to December 2018.

She did not expect to see any reversal of the trend without reforms to the bargaining systems and freeing unions from restrictive “anti-organising laws”.

“What it says, for me, is that bargaining rights are out of reach for the vast majority of private sector workers.”

Nonetheless, Pennington says that private sector union membership is unlikely to fall further than what she believes to be levels already below 10%.

And on a positive note for unions, she argued the Changes the Rules campaign was successful in terms of recruiting members, with some unions doing “a lot better than others”.

Union campaign heard: Stanford

Centre for Future Work director, Professor Jim Stanford, also said the ACTU campaign succeeded in its first aim to “influence the debate” in the lead-up to the election on wage stagnation, work exploitation and job security.

“Now the question is how do convert that public opinion that workers need fairer treatment into policy reform given the government that’s in power,” said Stanford.

“That will be challenging, but it’s not impossible because the Coalition has to keep an eye on where people are at.”

Stanford said the Coalition could not be “deaf” to public opinion on wage stagnation and job security, and the same was true for the FWC, which last year awarded a 3.5% in minimum wages.

“I think they [the Commission] heard the concerns about wage stagnation and they recognised they had a role to play.

“I think the public education and organising that the union movement did will still pay dividends, even with a generally hostile government in power.

“The wage crisis is not going to go away and I think Australians are well aware are that their pay packers are going nowhere relative to consumer prices.

“That combination of continued wage suppression with an awakened, angry population … is a pretty potent mix.”

‘Remain bold,’ Forsyth tells ACTU

RMIT University’s Professor Anthony Forsyth has argued on his blog that unions can still tap into “deep problems” in the workplace that Labor sought to address.

These problems included underpayments, “dodgy” labour hire contractors, workers trapped in long-term casual engagement and the widespread use of rolling, fixed-term contracts.

“We still have the collapse of collective bargaining in the private sector, and employer ‘work-arounds’ to avoid negotiating an enterprise agreement or get out of an existing one,” says Forsyth.

“We still don’t have the basis for a real living wage.

“Rather than shrinking back to a ‘small target’ strategy, as is now being contemplated in other policy areas, I reckon the ACTU should remain bold in its reform ambitions.

“It should make a more substantive case for ‘changing the rules’ with strong underlying research that precisely measures the nature of the current problems (such as the nature and incidence of ‘insecure work’, a concept that business groups constantly debunk in the media).”

But Forsyth argued that “organising and connecting with workers on the ground in new and innovative ways” are also essential, as shown by United Voice’s ‘Hospo Voice’ initiative and both the Young Workers Centre and Migrant Workers Centre at Victorian Trades Hall Council.

“As the National Union of Workers and United Voice put it in the context of their current amalgamation proposal: ‘We need to change the rules, but we also need to change the game’.”

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