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Tough Days Ahead For Australian Trade Unions

05/01/2016 5:24 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Australia Labor movement, workers union strike concept with male fists raised in the air fighting for their rights, Australian national flag in out of focus background.

According to figures released recently by the ABS, the union movement shed over 150,000 members between August 2014 and August 2015. Although its membership still stands at over half a million, a drop of almost 10 percent is no small matter.

If these trends continue, the union movement will be a relic by 2026.

Compounding this challenge is a decline in the rate of youth membership, the lifeblood of any organisation, which is reaching record lows. Across the country only one in 20 young people are members of a trade union, less than half the national average.

Even if membership stabilises, unions still risk aging out if they don't find a way to become relevant to young people.

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My first experience with a trade union was pretty standard. I was given a union membership form for the SDA, the union that represents retail workers, on the first day of my first job. I can't remember what reasons we were given for joining, but it had something to do with cheap movie tickets. I signed the form and didn't think of it again.

About a year later I found out that the same union had voted to block Labor endorsing marriage equality. I was shocked. While young Australians overwhelmingly support same-sex marriage, their biggest union, the SDA, has been a of major roadblock to reform.

If you work at Woolworths or Coles, as a lot of young people do, it gets even worse. Duncan Hart, a student who works part time at a Coles supermarket, recently had to take his employers to court after it was revealed an industrial agreement between the union and supermarket chain left him $60 a week worse off than the award rate.

The SDA has a history of offering sweetheart deals like this to employers, sidelining the demands of its members in exchange for access to shopfronts and easier member recruitment. This strategy has let them amass considerable influence within the ALP, while doing very little for the workers they represent.

With friends like these, who needs enemies (or royal commissions)?

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Despite the decline in membership, community support for trade unions remains high. According to an Essential Media poll released the same day as the ABS figures, 62 percent of respondents said they believed unions still have an important role to play in Australian society.

And they're right. A recent paper from the UN's International Labor Office (ILO) entitled, Labour Relations and Collective Bargaining, found that while union membership density is hovering at around 15 percent of workers, more than 60 percent of Australian workers are employed under conditions that were collectively bargained for, far above the rate of many countries with higher union densities.

The widespread influence of unions means they help set the benchmarks for what our society perceives as a fair-go for workers, regardless of membership. Union victories, such as medicare and the 8-hour day, along with recent innovations, such as domestic violence leave, have become firmly embedded in Australians' expectations of fair working conditions. Similarly, the widespread use of collective agreements, which set wages above the minimum, provide an incentive for other employers to pay their workers fairly.

That's not to say there aren't challenges ahead. There is a large and growing group of workers who are enjoying less and less of the basic, collectively-bargained-for conditions that others take for granted, and with the ongoing attacks on penalty pay rates, even what they do have is at risk of being taken away. As the seemingly unstoppable force of casualisation continues to fragment the workforce, the need for trade unions will only rise.

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My first non-union job was terrible.

I was working as a shop attendant for a well-known homeware supplier, getting paid pennies, and regularly bullied by my employer for having long hair and piercings -- evidence that I was apparently "a homo".

This isn't the worst story I've heard. An ex of mine who worked at a fairly nice restaurant in Cirqular Quay was routinely underpaid by her boss. When she quit, he even withheld her final paycheck -- until her father stepped in. The restaurant had an informal policy of hiring backpackers and those on student visas who they knew wouldn't complain about the harsh treatment.

Everyone knows someone with a story like this. The recent controversy surrounding 7-Eleven's treatment of staff isn't notable for its uniqueness, but because of its scale and because it was happening under our noses.

When you're in one of these situations it's impossible to know what to do. You need the money, and if you complain you'll get the sack. It's a terrible position to be in, and one that's becoming all too common.

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When the same respondents were asked whether they believed stronger unions would lead to better conditions their answers got a little murkier. Only 17 percent, similar to the number of union members, believed they would be 'much better off' with stronger unions, while the bulk of respondents, 28 percent, believed it would only make them 'a little better off'.

This should come as a relief to union leaders. The number of those sympathetic, but skeptical about the benefits of stronger unions represent a cohort of new potential members.

While the cases of corruption exposed during the recent Royal Commission into trade unions, and increasing unease about the ties they share with the Labor party, poses an obvious challenge to this, the answer isn't more restrictions on unions, as some Labor party figures have proposed, but more democratic trade unions.

According to David Peetz, a Professor of Employment Relations at the Griffith Business School, fostering more grassroots networks on shop floors is a key strategy for union revival. Unions need to focus on building "workplace representative structures and networks of support that develop self-reliance and confidence among members". These networks take a variety of forms, and often already exist informally within workplaces.

"The dialogue between members and shop-floor representatives about union objectives in the change process greatly enhances the legitimacy of union positions," write Levesque and Murray, researchers into union revitalisation, "Simply put, democracy becomes a vital source of union power."

Tim Kennedy, national secretary of the National Union of Workers, has already made moves toward this, pushing to reduce the power senior union officials wield within the Labor party and instead allowing members from Labor-affiliated unions to have a say in the party's affairs.

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It's half an hour into one of our last shifts in Newspoll's soon-to-be defunct call center, and most of the floor is still milling around outside. Of the 150 people employed by the operation, less than 20 of us will be receiving any kind of redundancy payout when it closes down in a few weeks.

We're angry.

Weeks ago, when we had first been told of the close down, we'd voted to campaign against the deal our employers had offered us -- and demand redundancy payments for everyone.

Bucking the national trend, roughly 85 percent of the people I work with are union members, most of them under the age of 24. Tonight is our big test. We'd chosen to walk off the job and picket outside the building. It's a sea of red union shirts. We're not concerned about royal commissions, or factions -- we're concerned about getting a better deal for our friends and colleagues.

Although we were ultimately unsuccessful in securing redundancy payments, we did win a few concessions, such as letters of reference. More importantly we stood up for ourselves, and did so together.

There's nothing that inherently stops most people from joining a trade union. However, the experience at Newspoll taught me that unionism is something deeply rooted in the community you share with your colleagues -- the desire to see everyone get a better deal, not just yourself.

Joining a trade union is important, but so are the million other little things you can do. This could include accompanying a co-worker to a disciplinary meeting, starting a workplace petition, or even organising a cake day.

The attacks on trade unions, and threats to worker conditions, have never been stronger. It's up to those of us who care to make unions relevant again.

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