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Union Membership Decline

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Australian trade unions prospered for much of the last century but have suffered membership decline since the late 1970s (Spooner, Innes, Mortimer 2001). Australian Union membership has declined in Australia, as it has in many other economies, over recent years. The decline in Australian Union membership can be attributed more so to local factors such as legislative change, the changing composition of employment and Australians changing attitude toward Unions, rather than that of global factors such as the shift from manufacturing to services and technological change. To aid understanding in the falling of union numbers, it is important to become familiar with unions, be aware of who they are and what their fundamental purpose is. This paper aims to show that a focus needs to be on the micro rather than the macro, that is, issues in Australia rather than global issues to identify what is causing falling union numbers in Australia and outline what can be done to halt the decline of their numbers.

The primary objective of a Union is to improve the wellbeing of it members. Unions are, first and foremost, an agency and a medium of power, with their central purpose being to permit workers to exert, collectively, the control over their conditions of employment, which they cannot hope to do as individuals (Hyman 1975). Individuals initially joined unions for different and varying reasons, however there are three reasons that dominate; dissatisfaction with economic aspects of the job; a desire to influence those aspects of the work environment through union orientated means; and, a belief that the benefits of unionism outweigh the expected costs (Deery, Wallace 2000). Unions in Australia were established in the first half of the ninetieth century. The 1880’s saw a large growth in the number of union memberships, due to prosperous economic conditions and a tight labour market were forces making for union development (Dabscheck, Griffen, and Teicher, 1992). Trade union membership has generally declined since 1992.

There are an array of local factors that can be held responsible for the decline in numbers of Australians joining unions and the stability of union numbers. These factors include, the introduction of the ‘Statement of Accord’ and other legislative change as well the changing composition of employment. Lobbying by unions, for its members, saw The Australian Labour Party and the Australian Council Trade Union announce the ‘Statement of Accord’ in February 1983, which saw the Hawke Labor Government move to establish a prices and incomes policy election to office in March 1983 (Dabscheck, 1992). While initially the voice of unions pushed the movement through it saw all Australian employees gain a National Wage increase. It also offered benefits such as a stronger dismissal protection, comprehensive superannuation schemes and improved occupational health standards to unionists and non-unionists. (K, Spooner, C. Innes, D. Mortimer 2001). The minimum standard that union’s lobbied to provide was established, this increase came whether individuals were Union members or not. Which was bad news for unions, the agreement created an environment in which many individuals, perceived their being no real benefit in joining or staying within a union, causing a steady decline in union membership numbers.

Other change to legislation, both federal and state since the introduction of ‘Statement of Accord’ has caused enterprise-based bargaining to replaced other centrally determine awards as the major mechanism for establishing wages and conditions of employment in majority of organizations. Change to legislation introduced by the Howard Government, known as WorkChoices saw, diminishing trade union right of entry to business premises which added to the difficulty facing union officials (K Spooner, C Innes, D Mortimer, 2001). The legislative change brought about the greatest single change to Australian federal labour law since the introduction of compulsory conciliation and arbitration (Fenwick 2006). When the Howard government introduced WorkChoices in 2006, unions were already in deep decline and in response to the changes Australian Council of Trade unions launched its “Your Rights at Work” campaign opposing the changes to try and increase the rights of their members and regain numbers. The protest’s by Unions and their members saw the Howard government thrown out of office and the reinstatement of the Labour Government, at the hand of Kevin Rudd who quickly moved to outlaw Australian Workplace Agreements. Although unions were able to generate enough noise and play a large factor in the overturning of the Howard government, membership numbers continued to decline.

During the past three decades, membership density in Australian unions has declined by around 60% (B, Lee & Russell D. Lansbury, 2001), The changing composition of employment in Australia is a significant factor affecting the decline in union membership. The changing composition of employment relates to job status, occupational status and gender. If an individual is full time, part time or casually employed it directly influences the likeliness of them being members of unions and or fully supported by those unions. In the past it was more likely to be a full time employee, so the initial design of a union sought to provide benefits to these individuals. Casualisation refers to the increasing trend that sees more and more workers employed in ‘casual’ jobs. While the exact definition of ‘casual’ employees has been much debated in recent times, the current description used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics applies the term to workers who are not entitled to sick leave or paid holidays and who are compensated for these losses by a higher rate of pay. Over time with the changing structure of the workforce, casualisation caused an effect on the unions and their numbers because of their original design. It is apparent Unions in Australia have little legislative basis upon which to offer protection to casual employees (K Spooner, C Innes, D. Mortimer, 2001).

Males make up a much greater portion of Australian Union members than those of females, 26.3 per cent of males but only 22.8 per cent of females being union members (K Spooner, C Innes, D. Mortimer, 2001). This also reflects the patterns and trends of the general workforce, where males have a larger and more dominant influence of many different aspects. The gap between male and female union density is due entirely to the differing occupational and employment status of the two genders. Women are disproportionately concentrated in casual jobs and in low-density occupations (Peetz, 2005). The increasing trend of female employment has contributed to union decline because females are less likely to be unionized as they are employed in less unionized industries and generally have part time employment or casual work status. When unions began in Australia they predominantly set out to benefit a dominantly male, working class, ‘blue-collar’ workers and through support for these workers were able to generate a strong voice and numbers. There has now been a shift from manufacturing to services and a strong number of White-Collar predominance in the Australian workforce. Job growth has become generally greater in those segments of the labour force with relatively low levels of trade union membership, and a contraction of employment among the more highly unionized segments of the labour force (Healey, 1995). Most of the employment growth that occurred in the 80’s and 90’s was confined to the private sector whose union density was considerably lower to that of the public sector. In addition to that, the constant decline in the manufacturing industries, where unionization is high, compared to other sectors in the industry.

Many unions have developed and implemented diverse strategies in order to cope with crises arising from various external challenges and internal problems as they seek to revitalize labour movements (B, Lee & Russell D. Lansbury, 2001). A new recruitment process to bring on board younger workers sees trade unions implementing education programs in schools. These programs not only urge the recruitment of young workers but also provide information about work and the role of unions in today's community (Healey, 1995). The other strategy implemented is amalgamation, to create more effective and powerful unions (Healey, 1995) in turn, creating a perception that fewer and bigger unions would halt the membership decline. By joining forces with other unions, they have a stronger voice and more numbers behind them collectively. Evidence in overseas countries such as Japan, with thousands of unions has an effective union movement. And, in Germany where there are only 19 unions, also has an effective union movement (Short, 1992). This proves that policies have to be looked at more carefully than just the size of unions. A changing attitude towards unions has seen a large downturn in the unionization rates in Australians. Perceptions that unions are too powerful along with a generalized downward shift in community support for unions may lead to the conclusion that individuals are less inclined to become union members (Deery 2001).

Union membership has declined in Australia as it has in other advanced economies over recent years. After careful and thoughtful discussion, the decline has been caused by local factors such as legislative change, the changing composition of employment and the changing attitude toward unions, rather than global factors of shift from manufacturing to services and technological change. Australian Unions are realizing that they must look at the bigger picture, rather than looking internally for strategies they must be more community focused to reduce the decline in union membership. Analyzing the micro rather than the macro, the issues closer to home gives unions a greater opportunity to branch out to individuals, members and not see such significant falls in unionization rates.


1. R. Hyman (1971). Marxism and The Sociology of Trade Unionism. London. Pluto.

2. K Spooner, C Innes, D. Mortimer. (2001). Union Membership: Australia Employment Relations Record, 1(1), 27.

3. Chaykowski, R., Giles, A. (1998). Globalization, Work and Industrial Relations. Relations Industrielle's/Industrial Relations, 53(1), 3-12.

4. Dabscheck, B., Griffen, G., Teicher, J. (1992). Contemporary Australian Industrial Relations. Melbourne, Australia. Longman Chesire.

5. Deery, S., Plowman, D., Walsh, J. (2000). Industrial Relations, A Contemporary Analysis. Roseville, Australia .McGraw Hill.

6. C, Fenwick, (2006). How Low Can You Go? Minimum working conditions Under Australia’s New Labour Laws, The Economic and Labour Relations Review. 16(2), p.2.

7. Lee, D, and Russell D. Lansbury. (2012). Refining Varieties of Labour Movements: Perspectives from the Asia-Pacific Region. Journal of Industrial Relations, 54(4), 435-440. 8. D. Peetz. (2005) Trend Analysis of Union Membership. Australian Journal of Labour Economics 8(1). 1-24.

9. Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership, Australia, August 2011 Quality Declaration LATEST ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 27/04/2012 Decline in Trade Union Memebrship

10. Healey Kaye. (1995), Industrial Relations, Issues for the nineties, Volume 45. The Spinney Press, Australia.

11. Short, L. (1992), The Rise and Decline of the Trade Union Movement. A New Province For Law and Order. 13(1). 1-1. Accessed Online at:

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