The Decline in Union Membership in Australia
TOPIC – The major issue today facing the Australian trade union movement has been the decline in union density. What have been the causes, and how have the unions responded to the challenge.
Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2000, show that the decline in Australian union membership continues, despite the efforts of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), to stop the slide. The ABS reports that trade union membership has dropped to 28 percent of the total workforce, compared to 1992, where there was 40 percent. (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2000.)
Previous ABS findings show that these recent figures are part of a general trend, with no slight recovery recorded in the past six years.
Whilst it is evident that there is a decline in union membership, it is important to analyse why this is so and what the unions are doing to combat the downward trend. In attempting to tackle this issue, it is important to state the main objectives of a union that attract employees to join a membership and why the memberships are declining.
Australian unions were established in the first half of the nineteenth century, with growth beginning in the post gold-rush era. It is from then that the fastest growth of the era seems to have been in the decade of the 1880’s, where prosperous economic conditions and a tight labour market were forces making for union development (Dabscheck, Griffen, and Teicher, 1992).
The primary objective of a trade union is to improve the well being of its members. They were formed to counter the superior economic power of the employers. It has long been recognised that the market dominance of employers could only be offset by workers acting collectively and establishing organisations to bargain on their behalf. The most important function of a union is to maximise the wages and salaries of its members (Deery, Plowman, and Walsh, 2000).
Why do employees join unions? There are a number of reasons that an employee may join a union but three major factors are evident. They are; 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 et al, 2000).
With the benefits of the objectives of a union evident, why has Australian unions witnessed a decline in membership? There are many reasons to suggest a decline in membership, but three main factors stand out. They are; the changing composition of employment; the casual effects of the business cycle; and, the introduction of the Accord (Deery et al, 2000).
The changing composition of employment relates to the change in the structure of the 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...