Union membership falls as need for workers rights intensifies

As the pantomime that is the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, stumbles to its conclusion at the end of the year, figures released by the Australia Bureau of Statistics (ABS) on October 27 reveal a 2% drop in union membership to 15% of the workforce. According to the ABS report, in August last year 1.6 million people were members of trade unions in their main job. Stephen Collett from the ABS said: "The survey shows a higher proportion of public servants were trade union members in their main job (39%), compared to those in the private sector (11%) and full-time employees (17%) were more likely than part-time employees (12%) to be trade union members.” These figures reflect the significant structural changes in Australia in the past 30 years. Multinational corporations now dominate the Australian economy, especially in the mining sector. With this has come increasing technological change; restructuring of manufacturing industry; award stripping; job losses; a percentage increase in casual, part-time and insecure work; individual contracts; increasing use of labour hire business models; and privatisation of essential services, leading to fewer jobs and worse working conditions. Under-employment; unpaid overtime; 12-hour shifts; no penalty rates and no sick or annual leave are set to become the norm. Conditions such as long service leave; shift allowances; workplace health and safety; workers' compensation; employer superannuation contributions; flexible working hours; permanent part-time work; maternity leave; parental leave and other hard-won gains are all under threat. Well-unionised industries such as maritime, mining and minerals production — steel and aluminium in particular — have suffered extreme job losses as a result of technological change, increased mechanisation and fluctuations in commodity prices. Mining communities have been destroyed by mining giants use of a fly-in–fly-out employment model. Workers fly into the mining area, work 12-hour shifts for weeks at a time, with no weekends or shift penalties, and fly home for a week or two off. Their wages may appear generous compared with other industries, but the occupational health and social consequences suffered are not adequately compensated. This form of employment also undermines the strong sense of worker solidarity, which had been a hallmark of miners and their communities. Workers in low-wage industries, such as cleaning, have also been targeted by multinational companies using the labour hire model. The increasing use of labour hire employment models shifts the “risks” from employer to employee. Workers employed on contracts have to cover their own entitlements to annual and sick leave, superannuation and workers compensation, effectively losing these conditions, which as employees rather than self-employed contractors they would have enjoyed under awards or union-negotiated enterprise agreements. The assault on working conditions is best epitomised by the recommendation of the Productivity Commission to cut Sunday penalty rates in hospitality and retail industries. This will mean wage cuts of 17% to 38% for workers already on low wages and in insecure employment. The union movement is mounting a campaign in defence of weekend penalties as other service industries, such as hospital workers, are also threatened. Job growth in the services sector has impacted on patterns of union membership, but the example of the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) shows that the drop in union membership growth has not been solely due to changes in the workforce. Last month the ANMF announced a 12% increase in its membership over two years. Total membership is now a record 249,000 members — despite job losses across the health sector. The union's federal secretary Lee Thomas attributed the solid membership growth to the ANMF's long list of successful campaigns fought by the ANMF. These victories include defeating the proposed GP co-payment, gaining mandated nurse to patient ratios in Victoria and Queensland and protecting penalty rates for nurses, midwives and assistants in nursing. Last year, research by the ACTU showed that wages growth was the slowest for 17 years. Average growth of 2.6% was less than the inflation rate of 3%. This cut in real wages, combined with increases in worker productivity, has resulted in a steady and continued shift from wages to profits. Corresponding with the structural changes in industries has been the use of the state to provide the legal and administrative framework to accelerate the shift from wages to capital and drive down employment conditions. The Royal Commission into Trade Unions was designed to demonise the union movement and tie unions up in costly legal battles. Workers have come to expect conservative governments to union bash through passing legislation that hobbles them in their role of defending workers' rights. The union movement's response has been to rally behind calls for replacing conservative with Labor governments at state and federal level. In the past this has not succeeded in reversing the cuts to wages and conditions let alone an increase in workers rights or improvements in employment conditions and living standards. Labor has shown it supports the free trade agenda of the Coalition. It has not consistently opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will enable multinational corporations to ride roughshod over governments, and has grave implications for public health by challenging the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. While it did respond in part to the ACTU campaign against the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA), by moving amendments that limited the potential for undermining awards through the employment of Chinese workers on non-award rates, it did not take up the issue of labour market testing and expansion of apprenticeship opportunities. The ChAFTA agreement passed into law last week with the support of Labor, but even with amendments requiring migrant workers to be paid at Australia rates, it has features that have negative implications for the health and living conditions of workers. The ACTU has indicated that it will continue to campaign against these negative aspects, but while it looks to a future ALP government as the solution its success will be limited. Workers in this country urgently need to rebuild fighting, democratic unionism that abides by the age-old principle "Touch One, Touch All". Nothing else stands between us and low pay, speed-ups and stress at work, and exploitation by the employer. Socialist Alliance members are in the forefront of the struggle to rebuild Australia's unions, active in their own unions and in building solidarity with all union struggles. As an organisation, the Alliance acts in solidarity with those unions that are in the front line of the fight for wages and conditions, and is committed to increasing the membership, morale, organisation and fighting strength of the union movement. [Margaret Gleeson is a member of the Socialist Alliance and a life member of the ASU.]