Aussie unions becoming toothless

Long the lifeblood of workers, union power now sapped by allegations of graft, thuggery

A boat carries tourists in front of the Sydney's landmark Opera House. Australia's unions are facing a serious crisis following a series of damaging scandals and an explosive royal commission.
A boat carries tourists in front of the Sydney's landmark Opera House. Australia's unions are facing a serious crisis following a series of damaging scandals and an explosive royal commission.PHOTO: AFP

Australia's unions have long been the lifeblood of the workforce - and are closely aligned with the now-opposition Labor Party - but they face a serious crisis following a series of damaging scandals and an explosive royal commission. 

The commission, established last year by the ruling coalition government, has heard evidence of bribes and links between union officials and criminal figures. 

Last Thursday, former union official Fihi Kivalu, a former Australian Labor Party (ALP) local branch president, was arrested after admitting he accepted A$60,000 (S$60,600) for giving a contractor access to the construction market in Canberra.

Other recent scandals have included the case of former Labor MP Craig Thomson, a one-time union official, who was accused of using union money to pay for prostitutes.

The allegations of corruption, thuggery and sleaze follow a drastic decline in the size and strength of unions in the past two decades, in a change that has mirrored the transformation and growing openness of the economy. Analysts say the decline reflects the shift away from manufacturing and industry to a more globally competitive, knowledge-based workforce.  Also, a growing proportion of the workforce consists of casual or part-time employees, who tend to have lower rates of union membership.


The unions are now much less influential than they once were.

PROFESSOR GREG BAMBER, an employment relations expert at Monash University

"The unions are much less influential than they once were," Professor Greg Bamber, an employment relations expert at Monash University, told The Straits Times.

"The traditional stronghold of unions had been the manufacturing industry, which has been rapidly disappearing from Australia. Another factor is the growing individualism that we see in Australia. There is less of a collective tradition in trying to improve workers' conditions and pay."

Unions have historically played a significant part in the evolution of worker rights in Australia, including battles for minimum wages, a 38-hour working week, equal pay for women  and rights to overtime rates and annual holidays. The global movement for an eight-hour day is believed to have begun with a protest by a group of stonemasons in Melbourne in 1856.

But union membership has suffered a steep drop - from 40 per cent of the workforce in 1992 to about 18 per cent today. Union membership in the private sector is just 12 per cent, and remains about 40 per cent in the public sector.

Some analysts have called for unions to modernise and to put more focus on issues such as ensuring strong job security, childcare and parental leave schemes, as well as a healthy work-life balance.

"When so many Australians don't see the value in joining them anymore, unions have bigger problems than this royal commission," political scientist Sally Young of Melbourne University wrote in The Age newspaper. "The old union methods of lunchtime meetings, stopworks and strikes are also not holding up in an era when workers perform work on their phones in their leisure time, when there is 24-hour global trading through online shopping, and when a growing number of Australians work for multinational companies that don't pay proper taxes or play by Australian industrial relations rules."

The royal commission has been criticised as a political stunt designed to damage the ALP. But it has nonetheless renewed the focus on the union movement and its contemporary significance.

"There is no doubt the commission is politically motivated," said Professor Bamber. "No doubt there are some bad apples in the unions. But there is a bigger case for a royal commission into the financial services industry, where we have seen much bigger problems, including the precipitation of the global financial crisis." 

An expert on the Australian union movement, Dr Geoffrey Robinson from Deakin University, said unions had been ill-prepared for increased global competition, which had led to increasing demands by employers to scale back the powers of unions in the workplace.

"Union membership collapsed in the early 1990s and it never recovered," he told The Straits Times. 

"It was a combination of structural changes  and the globalisation of the economy, with employers taking a much harder line against the unions and being encouraged to do so by the government. Unions were unable to adapt to that."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 21, 2015, with the headline 'Aussie unions becoming toothless'. Print Edition | Subscribe