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In a COVID-normal world of work, Australians need unions now more than ever

22nd March, 2022

As we head into the federal election, get ready for a Coalition scare campaign on ‘union power’ and workers’ rights.

We saw this a few weeks ago, when the federal and NSW governments blamed unions for a shutdown of Sydney’s trains which had in fact been imposed by a management lockout.

We saw it again last week in the hysterical Coalition and business response to the Victorian government’s sick pay guarantee scheme for casuals.

The Coalition will again ramp up the spectre of powerful, faceless ‘union bosses’ calling workers out on strike across the economy if Labor wins the election.

The reality could not be further from the truth. Australia’s unions no longer wield the influence they had in the post-war era. Union membership is down from over 50% of the workforce in the 1970s to around 14% in 2020.

Declining union membership can be attributed to the rise of neoliberalism in the last 30 years, bringing with it increased employer hostility to unions and workers, the rise of insecure work and business models like labour hire and the gig economy.

These factors, combined with restrictive labour laws, have made the job of organising and representing workers much more difficult.

There have also been significant shifts in workers’ attitudes. Conservative governments and business interests have successfully cultivated individualism in the workplace. Through dubious HR strategies, they have persuaded workers to think of the business they work for as a kind of ‘family’ that will look after them (so why would anyone need a union?).

Unions themselves have contributed to their problems through instances of corruption (although the extent of this was exaggerated by the Coalition to justify a Royal Commission and new laws clamping down on union activities).

Negative stereotypes of predominantly male blue-collar construction workers do not help the union cause. For many workers, especially the young, the concept of unionism can seem irrelevant.

What are unions doing to change these perceptions and attract a new generation of digitally-active workers?

Some Australian unions are experimenting with innovative approaches using technology and digital membership platforms. They are moving away from the traditional, full-fee/full-service membership model to offer workers different ways to engage that suit their interests and financial capacity.

Stand-out examples include the United Workers Union’s Hospo Voice, essentially a digital union enabling hospitality workers to fight back against the wage theft and sexual harassment which are endemic in cafes and restaurants.

The Australian Workers Union has created a similar offering for hair stylists, and an independent organisation for game-developers is now partnering with Professionals Australia to offer industrial representation to workers in the growing videogame industry.

Australia’s oldest workers’ organisation, the Victorian Trades Hall Council, has set up a specialist Young Workers Centre to provide advice and advocacy to under-30s. It has been instrumental in campaigning for legislation to criminalise underpayment of wages, and supporting food delivery workers – many of them from migrant backgrounds – to contest exploitation by gig platforms.

The Transport Workers Union has backed that cause, pushing back against the misclassification business model that sees gig workers treated as independent ‘entrepreneurs’ – through workplace and media campaigns, legal challenges in the courts and collective representation under work health and safety laws.

Meanwhile the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation has become the nation’s largest union by offering training and educational services which place union membership at the core of professional identity, combined with effective industrial representation and advocacy.

These kinds of innovations are critical if unions are to adapt and remain relevant in the modern Australian workplace.

They can also point to the vital role they have played in guaranteeing the basic rights of workers throughout the pandemic. Unions campaigned for the Morrison government to implement the JobKeeper income protection scheme, overcoming its initial resistance. Most recently, unions pushed back against the elevated COVID-19 risks faced by workers including nurses and aged care staff during the summer Omicron surge.

The union movement remains the largest mass-membership organisation in Australia, representing approximately 1.5 million workers. It has always been an important agent of social and political change in this country.

But its future is by no means assured. Union leaders have to keep thinking creatively to secure that future.

Anthony Forsyth’s book ‘The Future of Unions and Worker Representation: The Digital Picket Line’ will be launched at Trades Hall in Melbourne on Thursday 24 March at 6.00 pm. To register, go to:

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