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The future of unions ...

23rd July, 2021

Subscribers may have noticed a considerable lull in activity on the blog! I’ve been very busy completing the book mentioned below, which will come out in early 2022.  

The challenges facing unions in Australia, and globally, are well-known and thoroughly researched. Since the 1980s, a number of forces have combined to significantly reduce union membership levels:

  • the decline of highly unionised sectors like manufacturing, and the rise of employment in services like the finance, communications and IT sectors;
  • the growth of flexible forms of work including casual, fixed-term and contracting arrangements;
  • the deployment of business models such as labour hire, outsourcing, supply chains and franchising along with, most recently, the advent of the gig economy;
  • and the intensification of employer hostility to unions, enabled by state interventions aimed at deregulating the labour market and individualising employment relationships.

The question is: what are unions doing about all this? For many union leaders, labour law is to blame for the plight they face. So, fixing the law is their starting point for reversing union decline. If labour law allowed unions to bargain across industries or supply chains (rather than only at the level of the enterprise), if the restrictions on strike action were lifted, and if unions had greater legal access to work-sites to meet with and recruit workers, all would be well. 

I agree 100% that these (and other) reforms of labour law are essential, if unions are to have a fair opportunity to build worker power in the modern economy, where so many other elements are stacked against workers and unions. But for me, the law is only beginning – and not the end – of union revitalisation.

I’m also interested in what unions are doing to innovate, and even to re-imagine what a “union” is and what it looks like, to appeal to groups of workers that have traditionally been difficult to organise: young workers, migrant workers, and the growing number of workers in insecure forms of work or working in contexts like labour hire.

All of this – and case studies of union innovation from Australia, the USA, UK and Italy – are explored in my forthcoming book: The Future of Unions and Worker Representation – The Digital Picket Line. See here for further information from the publisher, Hart (UK):

Many of these issues were also discussed in my recent interview on ABC Radio National’s This Working-Life Program (click here), along with ACTU Secretary, Sally McManus. 

I ended the interview in the same way that I conclude the book: if nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the vital role played by unions in defending the jobs, health and safety, and income security of workers. The case for unionising has never been stronger.

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