An Indestructible Union (Part 3)

The membership is the Union, and the Union is the membership. This is why membership is usually one of the goals of initial conversations between workers, delegates and organisers looking to create a new Union in a workplace or industry – membership is the existential question that sets up the realistic structures necessary to fight for a group of workers’ key issues. It is the vehicle which creates the power necessary to win the change they want to see. The union is simply the collective pronoun for a group of workers united in their economic, political, social and environmental interests.

It is the first objective indicator that a group of workers are acting together over and above merely reacting to an employer changing workplace practices or upping the intensity/duration of work. Union membership is the first sign that a group of workers are united in common cause to defend their interests against the insatiable corporate drive to take more and more profit. It also provides the structural drive for effective unions to fight for equality (at least amongst their membership), as each and every member is of equal importantce in terms of the contribution they make towards the effective whole of the Union. Hence the old union adage, “without you there is no union”. As an aside, this leads to an interesting historical thesis that I wonder if anyone has ever tested before. That is unions will display either racist/sexist tendencies or fight for equality based on the identities of (a) their existing membership, and (b) the workers working with their existing membership.

While there are other factors at play in measuring worker power, there is a strong enough correlation between overall union membership numbers and density within the Australian economy and the strength of labour in economy for it to be a topic of statistical interest to both the Australian State and the mainstream press. This is also the source of the paradoxial criticism of union power amongst paid advocates for capital. Over a generation of union decline, these advocates have generally used two lines of criticism. The first being that the Union movement is more and more out touch with mainstream working Australia because there are less and less members. The second line is that unions overall exercise too much power within the Australian economy. The logic gap between the two lines only makes sense from one perspective; the logic of continual profit accumulation. The first line is really a celebration of successful efforts to decrease worker power and the second is the expression of capital’s insatiable hunger for more and more. The vampire can celebrate his kills but still lust for more.

If we go back to membership at the apex of representative unionism aside from its quantitative difference it was also qualititatively differrent. At the apex of representative unionism membership contributions were relatively low compared with today. This reflects the way the system works today compared with the late 70s/early 80s. Membership was relatively widespread but the amount of time and effort put in to make an objective difference in the lives of each worker was a lot lower. Unions could survive and prosper with a strong network of workplace delegates and a few officials who would make the necessary adjustments to the centralised wage and condition structures to bring in new members/enterprises.

Overall union membership declined at its fastest rates not in the Accords of the 1980s (although there is a strong argument to make that this may have contributed to overall rank and file disillusionment and disempowerment) but with the shift to decentralised bargaining in the 1990s. Why? Because this necessitated a qualititative shift in the way unions had to operate in order for unions to successfully ‘deliver’ for members. It was no longer a matter of changing a few documents here and there centrally, with some unofficial action delivering some extra gains for a few hot shops. The game had changed. Under an enterprise based bargaining system instead of a single document governing an entire industry, we now had a system where some large operators in a single industry had 10 to 20 different enterprise agreements for the same or similar functions spread across different worksites. A greater and greater amount of time, effort and resources had to go into delivering for fewer workers. This is at the heart of why this period of what has been officially called ‘labour market deregulation’ has coincided with an exponential expansion in the length of the various industrial relations acts and accompanying regulations. It was a structural/regulatory bipartisan policy shift that has greatly increased the operating costs for unions. It makes no fundamental long-term sense for any social democratic party as it just greatly errodes its financial support base. This leaves Labor activists with two options, (1) finalise the corporatisation of the party by turning it into Australian out-post of the US Democrats (i.e. wholly dependent on corporate funding but with a system of ‘open primaries’ to substitute for an effective industrial/political membership base), or (2) admit error and take on the structural issues again.

The main method the Australian union movement has overcome this funding gap over the last generation has been to increase membership contributions to between 1% – 1.5% of their members’ average incomes. Overall, this increase in membership contributions has been justified and largely tolerated by the remaining core of the union movement on two grounds. First, as the wage system has decentralised the gap in wages and conditions between organised and non-organised worksites has gone up to around a 20% differential, secondly while the very same shift has seen more resources required to achieve this. Take it from my experience, negotiating an agreement for 5 people can be nearly as challenging as negotiating an agreement for 5,000 people. This has led us to a membership structure today though where there is a clear binary between union and non-union, membership and non-membership. Membership becomes a large commitment for a worker but a commitment that makes a huge difference to their lives in the right circumstances. This binary, I will argue, will need to be shifted to a membership continuum within a direct Union.

The next post, however, will deal with the other structural shift to Union membership; the qualititative change in the employment relationship that has occurred over the last 30 years. In essence, as corporations have had more power in the labour market they have had greater power to treat workers like simple commodities.


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