Workplace reforms boost union memberships

Union boost from workplace reform

Ewin Hannan

A more favourable political climate under the Rudd government and less hostile workplace laws have helped unions defy historical trends and record membership increases across a range of industries.

Despite anticipating heavy membership falls due to waves of job losses across the economy, senior union leaders told The Australian they had negated the impact of job cuts by recruiting thousands of new members over the past six to 12 months.

While unions helped bankroll Labor’s 2007 election in exchange for the rollback of John Howard’s Work Choices regime, union officials denied Labor’s Fair Work Act had been responsible for the initial increase in members.

However, unions said Labor’s election federally and new bargaining rules requiring employers to negotiate with unions had delivered a “cultural change” that would lift the presence of unions in workplaces and further increase membership.

Industrial relations will again be prominent in federal politics this week with the Rudd government to seize on Malcolm Turnbull’s refusal to take reintroducing individual contracts off the table.

“By reducing flexibility in the workplace they have put, we would say, real constraints on productivity growth,” Mr Turnbull told The Weekend Australian. “We believe that flexibility in the workplace is of enormous importance.”

But Employment Participation Minister Mark Arbib told The Australian yesterday: “The hardliners have got back control of the party.”

Ged Kearney, the federal secretary of the Australian Nursing Federation, said the union had recruited 7000 new members in the first six months of this year, a result she described as “unprecedented”.

Paul Howes, national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, said the union had achieved growth in the mining and construction sectors, with its Queensland branch membership rising by 14 per cent.

“We were anticipating substantial losses in membership this year,” he said.

“In February, we had our national conference and our national executive and we were actually predicting substantial losses in membership primarily through redundancies. We have had a lot of redundancies across the country, but we put in place a range of recruitment strategies to try and minimise the effect and, in fact, we’re tracking to grow this year. We grew last year as well.”

Linda White, assistant national secretary of the 120,000 member Australian Services Union, said branches in South Australia and the Northern Territory had grown by 6 per cent in the past 12 months.

Ms White said the union’s fastest-growing membership area was the non-government community services sector, but airline branches had lost members because of job cuts.

She said Labor’s new laws had assisted unions as employers could no longer refuse to negotiate with unions.

“I think that everyone is finding their feet with the bargaining rules but certainly people do understand that you can’t just cross your arms and say `no’ in relation to bargaining,” she said.

“I think it’s fair to say that in the private sector the atmospherics have changed”.

Dean Mighell, the Electrical Trades Union Victorian secretary, said the union had achieved a “steady increase” in union membership.

“We were really surprised that our membership figures have held despite there being a downturn, particularly in construction,” he said.

ACTU secretary Jeff Lawrence said many workers were seeking to join or rejoin unions because of the security they could provide during the economic downturn. The most recent ABS data in April showed there were 1.75million union members, a 3 per cent rise in membership, after many years of decline.

“Although the Fair Work Act has been in operation now for several months, the legacy of Work Choices and the Howard government’s anti-union approach will exist for some time,” he said.

“Hundreds of thousands of workers are trapped on Australian Workplace Agreements until they expire years into the future. Delegate networks and union membership in hundreds of workplaces have been frayed,” Mr Lawrence said.

“However, the ACTU is confident that over time, with the removal of barriers that breached international standards, union membership in Australia will again grow, particularly as more workers become aware of the gains and benefits available through belonging to a union.”

Unions in the manufacturing and finance sectors that have suffered significant job losses have recorded a net reduction in members. However, unions in these industries have successfully recruited thousands of new members in the past 12 months.

Dave Oliver, national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, said his union’s membership levels had recorded a “slight dip”, primarily due to car industry job losses.

“We’ve had an 80 per cent increase in the new members we’ve recruited this year from two years ago,” he said.

“We’re talking thousands. I put it purely down to we’ve had a greater focus on growth.”

Leon Carter, national secretary of the Finance Sector Union, said it had lost 11,000 members through job cuts and a further 5000 jobs had gone offshore in the past year.

However, the 45,000-strong union had recruited 8000 new members over the past 12 months.

“There is a different climate out there is terms of the notion that joining a union isn’t an evil thing to do,” Mr Carter said.

“One of the things about Work Choices was to demonise unions and union membership. We have seen a change in the attitude of some employers to things like access and organising.”

He said Labor’s new workplace laws had helped the union bargain with employers that had previously refused to do so.

“When you’ve got the (Howard) federal government making it crystal clear they want the country de-unionised, then employers … are caught up in that,” he said. “That has certainly changed in a cultural sense since the Labor government’s been in.

“We’re not saying they are doing anything in particular that’s promoting union membership, but they’re certainly not out there every second day demonising the trade union movement.”

The Community and Public Sector Union recruited 8000 new members in the past year, an increase of 1000 on the previous 12 months. However, the gain has been negated by an estimated 8000 members leaving the public sector as a result of redundancies and resignations.

The Australian

Related articles you might be interested in reading