Unions and the struggle for members
by Warren Smith and Peter Symon The dramatic fall in trade union membership numbers and the rise in the number of shops and offices without any union presence, is a serious matter for unions. Not only does it mean that many workers do not have adequate protection but it has had an effect on trade union finances and the ability of some unions to service their membership. This situation has been contributed to by a number of factors, not the least being the savage anti-trade union legislation adopted by the Federal Government and some State governments. The penalties faced by unions should they take industrial action, have severely limited the opportunities to struggle in the interests of workers, whether they are union members or not. The move to enterprise agreements has also imposed great difficulties on the union movement. Trade unions are often required to try and service hundreds of enterprise agreements that stretch to the limit the organisational and financial and technical resources of unions. Workers have also faced an unprecedented attack on working conditions and rights by employers. Companies are being restructured and workers denied their entitlements. Many workers are being sacked and rehired as contract workers or casuals with lesser rights and without penalty rates, holiday pay, sick leave, long service leave and other entitlements. Awards have been "simplified" and replaced largely by more limited enterprise agreements whereby weaker or less organised workplaces suffer. There is a strong employer offensive to impose individual contracts on workers which is often accompanied by a "no sign, no job" attitude on the part of employers. Closed shops, which existed in a number of industries and in the public sector, have been swept away by legislation. Closed shops meant that union membership was delivered to the union without officials having to lift a finger. Membership now has to be won. All these factors contribute in one way or another to the decline in union membership, but this is only part of the story. Workers join unions because they want and expect their union to help them defend their conditions and rights from employer attack, to improve their wages, conditions of work, health and safety conditions, help to protect them from summary dismissal, and so on. In recent decades many unions, in the eyes of their members, have failed to do this adequately. Many workers are having worse conditions imposed on them. Health and safety provisions have been abandoned, penalty rates lost, job protection almost non-existent, wage levels eroded, the award system undermined and individual work contracts forced on them. It was formerly unheard of that workers would have their entitlements thieved but this is now quite commonplace. Unfortunately the union response has often been muted. It is not surprising that if workers feel that they have been let down or that their union does not adequately protect them and fight for them, they may have decided to ditch their union membership. If they are young workers who have had no union experience there is little to attract them to union membership. Overcome How is this situation to be overcome, as it must be? Trade unions remain, even given the loss of membership, the main organisations of the working people wherever they may be employed. The main thing now is to deal with the current position. The short answer is that trade unions have to campaign in earnest for workers to join their appropriate trade union. Recruitment of workers to trade unionism is a never-ending and never finished responsibility. But what sort of unionism is to be offered and what sort of policies will restore the confidence of workers in unions? A recruitment brochure recently distributed by one union gave first place to an array of gifts and goodies that can be purchased at somewhat reduced prices by union members. While various services need not be disregarded, they can never replace the main reason for the existence of a trade union. It is time for the union movement to return to basics. Workers want a return to the so-called bread and butter issues that affect our everyday living. In the union recruitment brochure referred to above only three of the 15 reasons for joining related to bread and butter issues. Twelve reasons are directly related to consumer savings, credit card reward points, holiday discounts, car and home loan savings and reduced private health care costs (never mind the maintenance of the public health system that is the policy of the trade union movement). The three work related issues referred to in the brochure are workers' compensation, legal coverage for unfair dismissal and assistance with all forms of discrimination. One of the strongest reasons for workers to belong to a union is not mentioned. It is the fact that union members receive an average 16 per cent higher wages than their non-union counterparts. Not once is the promotion of the strength of the collective over the individual put forward — "Union is strength!". The brochure does not mention the fact that conditions such as holiday pay, sick leave entitlements, long service leave, shorter working hours, parental leave and many other conditions (which are in danger of being lost) are the result of past trade union struggles. It is these basic conditions and issues that make a trade union attractive to workers and there are strong reasons why these issues should be at the centre of any trade union recruitment campaign. Most union members would prefer to see an official on the job actively promoting their interests and giving them assistance, providing information about struggles in other areas of the industry or in other industries. How often does one hear the complaint — "We never see a union organiser". Face to face contact with workers gives the union a reality that cannot be achieved in any other way. Ways have to be found to do this despite the obstacles that unions now have with right of entry being denied or being restricted. Workers will also respond to campaigns by unions around such issues as the anti-union repressive legislation, Medicare, education, workers' compensation, solidarity campaigns and so on. To take the above example, it would be a better concept for trade unions to fight for a free and comprehensive public health system than to offer a discount premium for private health insurance. Perceptions are incredibly important in marketing a product. Unfortunately these days, unions need to sell themselves to workers. There is a widespread perception that their union is spending a great deal of time justifying why the boss cannot be fought, why the boss has to make a profit, why the employer cannot employ so many workers and consequently why there has to be redundancies. This is no way in which to win the hearts and minds of workers. An explanation of the exploitative nature of the employer and the union's non-acceptance of the unjust and unfair profits system are important if workers are to understand what they are up against. This explanation together with knowledge of the very real bind that unions face due to repressive, anti-union legislation can make a great difference to a worker's perception of his or her union and its leadership. Unions belong to workers The ability of union leaderships and delegates to side wholeheartedly with workers and their troubles and the ability to put forward an alternative that has prospects of success and improvement for workers are fundamental to unionism. What about the question of affiliation? The CPA position is that trade unions should not be affiliated to any political organisation. They are the independent organisations of the working class and as such should not be restrained in their tasks by being obliged to toe the line of any political organisation. It is a fact that because of their union's affiliation and because many trade union officials are Labor Party members, there is a growing perception among workers that these political connections diminish the freedom of trade unions to fight for their members as they could and should do. This does not mean that unions should isolate themselves from political campaigns or involvement. It means that they would be able to take a much more forthright and prominent role in political campaigns. Our proposal for a left and progressive front of political and community organisations, in which trade unions would necessarily play a foremost part, actually enhances the role that unions could play. A coalition of such forces would have tremendous political clout. Trade unions would wield more influence than they do at present where so many issues of importance to workers are decided behind closed doors by politicians doing deals with the big corporations. Far from such a coalition limiting itself to pressuring existing major parties to change their position, it would strive to become so strong that it could determine the direction of political life in Australia. It would change the present direction, being pursued by both Liberal, and Labor party governments. Such a force would have the objective of ending the rule of the big corporations and, establishing a government answerable to the overwhelming majority of the people. A change of this nature would give tremendous prestige (and responsibility) to the trade union movement. But that future will only become possible if the current strength of the trade union movement is built many times over. In the first place, union membership has to be rebuilt and the policies of the trade union movement reconsidered in the light of the needs of the workers today.