The Guardian July 25, 2001


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.

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