Growing the unions' power base

Throughout the workplace relations debate prior to the federal election, supporters of WorkChoices constantly repeated their standard line that Australian workers have been deserting the union movement. They argued that Australian employees no longer value the collective approach that unions have to offer, that in effect the union "brand" is obsolete and that any polices which provide scope for unions to expand their role in the workplace relations system are policies that take us back in time.

It is a fact that union membership has been declining for a number of years. However, the Australian Worker Representation and Participation Survey, conducted by researchers at Monash University and published in October 2004, showed that union membership is not necessarily declining because employees have a problem with the union brand.

One of the key findings of the survey was that more than 60 per cent of non-union workers admitted to "free riding", and that they don't join unions because they believe they receive the benefits anyway. These findings show that a considerable majority of employees are satisfied with the collective approach that unions adopt and the improved employment conditions that this approach provides.

With the success of their campaign against WorkChoices, the next challenge for unions is to develop a long-term strategy that focuses on growth and transformation of the union movement. Such a strategy should focus on diversifying the services unions offer exclusively to their members, in order to grow their membership by providing an additional incentive for non-union members to join a union. One aspect of this strategy should involve unions using their collective bargaining power to achieve outcomes for their members beyond the workplace.

The main purpose of collectivism in the workplace is to remedy the inherent imbalance in bargaining power that exists between employees and their employers. But imbalances in bargaining power exist in many different contexts in our society, not just in the workplace. Take for example the imbalance that exists between consumers and the major grocery retailers. Ordinary consumers have effectively no bargaining power; they are basically price takers and must accept whatever price the grocery retailers offer.

Australians are currently faced with not only rising grocery prices, but also rising expenses such as childcare fees, health care premiums and petrol prices. These rising expenses were one of the key issues in the recent federal election, highlighting the impact they are having on Australians.

Given this, there is an opportunity for unions to expand their role in our society, beyond just working to remedy the imbalance in bargaining power in the workplace. A union could use their bargaining power to negotiate discounts on grocery prices for their members. Unions would benefit through increased membership as new members join to take advantage of discounts. Current members would also benefit from these discounts and the added value to their membership.

Significantly, there would be a strong incentive for grocery retailers to agree to provide discounts; by doing so they would be able to retain a substantial customer base. If a major grocery retailer refused to provide a discount, then they would risk the union making an agreement with another grocery retailer, and the potential loss of thousands of customers.

It is likely some in the union movement would oppose such a shift in its focus, preferring unions to retain their traditional role in the workplace. However, in order to survive and grow, organisations need to constantly change and adapt. They also need to reassess how they view themselves and their objectives.

Undoubtedly, unions will continue to play a major role in the workplace. With the impending abolition of WorkChoices, unions will no longer be hindered by the various anti-union laws and regulations introduced by the previous Federal Government.

While this may enable unions to survive, it does not mean that they will grow, especially considering that the decline in union membership started before WorkChoices or the election of the previous federal government in 1996. In order to grow, unions will need to adopt a broader role as organisations that focus on the various imbalances in bargaining power that exist in our society. Once they start tackling all these imbalances, it is likely that they will again start to grow.


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