Breakaway Unions: A Study of the Australian Entertainment Industry

By Michelson, Grant | The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR, June 1999 | Go to article overview
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Breakaway Unions: A Study of the Australian Entertainment Industry


Michelson, Grant, The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR


1. Introduction

Breakaways or secessions of groups of members from established trade unions to form their own independent organisations have been of considerable interest to scholars of trade unions since the work of Lerner (1961). Much of the research on breakaway unions that has followed Lerner has been theoretically located in studies of union democracy, oligarchy and internal dissension or factionalism. While breakaways are often seen as synonymous with union factions (for a discussion of factions see Seifert, 1984), it is argued that they are analytically distinct by virtue of the possibility that factions may be contained and expressly accommodated within a union's existing governance structures (Lipset et al., 1956; Prindle, 1988). It may perhaps be more accurate to depict intra-union conflict as a continuum of which breakaways is the most extreme form. Or, to state it another way, breakaways are unlikely to be caused by cosmetic differences between opposing groups.

While the motivations of and barriers to union breakaways have been well documented by previous research (see below), considerably less is known about the processes through which disaffected groups struggle to secede or the efforts of parent unions to contain the attempt to break away. The present research addresses this gap by drawing on case study material from the Australian entertainment sector. In the more unusual situation of a leader rather than member-led split, the Queensland branch of the federally-registered Australian Theatrical and Amusement Employees Association (ATAEA) seceded from its federal body in 1992. The case of the Queensland branch breakaway from the ATAEA has previously been documented from a legal perspective. Principally, this analysis focused upon a discussion of the judgments of the courts that were involved in eventually resolving the dispute (Mourell, 1995; 1996). In addition, writers from a mainstream industrial relations perspective have briefly outlined the secession (see Campling & Michelson, 1997:227). However, little data was provided by these studies on the contributing factors and internal processes which led to the breakaway, or to the actions of the federal ATAEA leadership in trying to manage the dissension. This work provides the key point of departure for the paper; namely, that it will present an analysis of the processes of a leader, rather than member-initiated union breakaway.

Locating the paper within the distinctive Australian institutional and legal framework which governs union registration, the study utilises the framework of Hemingway (1978) to show how the federal ATAEA organisation and the secessionist branch attempted to achieve their respective goals by mobilising certain resources available to them. The main argument of the paper is twofold: first, that the institutional and legal context provided the basis for enacting the breakaway's intentions by shaping the form that the breakaway union took. The secession from the ATAEA was also set against a wider backdrop of pending merger activity involving the ATAEA and other entertainment and media unions. The upcoming merger acted as a catalyst for the branch to secede as it had experienced, for a number of years, a deteriorating relationship with their union's federal leadership. However, the breakaway branch immediately sought protection in a merger with a different union--the Australian Workers Union (AWU). This sequence of events brings us to the second part of the argument: while it appears that union mergers tend to precipitate union breakaway activity (see Waddington, 1995: 38, 149), the reality in this case was that the primary explanatory factors for the breakaway were evident much earlier than the issue of merger.

The structure of the paper is as follows. The second section defines the concept of breakaway trade unions and reviews the extant literature on breakaway unions both in the Australian context and elsewhere.

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