Union Structure and Strategy in Australia and Canada

Article excerpt


THE AIM OF THIS PAPER is to compare the experiences of Australian and Canadian unions during the 20th century. This comparison reveals many more similarities than differences. The similarities are best understood within a framework developed by Ross Martin. (1) He identifies five types of national trade union movements based on the relationship between unions, the state, and political parties: party-ancillary; state-ancillary; party-surrogate; state-surrogate; and autonomous. Unions in Australia and Canada fall into the last "autonomous" group, which comprises union movements from just twelve developed Western nations. Unlike the vast majority of union movements around the world, autonomous unions are dominated by neither the state nor political parties. This allows them relative freedom to define and pursue their organizational forms and goals.

Despite this fundamental similarity, "the structure and functions of autonomous trade union movements vary considerably. So, too, do their precise relationships with political parties and with the state." (2) The account below explores these differences in Australia and Canada by tracing the development of unions in the two countries and identifying the differences in their memberships, structures, and strategies; hence, much of the paper is descriptive in nature. But some explanation is also offered. In developing this explanation, both internal and external factors are assumed to be important. Clearly, union members and leaders participate in debates and struggles over the structure of their organizations, the objectives they should pursue and the tactics and strategies they will adopt, while at the same time these choices are at least partly moulded by the broader environment (the state, employers, and other social, economic, political, and even geographic factors) in which unions operate. Martin ultimately provides, however, the explanatory key as well as the descriptive foundation of the paper: it is the relationship between unions, political parties, and the state which most effectively explains the diverse experiences of the two union movements.

The paper's point of departure is the environment in which unions operate: the first major section examines aspects of Australian and Canadian history and society which bear special relevance for an understanding of trade unionism. The second section turns to the development of the two union movements before the 1980s. Initially, each country is examined separately, although a common structure is used: union growth is divided into three stages defined by the type of unions to emerge. A comparative summary of the two pre-1980s experiences is then offered. The 1980s and 1990s were turbulent years in both countries and the third section examines the changes they brought to unionism. Again, each country is treated separately before presenting a comparative summary. A final concluding section draws the main threads of the argument together.

The Context of Union Development in Australia and Canada

Australia and Canada display some remarkable similarities. Within the vast expanses of land, the relatively small non-indigenous settler populations of the two countries were historically concentrated in a small number of limited (and widely dispersed) areas. Although the population of the Australian colonies of the 19th century was heavily concentrated in a small number of urban areas on the coasts of the continent, the settlements were separated by hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres. This early geographic isolation, reinforced by the separate legal and political regimes of each colony until federation in 1901, encouraged a regionalism which affected all aspects of 20th-century life, including union organization and strategy and legal regulation. Individual unions and union federations within each colony operated autonomously long before their federal counterparts even emerged. …