Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Trade Union Strategy in the 1990s

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Trade Union Strategy in the 1990s

Article excerpt

1. Australian Unions in the 1990s

The 1980s saw the union movement emerge as a dominant force in shaping economic and political outcomes and directions in Australia. Few observers at the time predicted that the union movement of the early 1980s would, by the end of that decade, possess the level of prestige and influence that it currently enjoys. The union movement stands at the beginning of the 1990s in a position of major influence over the direction of macro-economic policy and the extent and rate of micro-economic reform--including the crucial area of labour market reform.

This degree of influence is a function of a number of factors. These include the election of the Hawke Labor Government in 1983, the formal Accord partnership and the unique relationships between the key personalities within the trade union movement and the government who have successfully steered the partnership through difficult and rapidly changing economic circumstances. Fundamental to this success has been the ongoing capacity of the partners to adapt to both changing economic and political circumstances. Each Accord partner has shown the capacity to change in response to pressures on the other partner and both have shown flexibility in the face of external pressures on the Accord itself. A recent example of this flexibility was the Accord partners' ability to defuse the mounting pressures for a movement towards enterprise bargaining by quickly adapting their rhetoric and policy to accommodate and shape the form of enterprise bargaining to suit the ongoing relationship.

The ongoing success of the Accord relationship is all the more remarkable in the light of an indifferent international historical record in relation to the longevity of incomes policies, Australia's traditional industrial relations, and the initial skepticism of many (including many in the labour movement), of the efficacy and long term viability of such policies. Moreover, the continuing strength of this relationship is surprising given the increasingly rapid movement internationally towards policies favouring decentralised and competitive market forces.

It is important to note that the Accord relationship is a direct relationship between the ACTU and the Labor Government and not between individual unions and the government This has a number of implications. Firstly, there has been a dramatic increase in the ACTU's power and influence and in its authority over its affiliates. Secondly, there is an assumption that the ACTU's strategies represent the strategies of individual affiliates. To date this has not been an unreasonable assumption. However, more recently some unions have shown a tendency to pursue their own strategies.

The key strategy documents of the trade union movement are the Australia Reconstructed (1987), Future Strategies for the Trade Union Movement (1987) and Can Unions Survive? (1989).

Each of these documents represents an important component in the building of a total strategy for the trade union movement. The strategy seeks to create appropriate trade union structures and an environment shaped to be conducive to trade union growth. Australia Reconstructed represents an economic blueprint for the reconstruction of the Australian economy to meet the social and structural objectives of the union movement. In terms of trade union strategy the key concept advanced in Australia Reconstructed is the notion of "strategic unionism" (Chapter 6).

Strategic unionism is derived from an analysis of the union policies of a number of European countries, particularly the Scandinavian countries. The union policies of these countries are' 'comprehensive, integrated and framed ... to achieve long term goals and are not used simply as short term responses" (p. 169). The key characteristic of these policies is that they extend beyond the narrow traditional focus of Australian trade unions on wages and working conditions (i. …

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