Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Good While It Lasted: The Position and Prospects of Australian Unions in 1993

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Good While It Lasted: The Position and Prospects of Australian Unions in 1993

Article excerpt

"Good While it Lasted" implies that the good times have now drawn to a close or are about to. This title suggests a story about how the labour movement has seen a significant fluctuation in its fortunes in Australia, including a significant decline in representation by the union movement of the workforce, variations in the role of the unions and changes in the way that the industrial relations system in Australia has evolved. This paper reflects on some of the strategies which have been undertaken in recent times with a view to examining the prospects in the remainder of this decade and beyond. In particular, this paper will make an assessment of the strategies by unions--including, over the last decade, the development of various Accords.

Stuart MacIntyre's short monograph, The Labour Experiment concludes with this comment:

The consensus therefore lasted for most of this century and has come under serious assault only over the past decade. The Labor Government led by R.J. Hawke (1983-[1991]) has presided over expansive deregulation of finance and industry, reductions in assistance and protection for domestic producers, and substantial changes to the public sector, including welfare. A conspicuous exception so far to its pattern of economic rationalism and dismantling of public control has been the labour market, though it remains to be seen whether the arbitration system can stand alone as a single tree where once there was a forest. If it falls too, the political economy that the Australian labour movement helped to establish will have finally ended. (MacIntyre, 1989; 65)

This passage raises a number of issues including what is meant by the 'Australian labour movement' and the 'political economy' which it helped to create. These issues are further explored below.

The problems and prospects of the Australian trade union movement are those of many organisations and individuals struggling to sustain, renew and kindle the range of practices, traditions and activities that constitute a movement. But to speak of a movement suggests that there is something coherent and unified. This is not the case. Australian unions are made up of various organisations that have considerable differences in traditions, styles of activity, industrial relations practices, guiding ideologies (or lack thereof), relations with employers, membership fees, services, structures, membership participation and bargaining experiences.

It is useful to highlight amongst Australian unions the reality of ACTU affiliation (95% of union members now belong to unions which are affiliated to the ACTU) and ALP affinity (60% of union members belong to unions affiliated to the ALP in one or more States. The bulk of the remainder belong to unions with key officials in the ALP and which frequently donate funds and resources to the ALP) and the absence of more than one national peak council. Australia isn't France. Union membership at the enterprise level isn't decided on the basis of politically sectarian preferences. Australian unionism is united in ways that some Europeans and other countries are not. But this 'unity' should not obscure the pluralism in the personality of and within different unions. Nor should it obscure the recent history of this 'unity'. After all, it was only after the Commonwealth Association of Government Employees Organisations (CAGEO) a peak council of federal public sector unions--merged with the ACTU in 1979 and the Australian Council of Salaried and Professional Associations (ACSPA)--a peak council of white collar unions--merged with the ACTU in 1981, that a single overwhelmingly representative national peak council has emerged.

Moreover, the type of person who is a unionist covers a wide field. A merchant seaman in a union with a fierce sense of relevance to an isolated occupation will have a very different concept of unionism compared with a stenographer in an office, a nurse in a private hospital, a barman at a hotel or a foundry worker. …

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