Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Compulsory Unionism and the AWIRS: Redrawing the Map

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Compulsory Unionism and the AWIRS: Redrawing the Map

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Zappala (1992), in a recent paper, uses data from the Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey (AWIRS) to present estimates of the extent of compulsory unionism or the closed shop. He reports that two-thirds of workplaces in Australia (with 20 employees or more) have a closed shop agreement covering at least some employees and that these agreements cover 57 per cent of all unionized employees (Zappala, 1992, p. II) (1). Not surprisingly, he concludes that title closed shop remains "a widespread and significant phenomenon in the Australian industrial relations landscape" (p. 17). Indeed, comparisons with the earlier survey of Wright (1981) actually point to increases in closed shop coverage.

Given the marked decline in trade union membership that has occurred in Australia since 1980, at least as measured in the Trade Union Members survey undertaken periodically by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (see Plowman, 1991), this finding is somewhat of a surprise. While it is possible that it could be explained as the result of a relatively greater decline in the number of union members outside closed shops, such explanations are not very convincing for at least two reasons. First, as Zappala notes, surveys of attitudes to unions undertaken in 1976 and 1990 point to a marked decline in the extent of compulsory unionism (Rawson, 1990). Second, a substantial proportion of the decline in union membership can be explained by structural shifts in the economy (see, for example, Peetz, 1990), and it is exactly those sectors of the workforce hardest hit by such shifts - blue-collar workers in large manufacturing firms - where the closed shop is most prevalent.

It is argued here that the estimates provided by Zappala are actually misleading and substantially overstate the extent of closed shop coverage. The cause of this problem ultimately lies in the absence of any direct questions on the existence of closed shops in the AWIRS and hence creating problems of definition. A slightly different way of interpreting the data is suggested which gives rise to substantially lower estimates. Indeed, within the sample of workplaces with 20 employees or more, the percentage of union members estimated to be covered by closed shop arrangements is just 40 per cent.

Finally, in response to Zappala's claim (p. 17) that "the main source of variation in the coverage of the closed shop are due to sectoral, occupational and industry differences", multivariate models of the factors associated with closed shop coverage are tested. The results indicate a much more complex picture than that painted by Zappala.

The article is organized as follows. In the next section the problems and limitations of the AWIRS data with respect to the measurement of the incidence of the closed shop are discussed. Section 3 provides estimates of the incidence and coverage of closed shop agreements using both the definition described in Zappala and a somewhat different version suggested here. A comparison of these estimates suggests that the latter are more compatible with expectations. In section 4, multivariate models of the factors associated with closed shop coverage are developed and tested. A conclusion completes the article.

2. The AWIRS and the Measurement of Closed Shop Coverage

The AWIRS represents the most comprehensive survey of industrial relations practices ever undertaken in Australia. Involving a stratified sample of 2353 workplaces, it is representative of all workplaces with five employees or more in all industries except agriculture, fishing and hunting and defence. In total, the sample represents 122,500 workplaces employing 4.29 million people, or 68 per cent of all Australian wage and salary earners (Callus et al, 1991, p. 19).

The scope of the survey is broad. The issues covered range from workplace negotiations and union organisation to the nature of product markets and aspects of workplace performance. …

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