Unions Dig In Down Under


LOLLING on the sugar-white sands of 90-Mile Beach, George Mason collects a tan - and an extra 17.5 percent on top of his base salary. As a member of the Building Workers' Industrial Union, Mr. Mason enjoys the benefit of ``leave loading.'' It's overtime pay most Australian union members receive during their minimum four-week annual vacation (to compensate for overtime lost while on vacation).

But as Australia lags behind its global economic competitors, the longevity of such benefits - and the future of the entire labor movement - is in question.

Union membership here is declining as a percentage of the work force. Since 1976, membership has dropped from 51 percent of the work force to 42 percent in 1988. The trend is accelerating and the causes in Australia are familiar worldwide: more part-time workers, more enlightened management practices, and growth in the historically non-unionized service sectors.

``Whether we like it or not, society is in a process of change. A union movement which is incapable of adjusting to change will die and die rapidly, for that is the experience of every other union in the world,'' said Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) policymaker Bill Kelty in a recent magazine interview.

In 10 years, unionism could slip to 25 percent of the Australian work force, a recent union study says. By sounding the alarm now, Australian union officials hope to arrest the decline before it reaches union work force levels seen in the US (16.8 percent).

Paradoxically, Australia's unions face both the worst and the best of times.

Although their numbers are dwindling, the union movement savors almost unprecedented political influence. The Australian Labor Party, with its trade-union roots, has been in power for seven years. Prime Minister Bob Hawke is a former president of the ACTU, the major body for 90 percent of all union members. The ACTU and Hawke government have worked hand in hand in forming economic policy and reforming workplace practices. Strike activity has fallen to levels not seen since the 1960s.

But a friendly social democratic government hasn't stemmed the union membership decline. For the ACTU, the task of reviving Australian unions is now taking on fresh urgency. A federal election looms which could dramatically alter the pace and direction of union reforms if a conservative coalition party gains power.

``It's an urgent task for unions to try and meet the challenge of being relevant to a larger group of people. The major challenge is finding ways to recruit in the new and growing areas,'' says Gary Weaven, assistant ACTU secretary.

To halt the slide, the ACTU is adopting a two-pronged approach. First, it wants to combine Australia's 308 unions into 20 to 30 super unions organized by industry. In Australia, many unions are organized by occupation, and there may be political divisions (left, center, or right) and eight to 10 unions in one factory. This can exacerbate productivity problems and lead to disputes over which union represents which positions in the factory.

While the amalgamation plan may look good in theory, support among union leaders and members varies. ``You're really asking 10 of the biggest 15 unions not based along industry lines to voluntarily go into liquidation. That's quite unrealistic,'' says David Plowman, director of industrial relations at the University of New South Wales.

The second prong of the ACTU plan is to make unions more appealing, especially to the young and the blossoming finance, tourism, and retail sectors.

Since many union-won benefits - such as maternity and paternity leave, four weeks' annual vacation, health care - are common in nonunion jobs, today's younger workers often don't see the need for union membership.

To break into the service sectors, unions are starting to draw up innovative, flexible workplace agreements. Workers at Sanctuary Cove, a luxury resort in Queensland, recently signed a trend-setting ``award'' or contract. The single contract - covering several unions - reduces the number of job categories, creates more full-time jobs by setting a standard hourly pay, and eliminates most ``penalty rates'' - overtime of 1 1/2 to 2 times normal pay on weekends).

``Unlike the AFL-CIO [American Federation of Labor - Congress of Industrial Organizations] and the British Trades Union Congress, the ACTU has a new generation of leaders. Given their strategic plans, Australian unions could still thrive, as they have in Scandinavia,'' says Greg Bamber, editor of the book International and Comparative Industrial Relations.

ACTU also encourages unions to offer financial and travel services. There's a pilot program offering lower credit card and loan rates. But rates are only marginally lower, and the program's success remains uncertain.

``If growth falters in the service sectors and capitalism reasserts itself in a traditional wage-slavery sense, one could expect there will be a rosy future for unions,'' he says. ``But if management sees workers as human resources to be cultivated, it's difficult to see how unions will get their toes back in.''

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