New ABS figures show Australian unions have halted membership decline, but the battle is far from over

Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data published today show that union membership density has remained essentially the same over the last two years.

(ABS, Characteristics of Employment, Australia (Cat. 6333.0, August 2018), see: http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Lookup/6333.0Main+Features1August%202018?OpenDocument)

15.5% of the nation’s workforce were trade union members in August this year, down only fractionally from the 15.6% figure in August 2016.

In 1992, 40% of Australian workers were in unions. The decline since then has been precipitous, and consistent with the experience in many comparable countries. However we are now seeing a slowing of the rate of falling union membership.

The 2016 and 2018 statistics are quite consistent in relation to who joins unions. As the ABS’s Chief Economist said today, union members ‘are more likely to be over 40, female, and working full-time’.

(see: http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Latestproducts/6333.0Media%20Release1August%202018?opendocument&tabname=Summary&prodno=6333.0&issue=August%202018&num=&view=)

Across both years’ data sets, union membership was highest in the education and training, public administration and safety, and electricity/gas/water/waste industries; and (in terms of occupational groupings) among professionals, machinery operators and drivers, and community and personal service workers.

So why is union membership stabilising? The ABS figures don’t tell us this, but the reasons could include that unions have clearly made inroads in appealing to women workers and professionals – two groups that were historically less inclined to join.

The last few years have also seen heightened attention on ‘wage theft’ and wage stagnation (on the latter, see a new book – also published today – on The Wages Crisis in Australia, co-edited by Andrew Stewart, Jim Stanford and Tess Hardy: https://www.adelaide.edu.au/press/titles/wages-crisis/).

In light of these developments, for some workers the value of union membership may have become more obvious. And the ABS figures illustrate the continuation of the union ‘wage premium’ (median earnings for union members were $1300 per week compared with $1025 for non-members).

The union voice has also been much more prominent, at least over the last 18 months as Sally McManus has elevated the ACTU’s #changetherules campaign in the national debate.

But several other features of today’s data hammer home why the union movement still has a long road ahead. Casuals now make up 25% of Australian employees; labour hire employees, 4%; and 8% of workers are independent contractors.

So the challenge remains, as an Italian observer recently put it in the context of the gig economy, to ‘organise the unorganisable’.

(Lorenzo Zamponi, ‘Bargaining with the Algorithm’, Jacobin (June 2018), see: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2018/06/deliveroo-riders-strike-italy-labor-organizing)

One gets the sense, though, that Australian unions are more up for the fight than they have been in quite a while.

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