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Reasons behind the decline in trade unions in Australia

The report is prepared to depict understanding of union membership in employment relation in Australia. It deals with presentation of reasons behind the decline in trade unions in Australia. Union movement in Australia has been declining for several decades and the decline is mostly attributed to economic and social factors. The concept of unionism in Australia is operated within a uniquely antipodean labor market legislation pattern (Wanrooy et al. 2013). Later part of report deals with some proposals for uplifting change and increasing union density in Australia.

Australian labor party has extended has extended the Australian unionism uniqueness to its active parliamentary political engagement. In year 1983-1996, labor government witness close national accords between union and labor in government (Hodder et al. 2017). This leads to an essential shift in determination of wage by decentralized enterprise bargaining compared to centralized wage fixing. Successive piece of legislation and outright hostility have been experienced by unions and this have helped in fostering employment legislation individualization and have worked against the union bargaining and union membership. Among Anglo Saxon countries, Australia have been experiencing sharp decline in density of union. During 1990s compared to other OECD countries, Australia has been experiencing steep decline in union density (Bach and Bordogna 2013).

Australian union membership trends and estimates:

(Source: 2017)

The above graph depicts trend movements in union membership and density from year 1982 to 2007. During the quarter century, there have been fall in trade density and in year 1990, there was severe fall in union density. As there was stabilization in union membership, there was ease in rate of density decline. With the introduction of Work choice legislation, there was fall in union membership. Declining power is commonly signified by declining union density that has been the case in Australia. In year 1850, the transformation of economy due to gold discovery has led to unionism and establishment of formal union was confined to tiny skilled elite. Early trade unions policies was regarded as exclusive as they were organized for protecting the position of relatively privileged labor market. In year 1860s and 1870s, historiography of Australian union included Sydney Trade and labor council and Melbourne Trade and Hall committee (Heino 2016). A number of impediments was faced in an attempt to broaden the base of union movement. In year 1875, a shearer union disappeared that was established in Queensland. Another obstacle to the growth of Union in that era was small scale nature of manufacturing sector. The flood tide of Australian union was represented for the period between 1968 and 1974 in the history of Australian union. There was a drop in union intensity to 49% after 1954 (Godard 2014). Change in fortunes of union was mainly attributable to structural change in economy. In year 1970, there was sustained fall in union support.   Unionism in Australia has significantly workforce of white collar in year 1920 and from early 1950, there was steady growth in workforce and by year 1980, white collar workers constitute 40% of total unionist (Healy et al. 2017).

Proposals for uplifting change and increasing union density in Australia

The effect on trade union in Australia have been dramatic as the basis for union support have been reduced by de regulation of financial and economic sector and changing composition of Australian workforce. There has been decline of number of public sector employees who had the more likelihood of being trade union compared to private sector employees. Although there have been increase in casual and part time workers who have the difficulties in unionizing along with decrease in full time workers. Decline in union has also been contributed by increasing trend of female employment (Kalleberg 2015). Therefore, Australian working life have been re defined by dominance of neo liberal policies that are driven by market. Decline in density of union have been explained by such trends. Some of multiple factors explaining the reason of union decline relates to changing role in public sector, institutional protection loss, employment contracts, increasing hostility of employer relating to union and anti-union policies, workplace level union organization weakness and government actions during recent periods of conservative state and commonwealth government. Nonetheless, there are cultural factors that is leading to shift in Australian society from one that are characterized by egalitarianism and collectivism associated with vision of Australian social democracy. Shift has also been influenced by some institutional changes and occurrence of other events such as rise of approaches of human relations for managing workplace in Australia (Marginson 2014).  

Percentage of workers in trade union

(Source: Wanrooy et al. 2013)

Union member in Australia across workforce has fallen and decline of Union reflects the intentional anti-union employer strategies. This has led to employer closely aligning their new rights that are emerging. The response to declining unionism in Australia is the emergence of community unionism since year 1990s. During 1998 dispute, the maritime Union of Australia has instigated community outreach strategy that lead to emergence of first glimmerings contemporary community solidarity movement. Another illustration of community unionism in Australia is parent group engagement with in Sydney with long term public education campaign. Decline in membership of union was stabilized in early 2000, union density continue to ease resulting from insufficient growth in union as compared to workforce. A further decline was suggested by latest estimated published by Australian Bureau of statistics. Decline in union density has been linked to declining worker power and rising inequality and this limits the position of Australian union. Unions have been able to maintain link with labor party and they have been often ignored by APL government (Cooper and Ellem 2013). Considerably, more time were spent by government in building business rather than union.

  • Chronic underemployment and high employment since year 1975 and this had the consequential effect on employees bargaining power collectively as well as individually.
  • Fundamental changes in labor and product market and this led to firms facing global competition such as limiting union and ability of increase share of labor at firm level.
  • Some apparent changes in culture towards individualism and away for collectivism accompanied by more employer’s explicit anti-union attitude.

History of the union movement in Australia

Unions in Australia have continued to face difficult time after decades of decline. Changes introduced by neo liberalism are indicative of the fact that workers have to unavoidably change their operational strategies sand structure of organization for surviving in future. One of the challenges facing declining union membership in Australian society is their ability to integrate with the community unionism given their strictures that are imposed by their own culture and structure. The decline persistence is reflected by some complex set of factors that has much in common with structural and individualization changes. Particularities of unionism in Australia is reflected by steepness of decline. This was mostly notable in institutional protection loss through a loss of closed shop arrangements and weakened awards and centralized arbitration system. Union were provided significant power in an arbitral system due to industry wide state and national standards for wages and relating conditions.

From the late 1990s, the decline of severe union density has led Australian union movement to contemplate renewal strategies. Decline has been associated with delegation in structure of workplace. New organizing strategies adoption was uneven and it remained uneven between unions and organization of union is done at local levels.

Centralized and decentralized approaches to unions have changed and traditionally there was collective centralized bargaining. Centralized wage fixation have been abandoned by Australia in favor of more flexible bargaining arrangement that helps in recognition of different competitive circumstances that are faced by enterprises and individual industries. For the recovery of union, development of new legal framework for industrial relations is central to long-term strategic question that is surrounding the movement. Decline of trade union have been associated with fundamental changes in trade union legal rights since 1977. Obvious changes had been noticed in relation to industrial actions and all previous de factor rights have been lost by union movement. The disappearance of industrial action has been reflected in loss of trade union rights. Loss of accessing to merit based arbitration has been another significant change that have been noticed due to declining trade union membership.  Industrial disputes handling were the power attributed to union that can take it to federal arbitrator for instance, its predecessors and Section 99 of Industrial relation Act 1988 (Palm 2017). Immediate and acute disputes could be solved by awards system and unions had lost the capacity to merit based disputes to commission since 2005 Work Choice legislation. This has resulted in weakening the union power in workplace. Another collapse was witnessed in union security arrangement that has accounted for large part of union density collapse. Union power, revenue and density had been disastrously affected by collapse of inion preference arrangement. Unions had been undermined since 1970s by extension of range of rights to all employees and these rights include anti-discrimination laws, various federal and state unfair dismissal jurisdictions, national employment and modern award standard (Waddington 2015).

Impact of neo-liberal policies and changing workforce composition on union membership

There has been constant change in unions of Australia by improving and refining their activities. Consistent efforts have been made over the last twenty years for building culture of organization in each union in spite of culture that accepts a fee for service of union. Moreover, administrative activities shave been honed by union and huge efficiencies and economies of scale have resulted from refining of internal process and building of websites and data bases. There have been improvement in retention rates of union (Boxall 2014). Nonetheless, decline in unions have continued that is measured by exercising power and density. The rate of decline have been slowed by efforts of union movement in recruiting, organizing and administrative streamlining. Therefore, it can be inferred that unions are not capable of organizing and recruiting their way out of current situation and there cannot be improvement in union density unless some basic rules are altered. In the wake of much academic discussion about Australian unionism calls for reviving trade union movement by bringing some legal changes (Kelly 2015). However, it is perceived that bringing favorable legal changes for building union density seems impossible in the current scenario

Recovery of union density can be made by proposing changes to laws as such changes can be regarded as desirable and fair. Some of the proposals that can contribute towards bringing union density above fifty percent of workforce include rights to take industrial action that would help in establishment of proper right to strike. Another proposal is coverage and establishment of bargaining electorates where employees are voted for establishment of collective bargaining unit. When votes are sought for collective barging unit provides with the advantage of whether unionizing should be done or not is based on voter’s democratic vote (Kersley et al. 2013). Over a specific dispute, industrial action could be taken by employees.


From the analysis of trade union membership in Australian employment relations and description of how the nation has systematically weaken the unions depicts continuous decline in union density. The obvious deductions that can be made from the discussion that under the current legal regime, unions in Australian cannot be re build. It is required by union to focus on building network of supports and workplace representative structures that would help in development of confidence and self-reliance among members. The legitimacy of union position can be enhanced by dialogue between members and representatives concerning objectives of union. However, there are some questions that have to be addressed is whether unions are able to build their ways without any fundamental changes in legal framework and what type of changes would help in prioritizing the rebuilding of union membership. Addressing of all these questions requires government and nation as a whole to develop some strategic thinking relating to union movement.

Therefore, it can be said by considering various aspects that unions are becoming irrelevant factor in employment relations of Australia and this calls for bringing some legal changes relating to labor laws.

References list: (2017). 4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, 2014. [online] Available at:[email protected]/latestmf/4102.0~99 [Accessed 12 Nov. 2017].

Arnold, A., 2014. Trust in employment relations: a multiple-foci and dynamic perspective.

Bach, S. and Bordogna, L., 2013. Reframing public service employment relations: The impact of economic crisis and the new EU economic governance.

Boxall, P., 2014. The future of employment relations from the perspective of human resource management. Journal of Industrial Relations, 56(4), pp.578-593.

Cooper, R. and Ellem, B., 2013. The State against Unions: Australia’s Neo-liberalism, 1996–2007. In Global Anti-Unionism (pp. 163-183). Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Godard, J., 2014. The psychologisation of employment relations?. Human Resource Management Journal, 24(1), pp.1-18.

Healy, J., Nicholson, D. and Parker, J., 2017. Guest editors’ introduction: technological disruption and the future of employment relations.

Heino, B.J., 2016. Capitalism, regulation theory and Australian labour law: exploring the labour law regimes of antipodean Fordism and liberal-productivism, 1964-2009.

Hodder, A., Williams, M., Kelly, J. and McCarthy, N., 2017. Does strike action stimulate trade union membership growth?. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 55(1), pp.165-186.

Kalleberg, A.L., 2015. Financialization, private equity, and employment relations in the United States. Work and Occupations, 42(2), pp.216-224.

Kelly, J., 2015. Trade union membership and power in comparative perspective. The Economic and Labour Relations Review, 26(4), pp.526-544.

Kersley, B., Alpin, C., Forth, J., Bryson, A., Bewley, H., Dix, G. and Oxenbridge, S., 2013. Inside the workplace: findings from the 2004 Workplace Employment Relations Survey. Routledge.

Marginson, P., 2014. Book Review: Employment Relations in the Shadow of Recession: Findings from the 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study. Industrial & Labor Relations Review, 67(3), pp.1048-1049.

Palm, J., 2017. There is power in a union: Trade union organization, union membership and union activity in Sweden (Doctoral dissertation, Department of Sociology, Stockholm University).

Waddington, J., 2015. Trade union membership retention in Europe: The challenge of difficult times. European Journal of Industrial Relations, 21(3), pp.205-221.

Wanrooy, B.V., Bewley, H., Bryson, A., Forth, J., Freeth, S., Stokes, L. and Wood, S., 2013. Employment Relations in the Shadow of Recession Findings from the 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Study.

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