Do unions have a future?

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The Howard Government justifed its industrial relations legislation by arguing that it would improve productivity and create more jobs. Given that the main focus of WorkChoices was on de-unionising Australia’s workforce, the assumption behind this argument is that unionised workforces inhibit productivity and job creation. The union movement must not let this assumption go unchallenged.

There is little evidence that unions per se inhibit productivity and job creation – in fact research worldwide indicates that the impact of unionisation is usually neutral, occasionally inhibiting, but often a useful mechanism for improved productivity. The key is the competence of management and their commitment and ability to work with and harness the positive role of unions.

However this discussion paper goes further and argues that unions should have their own independent strategy to intervene in management through the traditional bargaining process. Instead of unions being a neutral force for productivity, they should become a proactive force, challenging managements to be more visionary and competent.

This requires the union movement to shift from its traditional reactive role of responding to the employer, to setting the agenda. Photo of IR rally

This would be difficult to achieve in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. Even in the current anti-union climate, however, there are employers who still prefer to work constructively with their unions, and these employers should be brought into a broader dialogue as part of the suggested strategy. If unions don’t begin implementing such an agenda now, no matter how difficult, they don’t have a bright, long term future.

Ask any group of employees from any industry and they will provide numerous examples of management incompetence, and of the chaos and stress they have to deal with on a daily basis. This means that a strategy of proactive bargaining on management issues will have strong support among members and potential members. Research shows that most members want their unions to engage with management about waste and efficiency. At the same they want their union to protect them when necessary.

Contrary to general belief, members are actually more prepared to take traditional industrial action to protect their rights, wages and conditions, where there has been constructive engagement between the union and employer. And union delegates and activists concerned with the traditional interests of their members are more likely to be concerned with the performance of the business as well.

There is very strong evidence that where workers have increased control and responsibility over their day to day, minute by minute work systems, occupational health and safety improves dramatically. This fact alone provides a compelling reason for unions to bargain about work systems and management methods as part of their traditional concern for the health of their members.

The paper acknowledges the fine campaign being waged by the Australian union movement against the legislation. In an election year the top priority must be the defeat of the Howard Government. However the broader productivity agenda suggested in the paper will be crucial for the long-term renewal of the movement.

>> Read the full paper

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