Everybody wants the union
But nobody pays their dues — after the song “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die”

Decades ago, in another era, another Australia, where they did things differently, I was taken to the offices of a senior and very rich labour lawyer, who we’ll call “Bob”. My dad, an accountant, was doing his books. It was the typical new labour law practice of the era, early Whitlam, trying to look modern, with Scandinavian polished-wood decor, planet lamps, and all the men wearing beige safari suits, the fashion as inexplicable then as it is now.

In the boardroom, Bob took a quartet of dark-green volumes down from the shelves and stacked them beside me. They topped me by a good half a foot. My dad and Bob laughed like drains. The volumes were the bound judgments of demarcation decisions in the building industry — who, from which union, could touch a pipe or climb a scaffold — and they constituted the bulk of Bob’s lucrative practice. Not the volumes documenting legal struggles between capital and labour, business and union, but between union and union. There wasn’t even a struggle between right and left, but largely between the Building Workers’ Industrial Union, which was Communist Party aligned, and the Builders Labourers Federation, which was Maoist. Whatever their differences, both were assured of their rock-solid place in Australian life, to the degree that they could slug it out amongst each other for a share of workers and trades.

Another era, as I said. Distant, very distant, according to the recent Newspoll splashed across the front of The Australian, which suggests that trade union membership has fallen to 11% in the private sector, and to a mere 15% overall. There are fewer than a million private sector workers in unions.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has disputed the figures. But even if you beef up the figures a little, the results are dire. In the 1980s, trade unions could still claim a membership numbering around 50% of the workforce. By the turn of the millennium, it was 26%, fallen below the critical mass level of 33% (“look to the left of you, look to the right of you — one of you is a union member”). This new low figure not only means reduced fees, membership, etc, it also means that the number of workplaces where no one is a union member has risen considerably — and so the idea of being a union member disappears from the repertoire of possibilities for many.

Paradoxically, however, public support for unions is as high as it’s ever been, and higher than it’s been in recent years. According to Essential, 62% of Australians believe that unions are important for working people, with only 28% saying they aren’t. Some 45% of Australians believe we’d be better off if unions were stronger (including 28% of Lib/Nat voters), and only 26% believe we’d be worse off. However the dilemma for unions is suggested by a third, reversed, statistic — only 28% believe the royal commission into unions is a witch-hunt, while 41% believe it to be legitimate. People want unions, but not necessarily the ones we’ve got now — and they don’t join them in any case.. That is in part a result of a response effect that bedevils polling — “Do you think vegetables are good?” “Yeah, sure, they’re nutritious and cheap.” “How often do you eat them?” “Never. I hate vegetables.” — but it also indicates a residual pro-union, pro-collective setting in Australian life, one comparably unaffected by Abbott’s and now Turnbull’s star-chambers investigating the inconvenient matter of their continued existence. You wouldn’t get the same result in the United States.

But therein lies the paradox and the dilemma for Australian unionism. Because anyone can see that the US, in recent years, has been lit up by workers struggles, from a nationwide movement for the minimum wage to rolling regional and national strikes by fast food workers, and all points in between. These actions don’t have the ghost of an arbitration system around them; in fact, they’re conducted in the face of barrages of state laws that make it hard to organise. So they involve round-the-clock picketing, heavy police intimidation, and sheer time and attrition to get anywhere. Where strikes can be held, they resolidarise scattered and disconnected workforces, making the power relations of the workplace visible as a political relationship (“A what relationship?” “A political relationship.” “Correct!” Applause. “Karl, you’re well on your way to that lounge suite.”).

The Australian union movement has a militant history, distant and recent and present. But it has also been, more than any other Anglosphere country, laced into the power structure of the state, via the 1907 Harvester judgment, and all the institutions that developed to serve its ruling that wages and conditions should be set with regard to the living conditions of the workers and their families, not the wages/profit ratio of the employer. This judgment was momentous, a world historical event — in Europe it occasioned a half-decade of debate among labour and social democratic parties about “the Australian system” as a model for socialist strategy, a controversy that contributes to the decisive Bolshevik-Menshevik split in 1912, which would bear fruit five years later. In northern Europe, it helped spur the long march of unions towards a role in running the economy as representatives unmediated by parties, in state planning offices and on company boards (Andrew Scott’s Northern Lights gives a great picture of the Australian-Scandinavian symbiosis over a century).

Sadly, Down Under, we stopped marching long before they did. Right-wing unions were founded around Catholic notions of “proper” social role — employers were employers, workers workers (mirroring the religious conception of God and His subjects). Left-wing unions were part of a movement to overthrow capitalism. Neither side had an interest in further entwining capital and labour. The exception to this was Bob Hawke’s and others’ initiative in the ACTU in the early 1970s, to create a circuit of workers’ production and consumption by buying up businesses — such as Bourke’s department store — and creating a whole petrol station chain, Solo. Labor-supporting people could, and did, make an effort to fill up only at Solo stations. You had to go goddamn miles and miles to find one. I seem to recall there was one on Beach Road near La Casa Hawke in Sandringham, but I’m sure that was just a coincidence. Killed by the 1973 global recession, this strategy was a very imaginative one, a road not taken, and criminally neglected in our history.

But it was the exception. Aside from genuinely militant and worker-driven unions like the BLF, the role of many unions had long since become the management of their members expectations and demands, as a junior partner in a state system — i.e. aligned to the interests of capital. Their leaderships professionalised in the 1970s and 1980s, the idea of rising from the shop floor diminishing, they made an easy transition from participating in a centralised system to the negotiation and administering of enterprise agreements whose complexity put them even further out of reach of the comprehension of ordinary members who had, y’know, jobs to do.

Over the decades, the practice of actually explaining EBAs to workplaces — much less consulting members on their content and trade-offs! — has fallen into abeyance. This has been exacerbated by the digitalisation of contact between worker and union, from automatic dues deduction, online communications and newsletters, “contact us” forms for workplace inquiry rather than actual organiser contact, and so on. The creation of mega-unions killed the internal competition, which, though it produced absurdities like demarcation, ensured that unions fought to keep their members. The Australian workforce over the last two decades has come to resemble the late Roman empire — hundreds of outlying provinces that know they vestigially belong to the union, but have little experience of it, save as an agent of the regulating market-state.

There is a certain amount of this which is inevitable. The shift from manufacturing to services, information and culture production in the Western economy, and the change from a collective society dominated by class-production cultures to an individualised one dominated by media-consumption cultures, has transformed the character of the social relationship in every dimension. Success in bending the state to their purposes has played a role: one point to mark the decline of unions is in the raft of workplace anti-discriminaton laws introduced — after great struggle — in the late 1980s. A magnificent achievement, they also ensured that workplace disputes became a matter of individual (albeit assisted) petitioning to a tribunal in what was really a form of pseudo-tort law process. Previously, such matters (if dealt with at all) would have been via a stop-work, with a rep from the Amalgamated Frittlers dashing out in a crumpled suit and a Toyota to see what was happening. Joining a union, being part of it, was once as general as joining a church, a mutual aid society, a political party, a Christmas club, a pigeon fanciers’ association, and so on.

To one degree, it’s not that unions are dying because no one’s joining them; it’s because “joining” itself is dying, and unions are simply a subset of that wider process. Joining, not in a transient sense, a hobby or a fancy, but in a manner that affirms identity. When that no longer feels natural or inevitable to whole classes of people, organising them becomes far more difficult. High union representation survives in selected areas for different reasons: mining and construction, in part because the prospect of workplace death is real, and death generates deep solidarity as a base for organising; the public service because the whole enterprise is public and collectively oriented by its nature. And yes, in talking of the deeper structural changes that lead to this predicament, I’m ignoring the concrete matters, the accretion of anti-union laws under Coalition governments that Labor never fully reverses. But these are only possible because the deeper structures are no longer there to prevent them happening. A half century of near uninterrupted Tory government, from the 1920s to the 1970s, barely laid a finger on the centralised system.

But for all the deep currents of a changing society, there’s no denying that the place mainstream unionism is in has a lot to do with a leadership that despite some exceptions and high points, has over the last three decades made one unforced error after another in dealing with mass social change. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the ACTU made an effort to take a movement dominated by high school leavers and a sometimes anti-intellectual outlook and infuse it with the knowledge and theory required to respond better to challenges. From the 1980s it appeared as if that was going in reverse, beginning in the Kelty era, which began with a return to limited, quantitative demands. “I was studying for an MA in economics,” Kelty remarked once “to find out why people were poor. I stopped when I realised they were poor because they didn’t have enough money.” Thanks, genius.

Kelty achieved much, had many good qualities, but in his end — touring the country with Lindsay Fox trying to drum up job commitments, like two old lags with a stolen banjo and a hat to pass round — was his beginning. With an anti-leftism came an anti-sociologism, and a disdain for even the most vestigial attempt to theorise what was going on as, over a decade, cities that had been industrial behemoths became filled with apartments made from factory conversions. An addiction to fads took over, especially a techno-solutionism. I recall a conference on this matter where everyone went gaga over a presentation from someone, who I’ll call Kate Lundy, because that was her name, called “Click here for workplace democracy”, and you can guess the content. The delusion might have been a little wilful, as organisers faced ever-increasing numbers of workers with no great interest in the union, or any feeling that it represented them.

The movement wasted years on this, and an overemphasis on a services-based model, built around the union as a dematerialised “brand”, before some realised that one basic truth. You can’t take social connection, intertwining, solidarity, collective interests for granted. They’re not a given, to which you can simply add on top your website, your T-shirt, your never-seen careerist office-bearers, your super fund, its development portfolio, the trips to Asia you simply have to make to oversee the latter, and then your smooth transition to the boardrooms of global capital. People notice when Paul Howes goes from Green Trot to KPMG honcho — wimp to blimp in 15 years — and they take note. They took note years ago when Anna Booth presented herself as the Rosa Luxemburg of the Textile Clothing & Footwear Union of Australia in the ’90s, and then turned up as a rep for the gaming industry after, with a photo in Good Weekend, leaning over a roulette table in an evening gown like she was in a bad second-year Brecht musical. In fact, her former members were, as the benighted chorus.

So what’s the answer? Lower union numbers aren’t necessarily a bar to significant action — less than 10% of the French workforce, not the least militant, were full union members throughout periods of heavy confrontation. But Australia has always relied on a more mass model. What do they need? Here’s a few suggestions:

1. The question of interests: unions with a private sector workforce cannot run a super fund that invests in the wider sahremarket without a conflict of interests that is crippling, corrupting and defeats organising for a better share of the social product as wages and conditions. And people know this. Union super management needs to be more democratised and member-driven, not less, with investment mandated to public infrastructure projects, public bond issues, and other forms that do not contradict the ability to fight for members’ rights.

2. The movement needs to get smarter, a lot smarter, about understanding the process of social and cultural change we’re undergoing. It needs to junk the de facto economism that guides its understanding of workplace relations, and connect with some heavy sociology and social theory, to understand how the process of social change is happening at every social level, including individual face-to-face relations, and in the subject form and psychology of the worker himself. It needs union leaders to admit that whatever their qualities many of them are not the most reflective or studious jokers in the pack, and change is too fast and comprehensive now to be understood in an ad hoc fashion.

3. From 2) there needs to be new strategy for the mid-range workplaces that, as Tim Lyons has noted, are the ones where membership has fallen away, and a union culture has died. From a better understanding of change, new forms of organsiation, membership, etc, will flow — quite distinct from naive techno-solutionism.

4. The shop floor has to be reconnected to the management. No one should be any office-bearer in a union unless they’ve done some significant period of continuous work in the trade (or aggregate over a period, three years over five, for example). That would weed out the Labor carpetbaggers, who aren’t going to spend their youth doing actual work in order to climb the greasy pole.

5. Unions have to prepare for the jobocalypse. Yes, it can be overstated. But whole tranches of service work are going to diminish and disappear in the next decade, just as the check-out chick did. The real problem unions will start to face is a distinct lack of workers.

6. Can we have those elaborate banner back? They were cool.