We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now… you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back. Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

For nearly three decades, union members have watched the wave roll back, as tectonic shifts in the economy and constant political attacks emaciated our proud collectives.

The crest must have felt momentous. To be a unionist in the post-war era, as memberships boomed and dividends flowed, must have inspired what Thompson called “a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning …”. But the wave broke in the mid ’90s and the union movement floundered.

The ACTU’s recent autopsy of the failed “Change the Rules” campaign, handed down by former Queensland Labor MP Evan Moorhead earlier this month, has given pause for reflection — why are unions in near-terminal decline?

What went wrong?

Unionists usually offer one of two answers to this question.

The first is political repression, as Change the Rules emphasised — the best efforts of unions have been progressively hampered by laws that stack the deck against them. This is undoubtedly true, as Australia’s industrial relations laws are uniquely draconian and may get worse if Morrison can sway the crossbench. Red tape is now so restrictive that union officials can be charged for drinking tea on the job.

The connection between union membership and better pay and conditions, though still evident to some, are consequently less clear to the masses. As ACTU secretary Sally McManus said, “the promise of pay rises once removed” through the Fair Work Commission, subject to myriad restrictions and caveats, means dividends are now less obvious to many than, say, tax cuts.

The Moorhead report thus supported the goal of legislative reform to reverse these trends, but recommended clearer messaging to inspire support.

Conversely, some unionists emphasise the movement’s own failures as the main reason for their downfall. On Friday, former ACTU leader Bill Kelty told The Australian: “You don’t become a whinger and complain about the system.”

Even some unionists who support legislative change think that unions have failed to remain “industrially relevant” amidst economic change, and many believe that improving organising methods would more reliably bolster union power than the fickle fortunes of political campaigns.

Losing company

A third treatise, less popular among activists, is that broader economic and demographic changes have placed unions at a structural disadvantage.

Homogenous shop floors have fragmented as service industries have grown and supply chains have complicated, giving workers less common cause to rally behind. Significant chunks of labour’s traditional base have also been co-opted into the petit-bourgeois. Imagine the construction worker on six figures with a negatively-geared investment property, who plans to retire on tax-free superannuation and franking credit refunds.

The blurring of the wage-earner/asset-owner categories complicates efforts to foster solidarity. The “aspirational class” might not oppose workers’ rights, but they cannot be relied upon to consistently organise and vote in unions’ best interests, often comfortable with their existing arrangements over radical calls to Change the Rules.

Furthermore, increasing proportions of Australian society have retired, giving them no reason to join or support unions. And workers-turned-superannuants’ interests become entwined with capital, giving retirees few reasons to show solidarity with workers at the ballot box.

Unions have lost “their people”.

Organising the next generation

Who can replace the unions’ deserted base? We must look to the next generation of young workers to breathe life into our ailing collectives.

Millennials have much of their working lives ahead of them and have greater interest in real wages than “entrepreneurial” tax-schemes. They share union values and have demonstrated their willingness to protest. But they have lower rates of membership, as they often work in de-unionised industries and haven’t grown up with a strong union presence in their lives.

The most inspiring industrial action today is that which overcomes structural barriers to teach young workers the value of standing in solidarity. Hospo Voice, for instance, was launched by United Voice as Australia’s first digital-led union in 2018, and has innovatively employed digital tools to organise the largely young, casual and part-time workers of the hospitality industry.

“We find workers online, via social media, through petitions and other online actions, and our leaders start organising conversations with those workers using a text messaging platform,” Ben Redford, Victorian secretary of United Voice, told Crikey. “This is likely to work in other industries that are fragmenting, where jobs are becoming more insecure and where the barriers to talking to workers face-to-face are becoming more and more formidable.”

They’ve used these methods to both industrial and political ends, recruiting more than 1000 members, winning significant compensation from wage thieves and influencing state and federal moves to criminalise wage theft.

Conversely, Change the Rules responded to a fragmented public by trying to be everything to everyone. The campaign poster in my office breakroom had such a litany of goals listed that I had to squint to read them. Much like the ALP’s failed federal campaign, the ACTU provided a shopping list of policies without communicating a vision.

Hospo Voice returns to the roots of unionism, overcoming obstacles to unite workers behind a common purpose. Their unique model is no transferable silver bullet for the union movement’s woes. But we can only hope their novel engagement with the macro-trends affecting the union movement is modelled by its leaders.

My generation literally cannot afford another 30 years of watching our working rights recede.

What do you make of the future of the union movement? Write to [email protected] and let us know.

Benjamin Clark is a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey