Unions around the country are seeing a rise in membership numbers and increasing levels of interest as Australians grapple with the biggest economic upheaval in a generation.

While definite numbers aren’t yet established, most unions Crikey spoke to say they had seen evidence of increasing membership in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic shutdown.  

“We are getting reports of an increase in new members in many unions,” Australian Council of Trade Unions President Michele O’Neill told Crikey. 

“Workers can see the union movement standing up for them in these really uncertain times and are looking for support, advice and having someone in their corner.”

Unsurprisingly, some of the biggest bumps in membership have come in sectors of the economy that have been upended with particular ferocity by the pandemic.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) told Crikey it’s had 1500 new members join in the last few weeks, taking its membership to the highest level it’s ever been. 

The higher education sector, which is heavily reliant on international students and contains a large number of casual staff was hit “harder and earlier” than many others by the pandemic, NTEU president Alison Barnes said.

Barnes believes the increase reflects the NTEU’s reduction of membership rates for casual staff, and a widespread realisation of the union’s importance during a time of crisis.

“In times of upheaval and uncertainty around jobs and incomes, when people think their livelihoods might be threatened, they turn to organisations that they know can be trusted to protect and defend their interests,” she said.

Gerard Dwyer, national secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers Association, which represents workers in industries like retail and fast food, confirmed his union had seen membership inquiries go up.

“Workers are feeling increasingly vulnerable in this environment and are reaching out to their industry unions for support and protection,” Dwyer said. 

Australian Workers Union national secretary Dan Walton also says membership had been “growing more rapidly than usual” since the start of the pandemic.

“Obviously the pandemic creates health concerns, but the more immediate effect felt by most is the shockwaves it’s sent through the workforce. At a time of massive uncertainty, people understand unions are the practical experts and advocates,” Walton told Crikey. 

The pandemic is a critical moment for unions. Not only are they attracting members, the economic crisis has given them an important seat at the policy-making table — an unusual development given the Liberal government in Canberra.

Before the crisis, Attorney-General Christian Porter was deeply committed to passing the government’s controversial Ensuring Integrity Bill, a bill originally blocked by the Senate last year which would make it easier to deregister unions. 

But as the pandemic worsened the relationship between Porter and ACTU Secretary Sally McManus had become cordial to the point of friendly, with each praising the other for their honesty and genuineness as government and the unions scrambled to help save millions of Australian jobs. 

The government’s plans to implement a $130 billion wage subsidy, despite initial reluctance, reportedly came because of the influence of McManus and former ACTU boss and Labor minister Greg Combet.

It’s unclear how long the warmer relationship between the Coalition and the unions will last.  

Scott Morrison is committed to a “snapback” — reversing the government’s generous big spend policies once he feels the crisis is abated. As the debate over how to rebuild a post-pandemic economy heats up, the unions will no doubt have their work cut out for them.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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