Trade Union Movement Essay

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Unions in Australia

Trade unions are often seen as beneficial to the plight of everyday workers. By negotiating wages, looking out for rights, trade unions give workers a voice at their place of work. But, in Australia's experience, this is not necessarily true. In Australia, union density has fallen considerably since World War II. During that period, wage differentials between union and non-union workers have been minute. This could be due to a number of factors. As union density falls, the unions lose their power to influence policy and industry. Have unions lost the support of the Australian people and with it their bargaining chips? If so, why did they lose the support of the Australian workers?

Unionization typically affects industrial jobs more-so than jobs in agriculture and the services sector, as does workplace size, whether or not the industry is private or public, part-time and full-time employment, and sexes. As women have been brought into the workforce, union density has declined. Although these two trends might not be related, they are at least an interesting topic for research. Other concepts that might help inform one of the myriad elements in the falling density in Australian unions is globalization, whereby national economies have been internationalized and made compete directly with countries where workers wages are significantly lowers, and their obedience to authority significantly higher. (Peetz10)

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The public's opinion of trade union is formed by a number of factors, such as experiences, upbringing, the values and norms of a time, and propaganda. While Australia once enjoyed the highest union density in the world, from 1940 until the 1960's, support for the unions declined. In the popular mind, unions could have been associated with communism, helping to explain their decline in popularity during the forties. In the 1990's, there was a considerable drop in membership. This paralleled a movement towards increased privatization, and a lack of direct solutions presented by the unions, who have often sided with the government in pro-privatization schemes.

As unions lost their membership, their perceived legitimacy declined.

Essay on Trade Union Movement Assignment

(Waddoups 1)

One important difficulty in gauging popular sentiment about unions over time is the lack of record about opinion, especially in the immediate post-war era. Regardless, it is possible to put together a record. Until 1966 public opinion regarding unions was stable. However, between 1966 and 1974, sentiment started to turn against unions. Opinions only slightly worsened through the 1980's -- a time during which unions in the United States and UK declined greatly in influence -- but these numbers still represented a radical drop in enthusiasm compared with the early 1950's. People were starting to believe the unions had too much power. The falling support coincides with intensifying industrial relations. In the mid-nineties, a short-lived, but significant, up-tick in sympathy for unions bucked the trend since the 1970's. Attitudes towards strikers parallel those towards unions, except in the mid-eighties, when sympathy for strikers reached an appreciable level. Overall, attitudes against strikers far outnumbered attitudes sympathetic to strikers. In annual poll's investigating their honesty, union leaders have typically fared poorly.

(Waddoups 615)

The data clearly demonstrates that union sympathy fell between the 1940's and 1960's, fell precipitously in the following decade, but stabilized for the 1980's. Most recently, however, sympathy has plummeted. People's attitudes towards trade unions are influenced by experience within the unions, the effect of an anti-union media, the opinions of their parents and peers, as well as actions taken by the unions themselves. Opinions can be quickly changed by heated conflicts in industrial relations, which serve to polarize points-of-view around certain issues. In the 1990's, amidst a climate of peaceable industrial relations, sympathy for trade unions declined. Why this is so remains unclear, but might very likely be tied to a weakening in the influence of socialization in favor of collectivist societal structures; in the United States, for example, a spirit of individualism helped lead to the decline of union representation, in particular during the Reagan era. This trend stands to continue, as parents teach their children to, at least, be skeptical of unions. (Waddoups 608)

The key institutional changes during the 1980's involved the price and income Accord, an agreement arrived at between the former Australian Labor Party (ALP), the Federal government, and the Australian Council of Trade Unions. The Accord consisted of agreements on wage increases and wage fixing deals, as well as numerous facets of economic, social and industrial programs. The Accord has been targeted as one reason for the decline in union density over the past thirty years. (Peetz 60)

Perhaps, unions lost much of their popularity in the forties and fifties due to anti-communism, at a time when many champions of unionization were communists. Communism rests on a collective superstructure, in which people are organized into institutions, as opposed to free associations touted by capitalist countries. Just as in the United States and much of the west, fear of communist conspiracies to undermine law and order formed many people's opinions. Another possible reason for the decline in union support is the non-difference in union and non-union wages. This trend, however, is exacerbated by the decline in union density, which results in loss of union power.

Further, not all labor disputes have caught the attention of the public. The waterfront dispute of 1998 divided the country evenly. The power of the trade union rests on union membership. The fewer members in unions, the harder they find it to organize, thereby weakening their bargaining chips in all disputes. Over the past 50 years, this trend very well might have put a downward pressure on union power, driving down union wages, and, along with it, their support. This trend, especially in the latter stages of its development, dovetailed with increasing support among unions for privatization schemes. At the onset of the 1990's, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 40.5% of Australian workers from the ages of 15-64 were members of unions. By 2000, however, this number had dropped to 24.7%, representing a decline of 39%. (Waddoups 615)

Perhaps the most radical reforms in Australian industrial relations were implemented in 1991. The Australian Industrial Relations Commission adopted the "Enterprise Bargaining Principle." In a general sense, enterprise bargaining means single employer negotiations with a trade union. This arrangement parallels the North American system of collective bargaining. One result of this implement was a reduced role in arbitration. For example, in 1990, nearly 70% of Australian workers depended upon arbitration for wages increases, compared with 23% in 2001. Also, market forces have played more of a role in wage setting since the act. In fact, some firms pay their non-unionized members more than the unionized members, to dissuade them from joining the unions. This is designed to promote stability within their firms, and encourage workers to side with the company for which they work, as opposed to an organization of collective workers.

(Peetz 59)

The declining unionization has affected all industries, although not all industries were affected similarly. The Utilities and Communications Industries, which traditionally enjoyed wide-scale unionization (75% in 1992), saw their density fall to 48 and 39%, respectively, by 2001. Similarly, Mining, Transport, Public Administration, and Education suffered from declines. By 2001, not a single major industry had more than 50% of its workforce unionized. This trend, to be sure, is similar in many western countries, the United States and Britain most notably. (Waddoups 612)

From 1993 to 2001, union density fell among all age and education groups. According to the data, 48.2% of males from 21 to 64 said they were in a union in 1993. In 2001, the figure had dropped to 29%. The declines in numbers were uniform across all industries.

(Peetz 1998)

Despite all of this, trade unions in Australia have yet to completely disengage from their missions. In the wake of the economic downturn, trade unions in Queensland have been attempting to limit widespread opposition to the state Labor government's intentions to privatize many public assets in order to balance out financial markets. Premier Anna Bligh announced last June the government's plan to sell Queensland Rail's freight and coal haulage industry, Queensland Motorways, the Port of Brisbane, Forestry Plantations Queensland and the Abbot Point Coal Terminal.

Owing the change to the financial crisis, Standard & Poor's reduced Queensland's rating from AAA to AA+ last February. Moody's did the same in March, giving the state a rating of Aa1. The government, who stood to raise in the range of $15 billion and $30 billion over three to five years, insisted the fire-sale needed to take place in order to regaining the triple -- A rating.

The move threatens upwards of 10,000 jobs, job security, wages and entitlements, especially where Queensland's Rail's is a major employer. In opinion polls, four of five Queenslanders are against the sell-off, and 90% oppose the sale of rail assets. In December, when the rail workers were told that maintenance workships were a part of the deal, they went on strike. The unions restrained the actions to… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

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"Trade Union Movement."  April 10, 2010.  Accessed June 24, 2021.