There was an interesting article on Aussie unions and the need for a new model to make unions relevant at work in the Australian Financial Review.
I believe there are almost identical circumstances in NZ.
So how can unions reform in a world made up of Generation X and Y workers and independent contractors?
This debate is not new for the Australian union movement, it’s been deliberating how it should address the continuing decline in membership for quite a while now. Essentially, this debate has centred on a service model and an organising model.
The service one focuses on serving members’ interests as a means to encourage potential members. It is a form of protection against unruly bosses while also providing support and information on workplace issues.
The second and widely adopted approach is the organising model. This one was promoted in the 1990s by the ACTU as a means to rebuild union membership as collective bargaining was decentralised to enterprise level. It is underpinned by class-struggle beliefs: members are recruited on the basis that their combined strength will counter the power of the capitalist employer.
This approach not only focuses on recruitment but on organising and training members as activists and on building unionism at the workplace. Critics point out this focus on activism has the potential to raise adversarial behaviour and industrial disputes
But this organising model has failed to increase union membership and the service model doesn’t go far enough to address changes in the workplace. In addition, recent union scandals and industrial disputes in the past 12 months that have resulted in the highest number of working days lost since 2004 suggest a new model is needed.
Dinosaurs are extinct and unions are the modern industrial equivalent of dinosaurs. Businesses have adapted to changing economic climate, but unions ahve failed to do so.
What’s at stake for the union movement? While it may claim that in membership terms, it is one of the biggest social movements in the country, with only 14 per cent membership in the private sector, it would seem a new model is required to make unions relevant at work.
The “Your rights at work” campaign may have helped topple the Howard government but it must be remembered that campaign was about individual rights, not collective rights or the union movement. In fact it could be argued it entrenched a mindset of individualism instead of winning the hearts and minds of the true believers
There is no doubt that unions have played and can play an important role. But that can only happen when they forge a value proposition that satisfies members and provides value rather than adopting the single-minded and narrow approach dictated by the organising model.
As the holiday season approaches, perhaps it’s time for the union movement to reflect on what will work in the modern Australian workplace.