Flat White

The case against the unions

15 December 2021

4:00 AM

15 December 2021

4:00 AM

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed trade unions as impotent and inflexible, a lethal combination for any organisation seeking growth and influence.

The disruption of work brought on by the virus has resulted in unprecedented job losses and pay cuts, particularly for those working in hospitality and employed in industries heavily reliant on the free movement of people across borders.

The pain suffered by the university sector in Australia is a case in point. The abrupt loss of high-paying international student fees led to more than 17,000 job losses in 2020 alone, with even more underway in 2021. Despite hemorrhaging of staff, universities were not eligible for JobKeeper payments.

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), which represents academic staff across Australia, has been largely powerless in the face of organisational change initiatives.

Its knee-jerk response to the pandemic was a disastrous proposal for members to accept significant wage cuts in exchange for some time-limited employment protections. The proposal quickly unraveled as academic staff at nearly all universities across Australia rejected it.

A similar story is unfolding in the United Kingdom, where the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU) has utterly failed to stop job losses despite the threat of industrial action and global boycotts.

Although in the past trade unions have delivered net positive results for workers, including higher wages, better terms and conditions of employment, and safer workplaces, today they have largely proved themselves to be a spent force.

The decline of unions has been written on the wall for decades. From 1992 to 2020, the proportion of employees who were members of a trade union in Australia dropped from 40 per cent to just 14 per cent.

Once powerful unions are now just a shadow of their former selves.

Why has union membership collapsed, not just here in Australia, but globally as well?

Most progressives will blame aggressively anti-union tactics and the implementation of legislation that is unfavourable to organised labour. Others will point to the decline of manufacturing jobs – once a stronghold of the union movement.

It is true that many employers counteract or pre-empt attempts at union organising. It is also true that conservative governments have sought to restrict collective bargaining and that centre-left governments have done next to nothing to expand workers’ rights to organise.

But this outsourcing of blame on the part of unions and their supporters is largely just an attempt to deflect responsibility. To really understand why unions are failing, union leaders need to take a long look at themselves in the mirror.

For starters, union dues are expensive, well over $2,000 per year for many professors. That kind of money, compounded over a few years, could easily be used to hire an employment lawyer in the event of a dispute.

Unions do not increase job satisfaction. On the contrary, research shows clearly and repeatedly that trade union members are significantly less satisfied with their jobs than non-trade union members.

Unions at times will sacrifice an individual member to secure collective benefits. In this way, members can become sacrificial lambs when enterprise agreements are negotiated.

Unions dedicate a huge proportion of their resources to defending indefensible behaviour. Those who have been accused of bullying and sexual harassment are too often protected by their union when they face accusations of misconduct.

But perhaps the most important reason for the decline of unions is that they are increasingly impotent. If a union could guarantee job security, then membership might be worth the return on investment.

In reality, instead of protecting your job, they could even make you a target. Although employers cannot take adverse action against union members solely for that reason, there is any number of other justifications that can be used to disadvantage union members.

It’s not clear what the alternative to union membership is and it is still possible, however unlikely, that unions may yet reform themselves to become effective vehicles of employee representation once again.

But until that day comes, we should all think long and hard about whether union dues are worth it.


Dr Andrew R. Timming is Professor of Human Resource Management at RMIT University.

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