Unions Celebrate Their Past Amid Questions Over Their Future
Any business operating for 75 years deserves to be proud of achieving that milestone. And as a holder of this badge of longevity the ACTU can indeed trumpet the success of heading a unique business franchise, the business of worker representation.
But in celebrating 75 years the path ahead for the ACTU-union business model is bleak and difficult. The facts are stark. Private sector union membership is less than 16% of the workforce. Women and youth have limited representation and workers in the big growth, service industries show little desire for industrially organised representation.
On the surface the problems are many and varied but at its core the ACTU-union business model is structurally weak. The revenue stream per member is insufficient to fund the level of services needed to retain and attract members.
This business fact has led to many union collapses hidden within ACTU coordinated amalgamations that were supposed to deliver resource consolidation and savings. Union assets, mainly properties are routinely sold to cover recurrent expenses, a bad sign for any business.
Revenue streams from superannuation, redundancy, insurance and entitlement funds were supposed to fix financial shortfalls but the demands of modern unions and their ambitions appear to exceed the additional revenues.
The expansion of union legal privilege through friendly activists judiciary and the gift of power enhancing legislation mainly at State levels, delivers occasional technical legal victories for unions but little in commercial results.
The political alliances are beset with internal turmoil. When elected to office, the once union friendly political allies often become foes when forced to respond to the demands of responsible government.
Indicators of revenue panic are setting in evidenced by the push to force non-members to pay 'service fees' to unions. This process of 'third line forcing' would normally be illegal if not for the legal subterfuge delivered through industrial relations processes.
Many strategies to fix the revenue decline have been applied but the membership-revenue problem persists and was openly discussed, and new approaches canvassed at an ACTU 2002 conference in Newcastle.
The next wave of strategies are creative. These include enhancement of alliances and sophisticated campaigns with international non-government activists organizations, designed to achieve domestic agendas by attacking the brand name vulnerability of big multi-national companies.
In line with these advanced pressure point tactics, appeals to the high moral ground, family values of Australians will dominate the public relations policy posturing. Expect also strong campaigns to seduce Australian companies into adopting German style 'works councils' as a prelude to achieving this agenda through legislation.
These packages of well-developed strategies indicate an abundance of talent, dedication, research and quality implementation capacity at the ACTU. But for all the campaigning something is missing.
The membership revenue model has always been dependent on friendly cooperation with the apparent enemy, business in particular big business. Class war was fought on the surface but underneath unions acted as part of the management structure. In return management acted as union revenue collectors. The system was imperfect but resultant business inefficiencies were cross-subsidised through tariff protection and government to business subsidies. This has largely gone or is going!
The new union problem is really the pressure of competition to which businesses are now subject, explaining why unions campaign against competition policy. The trauma of the demise of Ansett taught the ACTU that being in bed with the boss doesn't deliver protection from competition for either party. Competition is hard for everyone!
As the ACTU and their union affiliates justly celebrate their first 75 years, they know that the dawn of their next 75 years for them is a brave new world.