Is this the beginning of the end of the ACTU?
When big institutions fall, they can go down hard, and quickly. Only five years ago, the nation’s peak union body, the ACTU, was at the white-hot centre of the political debate, waging one of the most successful campaigns in its long history. Its anti-WorkChoices Your Rights at Work campaign was the single-biggest factor in the defeat of the Howard government at the 2007 election.
Your Rights at Work created a model for shifting opinion on public policy in modern Australia, blending grass-roots organisation with free media and skilful advertising. In 2010, the mining industry picked up the model and ran with it, knocking off federal Labor’s super-profits tax proposal.
But the ACTU’s 2007 success is increasingly looking like a last great hurrah. The recently-installed ACTU secretary Dave Oliver this month all but abolished the campaign and communications unit that had played a crucial role in helping the ALP into office only two elections ago.
After doing so, he declared that this was a sign of how he would run the ACTU. He was, he said, going to “reorient it to be more campaign-oriented”.
The way to do that, it seems, is for the ACTU to have only a skeleton campaign staff, contract out some of the work to a PR company, and bring in people from affiliated unions on an ad hoc basis to do the rest.
These sackings were the first stage of a redundancy drive that will see the ACTU shed almost one-fifth of its workforce. And this is all taking place while the ACTU is railing against outsourcing by corporate Australia and is running a public campaign aimed at giving workers greater job security.
Yes, it is confusing because the union movement itself is confused. The modern world keeps mugging the ACTU on a regular basis.
The unavoidable truth for the ACTU is that it is in decline. The numbers tell the story. Twenty years ago, about 40 per cent of workers belonged to unions. Now, in a national workforce of just less than 10 million, only 1.8 million – or 18.4 per cent – of workers are union members.
The overall membership numbers are bolstered by the considerably higher proportion of unionised public sector workers: 43 per cent, compared with only 13 per cent of private sector workers.
The good news, if it can be called that, is that since the election of the Rudd government at the end of 2007 the proportion of unionised workers has remained steady. In other words, the establishment of the Fair Work system by the Labor Government arrested the decline that had been picking up pace since the 1990s.
It’s a holding pattern at best. The revival of fortunes that might have been expected five years ago on the back of Labor’s return to power did not materialise.
That was the moment when public sympathies were on the side of the unions and respect for the protections they had won for working Australians was high. But the momentum fell away. This was a vital opportunity lost for the ACTU, which for much of the postwar period was one of the most powerful Melbourne-based institutions.
The ACTU gave the Labor Party its most successful leader. Widespread union membership and centralised wage-fixing formed the solid foundation upon which Bob Hawke built his public career, first as an advocate in national wage cases and then as ACTU president.
After Hawke entered parliament and became prime minister in 1983, the ACTU under Bill Kelty assumed an even more influential role, driving policies on incomes, superannuation, productivity, the social safety net and industry restructuring.
It was able to do that because it directly represented a vast proportion of the working population. Of course, that is no longer possible because most workers today have no interest in joining unions and even under the more regulated Fair Work regime wages are negotiated for most of us at the workplace.
The upshot has been that the ACTU, as a peak council, is morphing from being a direct player in policy formulation into a pressure group. For the most part, it now jostles for attention with all of the other pressure groups.
It is an historic change, one that was implicitly acknowledged by Oliver two weeks ago as he took the sword to the ACTU workforce. But by going down the “campaign-oriented” path, albeit with fewer campaign and communications staff, the challenge to produce solutions becomes sharper.
For example, the ACTU’s current big campaign highlights the issue of job insecurity and work casualisation, which it says affects 40 per cent of workers. It’s been big on identifying the problem and light on for creative ways to deal with it.
Just how this stripped-down ACTU manages to distinguish itself from some of its big affiliated unions, such as the Construction, Forestry and Mining Employees Union, which are themselves running sophisticated public awareness campaigns as well as their direct industrial work on behalf of members, is an open question.
If the battle for relevance in a faster, digitally-informed, round-the-clock environment is a wrestling bout, the ACTU looks to have one shoulder pinned to the mat. It’s a long way from the glory days of Bob Hawke, folk hero and ACTU warrior.
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