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.

He's no Bob Hawke. ACTU boss Dave Oliver. Picture: Tess Follett

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.

Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEST.

Most commented


Show oldest | newest first

    • nihonin says:

      10:33am | 24/10/12

      ‘Your rights at work’, what a laugh that is now, when compared to ‘your rights to accountable use of your union membership fees’.

    • andrew says:

      03:58pm | 24/10/12

      Australians need unions to protect our rights at work however many unions and unions members only look after their own.

    • acotrel says:

      10:48am | 24/10/12

      The ACTU won’t be needed again until the misogynist strikes at the heart of industrial democracy.

    • nihonin says:

      11:10am | 24/10/12

      No fear acotrel, the ACTU is not going anywhere, there are ‘sheeple’ born every minute.

    • Gregg says:

      11:35am | 24/10/12

      Seems as though you have the approach of it’s all over redrover for the ALP too acotrel and are even referring to them as a weak government with weak policies.

    • Bill says:

      12:11pm | 24/10/12

      The ACTU aren’t needed now acotrol. Trade unions are full of corruption so it’s no wonder that 87% of us refuse to have anything to do with them.

    • PJ says:

      01:35pm | 24/10/12

      The hero of the Labor Party, Slipper, he knows how to denigrate a woman’s sexuality. Yet he was heroically defended by Julia Gillard as she posed as the ‘outraged woman’ and a ‘victim’ of sexism, whilst conducting Slippers defence.

      Nothing the ALP likes better it seems, than sexist jokes about women in Opposition at their Dinners.

      One thing is clear, the ALP is far far from being the woman’s champion.

      6 years of Gillard and we’ve have none, nothing significant for the benefit of australian women.

      Get the message?

    • AdamC says:

      10:51am | 24/10/12

      It seems to me that this is simply a case of an ongoing trend continuing.

      The great failure of unions has been their inability to adapt to an economy increasingly based on commercial competition. Historically, unions added value to their members by squeezing a share of the economic rents enjoyed by employers in a highly-regulated, tarriff-protected economy. As economic changes and reforms have stripped away these economic rents, unions have found themselves without a significant role, except in the public sector and a few naturally protected sectors, like construction.

      At the same time, more and more employees are in occupations where their earnings are based on professional skills, rather than the ability to effectively organise and withhold their labour en masse. Workers in less-skilled sectors like retail and hospitality have shunned unions, while empoyment rates in traditionally unionised (and traditionally protected) manufacturing industries have continued to fall.

      The death knell for unions will be when the ALP finally ends its formal association with them. As it is, unions main powerbase is now political, rather than industrial.

    • Chris Faulk says:

      11:08am | 24/10/12

      This morning at around 10.00 the NSW police on directions from the Victorian police were raiding the home of the Member for Dobell - SMH journo Kate McClymont (sorry if I’ve misspelled that, Kate) was parked outside reporting live to air on the proceedings. Neighbours watched (I and my Lab joined the interested spectators). Craig was inside his house but didn’t show - disappointment - but Zoe came out and then, seeing the spectators, went back in. Who said the Central Coast was Sleepy Hollow ?

    • Ren says:

      11:24am | 24/10/12

      Not only do the unions fail at whatever it is now that they are supposed to do. Their desire for self preservation prevented our country from having a modern industrial relations system that whilst it had room for improvement as you would expect, it still would have been good for the country.

      I just didn’t buy all the hate mongering of work choices. Whisper that you didnt hate work choices and be prepared to be labelled a heretic.

      There I said it. Gimmie Work choices over corrupt unions any day.

    • Mayday says:

      02:58pm | 24/10/12

      To answer the headline all I can say is I bloody well hope so!

      The “your rights at work” campaign was incomplete, they forgot the other half of having rights i.e. responsibility.

    • LC says:

      11:34am | 24/10/12

      Unions once served a purpose. They protected and campaigned for fair working hours and fees. They campaigned against racial/sexual/cultural discrimination in the workplace. But today it seems they only exist to keep incompetent workers in jobs from being replaced by someone who is better skilled, and keep their brass in cushy jobs, hurting our delicate economy.

      The union movement is irrelevant at the moment. They should return to their roots, or face extinction.

    • Dinosaurs of the Past says:

      01:09pm | 24/10/12

      LC, a good mate of mine was harassed and bullied at work by a female manager (incompetant and with an inferiority complex). After a time became sexual harassment, and became so bad, he was forced to resign when management and the union did nothing to assist. Not a bad result for 25 years union membership on his part. Never once utilised their services, and the one time he needed help, they refused to assist (was advised to resign and move on). He’s vowed never again will he pay a cent in union membership and tells all and sundry the story. It seems Mr Thompson has stepped up to the plate, and ably demonstrated where union money is dispersed - for it certainly doesn’t appear to be back to the worker…!

    • LC says:

      05:04pm | 24/10/12

      If it’s a case of your word vs. hers then I don’t think the unions could’ve done much, even during their glory days. It would’ve been interesting how quickly they’d jump into action if your roles were reversed though.

      That said, they at least could’ve offered advice if they didn’t want to intervene.

    • Nick says:

      11:55am | 24/10/12

      Thanks to people like Williamson and Thompson,the Australian public are a waking up to the Union movement in this country.They used to be a legitimate force in negotiating the rights of workers back in the 50’s and 60’s but now are just a bunch of disruptive self serving bullies that are stalling productivity in this country ..ohh and don’t mention the rorts!

    • Bazza says:

      11:58am | 24/10/12

      The ACTU has more problems than those mentioned in this article. The whole Union movement has more problems than Ben Hur. Cutting back a few workers and replacing them with “outsourced” workers is nothing.
      There problem starts with and then ends with the Leadership. Unfortunately for them is the fact there is a whole lot of cancer in between the start and the end.
      Wait until Williamson and friends have their WHOLE sorry story in the public arena. Then the AWU/Wilson/Blewitt saga will finally rear its ugly head in the Mainstream Media and it will take with it, into the sewer, quite a few more than just the headline acts.
      Bob Hawke raised the standard of leadership in the Unions to level that those following could never emulate. Before Bob the unions were led by muppetts, since Bob became Prime Minister, and following Kelty, the Unions have gone back to being led by modern day muppetts. Sure, some on the way through donned the shiny suits and polished their faces till they shone in the dark, but it was all superficial, under the shiny suit and well scrubbed faces are eggshells, people of no substance. We are bearing witness to that in Parliament today.
      No longer can the Unions run campaigns based on slurs and innuendo, the public is fast becoming aware that they lack ethics and morals themselves.
      To think todays Australians will fall for and believe in ‘class warfare’ is fanciful
      rubbish, Australians have moved well passed believing that rhetoric, that is the domain of those who wish to keep control.

    • stevem says:

      12:24pm | 24/10/12

      “No longer can the Unions run campaigns based on slurs and innuendo”. Just you wait until the next Federal election. Under McTernan’s direction we’ll see an entirely new low in slurs and innuendo brought to you courtesy of the unions.

    • JoniM says:

      12:09pm | 24/10/12

      In recent times Unions have been nothing more than the funds collectors, marketeers and the muscle arm for the ALP.
      Along the way some union leaders have helped themselves to the members hard earned for personal benefit or used the union to promote themselves to the next deeper level along on the public trough (govt) !
      Basically, unions in this country have been irrelevent for workers since we stopped sending kids down the mines with their canaries !
      Unions are now useful only to their political masters in government and their own rent seeking leadership.

    • Bob says:

      12:17pm | 24/10/12

      The problem is that when Labor is in Govt - ie now - every delying tactic is applied to investigate the Unions.

      When the LNP are in power the Unions cry Union Bashing - everyone out so they back off.

      Time for a Royal Commission me thinks.

    • spence says:

      12:32pm | 24/10/12

      Just another liberla beat up egged on by seriol lier Abbott.

      Once again Abbott and the hate media have simply made things up to desteroy the common working man and pander to big business millionaires like Gerry harvey and Gina Reinhart.

      Will Abbot resign when nothing is found to be out of order?

      Shame Abbott! Shame!

    • Bill says:

      01:19pm | 24/10/12

      Learn to spell, spence…

      Also, please give specific examples of how Tony Abbott has done anything to destroy the ‘common working man’, whatever that is. Is an accountant a common working man? Is a teacher a common working man? Is a stay at home person a common working man?

      Please educate us.

    • Nick says:

      01:29pm | 24/10/12

      Spence..millionaires like Harvey and Reinhart employ thousands of Australians .They take risks and reap the rewards.Your class envy crap which echoes the low punching Labor Party is divisive to say the least.

    • spence says:

      02:05pm | 24/10/12

      All I can do is laugh. Without unions you’d still be working 70-80 hour weeks with hardly any sick pay or leave. Without unions your pay would still be nothing and the bosses would be simply getting richer and richer. Unios are what made this country strong and proud and unions will continue to do so! Unlike that toadie big business shoe licker Abbott who simply wants all workers back in there place where no-one can see them as well as woman back in the kitchen and out of the workforce. Ha, what about workchoices hey? Tell me Abbott doesn’t want to bring that in again simply to pander to the rich and rip off the worker even more?

      As I said shame Abbott shame. You have destryoed this country with your Nonstop negaitivity, bully tactics and mysoginist remarks. Look at craig Thomson, hounded from office by Abbott and his dirt file goon squad, probably funded by Alan Jones or big mining or petrol.

    • Millsy says:

      02:27pm | 24/10/12

      Nick, what risks has Gina Rinehart had to take exactly? The risk her children might inherit some of her fathers cash? The risk she can’t pay her workers $2 a day? The risk she can’t make Fairfax news say whatever she wants them to say?

    • Bitten says:

      02:30pm | 24/10/12

      spence, remind me - is time linear or circular? I think we’re in the present but I can’t tell.

    • Hugo says:

      12:53pm | 24/10/12

      @Spence - you are a fool.  Will Swann resign when yet another Budget forecast proves unreliable? Will Gillard ever admit that she knew all about Thompson in the knock shop years ago (she was probably there as well)? Will Roxon resign for trying to interfere in the Ashby case?

    • Onya Spence says:

      01:59pm | 24/10/12

      @ Bill: Spence is entitled to spell as he likes( amuses me how often the high and mighty/ anally retentive resort to this kind of put down.)
      @ Hugo: Another one resorting to name calling. Easy to do behind a keyboard. What a hero. :(

    • Bitten says:

      02:32pm | 24/10/12

      @Onya Spence: ‘toadie big business shoe licker’

      Who said that? Was it Hugo?

      Come on now OS, surely you can serve it both ways, hypocrisy is never a good look.

    • Jess says:

      12:59pm | 24/10/12

      Some unions have issues in their leadership. Workplace delegates and worksite reps do a good job for their memebers
      Did you here about….
      The union that shut down a worksite in Canberra after the crane company went into recievership? They kept the site shut for a day so they could get the crane operators insurance so everyone would be safe. They also addressed a few other issues.
      The union that took a government department to the IR court and won? Because you can’t fire performing employees without notice.
      The union members that said no to the Federal government reducing annual leave by 2 days? conditions that the public service has flows on to it
      The union that provides travel to and from work and break workers comp for its memebers cheaply after the Labor government took it away.

      I’m all for union admin accountablity but to say HSU and AWU will be the death of unions is a bit far fetched.
      I think most people would be horrified at the exodus of teachers and nurses if the unions weren’t fighting for conditions in those areas.
      I think Teachers and Nurses will always have the unions and people will be gratefull for those unions

    • HappyG says:

      02:41pm | 24/10/12

      @Jess. Unions can still be relevant if they drag themselves into the 21st century. The good old days of us versus them are long gone. If unions got on board with employers and ensured a good return for both parties they would not only ensure their own survival they would gain more members. People aren’t stupid. They want representation not a money pit for the bully boys looking after their own interests. I give you Michael Williamson and Craig Thomson as examples.

    • Jess says:

      03:23pm | 24/10/12

      Unions do do alot it’s just not reported in the media. Ask a teacher about the recent strikes in Victoria they won’t say it was about pay, they will say it was about the removal of teachers aids.
      Nurses and teachers don’t strike on pay.. they strike on conditions.

      I’d be guessing you have no idea about unions other than what the media says. You know drastic action does neither the union, empolyers and employees any good.
      The union want people working. That worksite was only shut for one shift, those job cuts still happened just with the union people were treated leagally.
      Unions work with employers alot more then just at bargining time.
      Workplace delegates and workplace reps are the ones doing the ground work and I think they do a good job mostly (mine do anyway).

    • Greg says:

      04:01pm | 24/10/12

      Jess, which union employs you? Your post is almost verbatim to another recent submission of yours. You are totally wrong, unions ARE dying right now. Unions are irrelevant and unnecessary in these times. I hope you have your resume up to date, and I would leave out of your employment history that you are one of the parasites that live of worker’s money. Prospective employers wouldn’t touch you with the proverbial 40 foot barge pole.

    • jess says:

      05:11pm | 24/10/12

      Just a union member. I highly doubt I will unable to get a job as I have skills in specific fields and I’m good at my job. Omg a post I wrote was like another post I wrote on the same topic. Omg. All true btw… the union site was on the same day as the Melbourne site. Unions took a department to the ir court in 2009 and check the rejected ea’s from 2011 for federal departments.

    • Monty says:

      01:03pm | 24/10/12

      Whenever things are good for workers there’s always the cries of “unions are irrelevant” and “unions are dying”. Then as soon as workers rights come under fire (eg: workchoices) suddenly they’re workers rights heroes. On and on the cycle goes. Unions are a necessary balance to the political interests of capital. Though its funny how little the business “union”, the Chamber of Commerce is mentioned.

    • nihonin says:

      01:26pm | 24/10/12

      The Workchoices campaign was run for one reason only, the Union Leaders were worried their unions would be irrelevant, hence all that lovely money they receive from member fees would dwindle till there was none and then the bludgers would have had to go out and find real jobs.

    • Mitch says:

      01:47pm | 24/10/12

      Yes, the workchoices campaign was all about money. It had nothing to do with one of the biggest assaults on workers rights in decades.

      Are you a real person, or a Liberal Party talking points generator?

    • Bitten says:

      02:37pm | 24/10/12

      Monty, unions can exist. But there is absolutely no justification for the prominence they currently enjoy in this country’s political arena, given that they represent less than one fifth of employed citizens. This is a democracy and unions do NOT represent anything like a majority of citizens.

      And you can bang on all you like about what unions have done in the past. Without question 100 years ago I’d have been a union member. But time runs in one direction kiddo. And unionists staking a claim to current relevance on the basis of past actions is frankly absurd, particularly so given the fact that they represent an absolute minority of Australians.

      Reminds me of adults who have achieved nothing since they left school, they’re always the first to tell you which private school they attended. Big whoop. What have you done lately?

    • nihonin says:

      03:54pm | 24/10/12

      Are you a real person, or a Liberal Party talking points generator?

      So your only counter to my claim, is to insult me.  Which workers rights would have been assaulted, union members?  My claim still stands then if that is the case, yes i can see you are a true Labor/union acolyte Mitch.

    • ruru says:

      01:31pm | 24/10/12

      I have never been a union member, but I appreciate the good things unions have struggled to implement. 8 hour days, smokos, holidays and so much more we now take for granted.
      Corruption is a sorry human weakness and should be mercilessly rooted out.
      To me the gradual decline in membership indicates that they have been effective at their purpose and hence has had an impact on relevence.
      However, numbers will fluctuate, and will increase when it is necessary to hold employers to account.
      Union membership is like an immunisation programme.
      Everyone becomes complacent until there is an outbreak and then there is a significant jump in immunisation numbers.

    • Monty says:

      01:54pm | 24/10/12

      If you want to know what Australia would be like without the unions, look at the US, where the union movement has been suppressed for the better half of a century. No guaranteed annual leave (it’s at the discretion of the employer), no long service leave, you can be fired at a moments notice, laughable workplace safety conditions, etc. 

      This is the Australia the more hard line, business friendly, factions of the Liberal Party want. Where people aren’t people, they’re economic units.

    • B. says:

      02:39pm | 24/10/12

      The Labor Party is corrupted by association with fraudulent unions and their thuggish, dishonest behaviours—- and it can’t survive without them.

    • Jess says:

      03:25pm | 24/10/12

      what about all the pokies they own?

    • onya spence says:

      02:49pm | 24/10/12

      @bitten:  Are you suggesting Bill and Hugo are Abbott in disguise?

    • Tony of poorakistan says:

      04:34pm | 24/10/12

      I’d like to see the Unions address the next big issue -  foreigners on 457 visas. I’d be tempted to join myself and I haven’t been in a union since the ARU folded

    • James O says:

      05:14pm | 24/10/12

      Talking about unions is a bit like talking about religion you have to be careful to whom you are talking to, after all you cannot change the faith of the converted and faith is usually handed down from generation to generation.
      The memories of past industrial injustice has generally not influenced the atitudes of modern generations so the spasmodic disputes for workers rights are more a perfunctory call to arms for the sake of union credibility than achieving compromise because there is little that can be done if a business is going bust. There lies the problem for the ACTU, it’s recruitment drive relies on a staid manufacturing and unskilled workforce. Workers with drive and diversity are not going to become union members unless they are forced to do so because of a unionised worksite or a political point is being made for some disgruntled worker who was sacked . In general unions have not done their representatives many favours in recent years the disputes with big business end up being less generous and the employees still eventually lose their jobs, the result was destined to be the same whatever was being negotiated but the unions needed the PR publicity. Political cynics will question the divisional alliance of union heavyweights with the ALP the recruitment of ex union leaders to parliament would make the Cremlin happy with this home grown version of the Polit Bureau. It is becoming an insecure world for workers of all kinds the unions do not control the big banks or provide financial credit to ailing small business, without a large industrial blue collar workforce to ply it’s political muscle unions are going to steadily lose their working class culture to a more considered middle class attitude favouring secure contractual workplace conditions and opportunist career changes.


Facebook Recommendations

Read all about it

Punch live

Up to the minute Twitter chatter

Recent posts

The latest and greatest

The Punch is moving house

The Punch is moving house

Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…

Will Pope Francis have the vision to tackle this?

Will Pope Francis have the vision to tackle this?

I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…

Advocating risk management is not “victim blaming”

Advocating risk management is not “victim blaming”

In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…

Nosebleed Section

choice ringside rantings

From: Hasbro, go straight to gaol, do not pass go

Tim says:

They should update other things in the game too. Instead of a get out of jail free card, they should have a Dodgy Lawyer card that not only gets you out of jail straight away but also gives you a fat payout in compensation for daring to arrest you in the first place. Instead of getting a hotel when you… [read more]

From: A guide to summer festivals especially if you wouldn’t go

Kel says:

If you want a festival for older people or for families alike, get amongst the respectable punters at Bluesfest. A truly amazing festival experience to be had of ALL AGES. And all the young "festivalgoers" usually write themselves off on the first night, only to never hear from them again the rest of… [read more]

Gentle jabs to the ribs

Superman needs saving

Superman needs saving

Can somebody please save Superman? He seems to be going through a bit of a crisis. Eighteen months ago,… Read more



Read all about it

Sign up to the free News.com.au newsletter