Union Membership: Australia

IERA International Employment Relations Assoc.
Publication Type:
Journal Article
Employment Relations Record, 2001, 1 (1), pp. 27 - 37
Issue Date:
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Australian trade unions prospered for much of the last century but have suffered membership decline since the late 1970s. The growth of unions in the earlier part of the twentieth century has frequently been attributed to the establishment of a centralised conciliation and arbitration system. There were, however, other significant forces at play that contributed to union growth, including the organisation and nature of work, the then-prevailing social values and the relative effectiveness of trade union strategy vis-à-vis that of the employer. Similarly, the significant decline in union membership during the 1990s was greatly influenced by the movement away from arbitrated awards to enterprise and individually based agreements. However, this trend was also impacted by a more sophisticated and manipulative human resource management, a shift in employment to new non-unionised occupations and industries, a decline in full-time employment and significant cultural changes both within unions and the workforce generally. In this paper, we outline the rise and fall of trade union membership over the past century and provide insights to the phenomena. The current incidence of unionism across various industries is examined and causal factors highlighted. Trade union strategies for addressing their membership decline are discussed and an assessment ventured as to the future of unions in Australia.
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