The crisis in Australian unionism is one of great concern to all working-class activists. In a series of articles I will criticise some of the current trends and try to show that there are ways out.
The main tools I have at my disposal are nearly 40 years of militant trade union and working-class activism and wide (but not deep) reading of socialist theory. I hope these articles are of interest. Whether they are insructive and helpful, that is for others to decide.
If a union movement’s societal influence is primarily based on relative union density, the current state of unionism in Australia is the lowest at least since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Is it just a case of economic structual adjustment moving across the developed world?
Is it the aggressive stance of right wing governments since the 1980s?
Is it a problem in trade unions themselves being unable to adapt to changing circumstances?
In reality, particularly in Australia, it is a combination of all three. However in Australia the leaders of many of the larger unions have played a role in their own collapse.
In 1974, 55% of the work force were members of unions. Twenty years later, in 1994, the figure was 42%. In 2014 the figure is approximately 17% .
This is a collapse of immense importance. Proportionately it is a greater collapse than in the United States, where private sector unionism sits around 6.5%.
In Australia there has been a marked decline in the manufacturing base. A once quite strong car making industry (I worked in a Ford factory for a couple of spectacular months in the early 80s) will turn off its last light in 2016. Australian steel making of any type on a large scale is almost non-existent.
Textiles, clothing and footwear are now almost cottage industries.
The push by big business has been into service industries and mining. Australia’s two major export earners are iron ore and coal. The third largest export earner is education. Universities in Australia can charge exorbitant fees for overseas students.
If we look at the hard rock and coal industries, we can observe some of the strategies big business has used in its attempts to “free” itself from the restraints imposed by a unionised workforce.
In the late 1980s transnational mining houses, led firstly by Rio Tinto and more lately by the world’s largest mining house BHP Bulliton, have carried on an assault against organised labour.
In hard rock mining (particularly iron ore and bauxite) workers’ collective agreements have been replaced in the main by non-union agreements.
The mighty Pilbara unions were shattered in less than five years. 90% plus union density was reduced in a brief period to less than 10% of the workforce and being fundamentally powerless to defend the few remaining members.
In coal mining the assault has included virtually all of the big mining houses, including once ”union friendly” BHP Billiton.
Coal miners had a long history of militant unionism. Up to the early 90s, not an ounce of Australian coal was dug non-union.
Things began to change quite abruptly after Rio turned a massive underground coal mine, Gordonstone, into a non-union mine named Kestrel. In around 15 years non-union coal mines accounted for 40% of the nation’s coal output.
Companies in the vastness of the Queensland West make it difficult for the miners’ union to organise.
Companies use fly in/fly out miners. They tend to do 7×12 hour shifts and then get flown back to their homes on the coast. The miners live in camps.
Mining companies have a policy of not hiring relatives of miners, thus further avoiding union influence.
The coal miners union has been slow to respond and in collapse in numbers, although bad, has been until now been offset by a coal boom.