Strong Unions Need Better Rules

International Evidence Shows Legal Climate Affects Union Organising Success

Union organising and fighting for better labour rules are two sides of the same coin

Over the last two years, Australia’s union movement, joined by other social and equality advocates, sponsored a high-profile educational and activist campaign to “Change the Rules” of Australia’s labour market. Through a combination of workplace outreach, community meetings, mass demonstrations, and efforts to mobilise sympathetic voters in the recent federal election, the campaign captured widespread public attention — and support.

Public opinion polls confirm that strong majorities of Australians (in some cases over 70 per cent) now consistently support key demands of the campaign: such as restoring Sunday penalty rates, or lifting the minimum wage. Where it was once taken for granted in Australian economic dialogue that wages were too high and needed to be brought down, most Australians now firmly believe that wages are too low and need to be lifted.

Perhaps sensing public support for stronger labour protections, Coalition leaders steered well clear of workplace issues during the recent election campaign — arguing instead that a Labor government would supposedly raise taxes and damage the economy. This strategy worked, and the Coalition government was surprisingly reelected.

This result is understandably disappointing to the many activists who hoped a change in government would open the door to progressive labour policy reforms; some now despair at the chances of ever “changing the rules” of the labour market.

With a Coalition government back in power, should unions continue to campaign to “Change the Rules”? Or should they focus instead on reinvigorating their own organising efforts — doing whatever they can within the existing rules to organise members and strengthen collective bargaining? Clearly the answer is: “Both!”

And there is strong international empirical evidence to support that conclusion. International experience confirms, with no exceptions, that trade unions need an amenable legal and regulatory climate in order to do their job effectively. Without laws to legitimise and protect collective bargaining and union activists, compel employers to deal fairly with unions, empower workers to exert collective influence in negotiations, and enforce the terms of negotiated agreements in a prompt and effective way, no amount of determination, internal improvement, or innovation on the part of unions will be able to attain a stable and strong collective bargaining system.

A new report from the Centre for Future Work reviews international evidence regarding the close relationship between supportive laws and policies, and the size and strength of unions. These two dimensions of union work — organising to build collective power in workplaces and industries, and lobbying and mobilising to win fairer workplace laws and freedoms — clearly must go hand in hand.

The evidence is summarised in the preceding graph, based on data from the World Economic Forum and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It ranks 26 industrial countries according to their respect for worker rights and freedoms. Perhaps surprisingly, Australia ranks 5th worst — due to its pervasive restrictions on union access and activity, pickets and strikes, and even wearing union badges and symbols.

The graph also indicates union membership as a proportion of total employment in each country. Here, too, Australia ranks poorly: 20th of the 26 countries, with union membership now down to just 14% of employed workers. The curved line illustrates the strong statistical relation between the two series: the stronger are workers’ rights and protections, the more success do unions have in recruiting members (and then mobilising those members to fight for better wages and more secure jobs).

In fact, differences in labour rights and standards explain 70% of the international variance in union density — a very strong and statistically significant relationship. While there are a few countries (like France) where labour rights are strong but union membership is low, there are no countries where labour rights are weak but union membership is high.

The implications of this evidence for Australian unions in the wake of the 2019 federal election are important. By all means, unions need to continue innovating and improving their organising and bargaining strategies and systems. But at the same time they must keep fighting for eventual changes in Australia’s restrictive labour laws. Because without changing the rules, the chances of building strong and stable union representation and collective bargaining are remote.

Please read the full report: Union Organising and Labour Market Rules: Two Sides of the Same Coin, by Dr Jim Stanford.

CFW, housed within the Australia Institute, conducts and publishes progressive economic research on work, employment, and labour markets. https://www.futurework

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