There is evidence that the attacks by the ruling class on workers’ pay and conditions and on their mass organisations (trade unions) are having an impact with union membership in the private sector being somewhere between 11% - 13% and strike action by workers at low levels.
However the seeds of regeneration of the ideals of collective action by workers as the way forward are being planted.
The enterprise agreement struggle by Baiada poultry workers in Victoria a few years ago; the MUA Here To Stay win of 1998; the fact that private sector precariously employed disability sector workers are joining unions in numbers never seen before; the exposure by migrant workers of sham contracting at 7 - Eleven convenience stores; the organised, persistent campaigning by child care workers for quality care and better pay and conditions; and the recent win by CUB maintenance workers are some notable examples of this regeneration.
This regeneration is not what the ruling class had planned. Since the 1980s imperialism, particularly US imperialism had other plans for the Australian working class, aided to one degree or another by the ALP and ACTU leaderships.
In 1982, 39% of private sector workers were still in unions. By 1986, only 15.5% of these private sector union members worked in 'blue collar' factory work due to imperialism's restructuring of the economy to suit its global production plans. Whole working class unionized communities were destroyed as imperialism "deconstructed" Australia as a manufacturing country. For example, in 1986 14,000 workers' jobs were lost at Port Kembla. Similar stories could be told at Newcastle and regions of the economy reliant on the car industry and white goods industry.
From 1986 to 2008 union membership density overall fell from 45.6% to 18.9% of the combined public and private sector workforce. Union membership numbers fell from 2.7 million in 1990 to 1.7 million in 2008. Public sector union membership declined from 70.6% in 1986 to 41.9% in 2008. In 2008 only 13.6% of workers in the private sector were in unions.
The steady decline of blue collar jobs in Australia hit the core of union collective power over a long period since the late 1940s, union membership still remained strong with a growth in white collar unionism of 89% between 1969 and 1981. Even in the Depression years of 1929- 30s when thousands of blue collar workers lost their jobs, union membership (collective voice) did not fall below 42% density.
Imperialists tried to destroy “generational experience”
"Generational experience indicated that an improvement in one's lot could only be won by collective action, not individual action" (“The Rise and Decline Of Australian Unionism...From The 1820s to 2010" by Bradley Bowden).
It was this "generational experience" about the imperative of collective action by and for workers that imperialism set out to destroy in the 1980s in a systematic way. To do this, imperialism needed a willing state apparatus to assist. It found such a willingness from both Liberal and Labor Parties. Herein lies the crucial difference of the 1980s regarding union membership decline compared with union membership highs and lows of previous decades. In previous decades, imperialism tried to weaken working class strength with "Cold War" tactics, targeting Communist Party influence in unions. While they succeeded in weakening the organisational and political influence of the Communist Party from its immediate post World War 2 days, it was not until the 1980s that imperialism succeeded in systematically breaking down the minimum award standards.
Hawke and Keating join the attack
In 1986 under the Hawke Labor Government determination of wage increases became dependent on workers trading off award conditions. This was significant because it ended the ability of workers to organize across an industry/industries through award-based campaigns.
In 1987 the Hawke Government went one step further through "award restructuring" through which "one worker did the job of two" (or in some cases three!).
In 1991 the Labor Government presented workers with "enterprise bargaining" to make sure workers were "internationally competitive" in Treasurer Paul Keating's de-regulated financial system which accelerated movement of finance capital in and out of the country in the interests of multinational corporations. Enterprise bargaining was sold to workers by a compliant ACTU leadership who assured workers it would give them a direct say in determining pay and conditions at the enterprise level and only where workers were members of unions. This was the beginning of splitting/dividing workers in manufacturing industries with the subliminal message from individual capitalists that if workers were not 'reasonable' in negotiations their jobs would be exported overseas. Enterprise bargaining also weakened the working class value of the "strong supporting the weak". How could enterprise bargaining work for an aged care worker if enterprise bargaining was about "productivity and efficiency" as the pre-condition for increases in wages and conditions?
In 1993, the kowtowing to the needs of imperialism by the Labor Government and Liberals in "Opposition" got worse when Prime Minister Keating and his IR Minister Laurie Brereton introduced a non-union bargaining stream into the Industrial Relations Act. This opened the door for a "race to the bottom" in pay and conditions and also further encouraged employers to try and keep their workplaces "free" of union "interference". This non-union stream bargaining was the nail in the coffin regarding the established principle that workers had won over decades and decades of struggle - namely that employers recognised unions as the sole representatives of workers for purposes of negotiating pay and conditions.
In 1996, the new Howard Government built on the work done by the Labor Government in service to imperialism by taking non-union enterprise agreements to their capitalist logic next step - individual contracts called Australian Workplace Agreements.
In 2006, Howard tried to complete the destruction of the award system completely by making it possible for employers to have enterprise agreements that only had to have five minimum conditions of employment as the no disadvantage test. This took regulation of wages and conditions back to the days of the Masters and Servants Act of the 1800s.
In 2007 union members and their communities succeeded in throwing out the Howard Government through a grass roots Your Rights At Work, Worth Fighting For" campaign. This campaign was successful despite the decline in union membership caused primarily by the complicity in imperialism's attack on the working class by the Labor Party and Liberal Party leaders. During the Your Right At Work campaign, some ACTU leaders including Greg Combet showed what can be done when union leaders support workers and provide them with the opportunity to organize. However even in this campaign of great grass roots momentum, there was hesitancy by the ACTU and eventual capitulation to ALP leaders who wanted the campaign changed to Your Rights At Work Worth Voting For. The message to workers was changed to campaign all you like to get Labor in office and that will be all that workers need to do. After that, leave it the "political wing” of the "labour movement” to deliver for workers.
In 2010 the Labor Government under Rudd 'delivered' by introducing for the first time an explicit no right to take action by workers. It did this by including in the Fair Work Act an extremely limited and exclusive right to take "protected" action during the bargaining period.
In 2016 the Turnbull Government succeeded in re-introducing the ABCC to suppress and weaken building workers and also changes to governance rules for unions which are designed to tie union financial resources up in endless court cases about how they spend their money.
Workers find ways to organise and fight
Despite all these attacks on workers and their mass organisations, the rate of decline of unions has slowed and as mentioned at the beginning of this article, workers are joining unions in areas where there has never been union presence before. This is as it has always been. As capitalism has changed and developed in Australia, the capitalists have for a time succeeded in being "free" of "union interference" but the workers have eventually found a way to organize collectively to protect and advance their interests.
A recent historical example of this was the Clean Start Fair Deal For Cleaners campaign. The cleaning industry union was one of the most affected by the ending of preference clauses in awards and the reactionary change to enterprise specific bargaining as the main way for workers to improve their wages and conditions. In the Howard period of 1996 to 2007 the property services industry decided the best way to destroy cleaners as a collective force and thereby lower cleaning costs (a non-core business) was to employ from the influx of the 500,000-strong international student and migrant worker workforce who had over stayed their visas.
The cleaners union at the same time decided to launch an industry wide Clean Start campaign to turn the property services industry exploitative plan on its head. The property services and the big banks were so confident that the union could not organise these temporary migrant workers that they refused to even meet with the union representatives. How wrong they were as the union succeeded in mobilising thousands of overseas student and migrant workers to take collective action in the streets to win a 38% wage increase over 4 years and significant changes in working conditions that still exist today.
So the message for workers to their union leaderships is that they must give their members and potential members the opportunity to struggle. It is not workers who are apathetic and who do not want to struggle. What is missing in some cases is leadership. By telling workers’ stories where they win, wins great or small, it exposes the 'do nothing' supposed leaders who are holding back workers.
Workers telling and spreading their stories is a powerful weapon. "Yes We Can" not "No you can't" should be the only saying that workers hear from leaders.