The problem with ‘Join your union’

The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working day as long as possible … and the worker maintains his right as a seller when he wished to reduce the working day to a particular normal length. There is here therefore an antinomy, or right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides.
– Karl Marx

After the Fair Work Commission’s decision in February to cut Sunday penalty rates for hospitality and retail workers, it was virtually impossible to scroll through Facebook without seeing a post urging angry workers to join their union. Union membership was presented as the means to resist not only the Commission’s decision, but all of the industrial woes of our time. In a way, this response was understandable. After all, unions have fought for and won every protection and entitlement that we enjoy today.

Our purpose is not to minimise the historical importance of the Australian union movement – we have been union members for our whole working lives precisely because we appreciate this importance. However, there is a striking dissonance between the portrait of union power painted by our Facebook feeds, and the material reality: declining rates of union membership (now about fifteen per cent of the Australian workforce, down from forty six per cent in 1986) and the evident inability of unions to address record-low wage growth and the increasing casualisation of the workforce. Why, when unions once wielded such strength, are they today virtually powerless to resist the erosion of rights and conditions, including penalty rates?

The Commission’s decision, far from surprising, can be seen as a key marker in a long process through which the industrial arm of the labour movement has been subordinated to its increasingly detached political arm, the Labor Party.

This process began in 1983 when the Hawke Labor Government, seeking to respond to the economic crisis of the 1970s – a crisis partially produced by organised labour’s ability to win wage increases above and beyond increases in productivity –  struck a deal with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) to implement the Accord. The ACTU agreed to restrict industrial action and wage demands, and in exchange the government agreed to limit inflation and improve the social wage. However, many of the promised social wage improvements failed to materialise, and instead the ACTU and Labor ushered in a legal architecture that fundamentally undermined trade unions’ industrial and social power. The Accord precipitated a rapid collapse in real wages and trade union membership, and a steady increase in income inequality.

Elements of this legal architecture include:

  • A shift to negotiating agreements at the level of the organisation, with wage increases linked to the productivity of individual businesses;
  • The illegality of strikes outside of strictly defined enterprise bargaining periods. Within these periods, strike action must be approved by the Commission, voted on by secret ballot and assessed against a strict set of criteria, and workers cannot be paid during strikes;
  • The inability of workers to strike on matters not directly related to their particular enterprise agreement; and
  • The illegality of strikes in solidarity with other workers.

The ACTU and Labor attacked unions that resisted the Accord. Labor deregistered the Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) in 1986 in response to the BLF’s campaign for a pay rise and better conditions, which Labor believed threatened the Accord. In 1989, the Hawke government assisted in hiring in scab labour to break the Australian Federation of Air Pilots’ strike, which began in response to prolonged wage suppression precipitated by the Accord.

The Fair Work Act (2009) reinforced this architecture and did little to improve conditions in the post-Work Choices era. By allowing the Commission to determine conditions based on legal criteria, the Act’s modern award system separated the determination of Awards from industrial struggle. The cut to penalty rates is a direct result of this system.

It’s arguably one of Australian history’s more perverse quirks that the legal architecture effectively hobbling union power was implemented by the Labor Party, with the support of most unions themselves. However, this is, in fact, crucial – the social weight carried by union endorsement of the legislation meant that it was accepted without much serious resistance. Unions’ relationship with the Labor Party meant that Australia’s organised labour movement signed its own death warrant – and kept coming back to sign it again.

Legislation itself doesn’t necessarily render unions helpless – after all, Australian trade unions have organised strikes in hostile legal environments. However, this history does highlight a major tactical shift by unions in the 1980s, whereby workers’ conditions were almost always subordinated to Labor’s electoral success.

Aside from representing individual members in disputes, the industrial (as opposed to political) role of unions has largely been reduced to conducting Enterprise Bargaining negotiations in which ambitions are framed almost solely around the imperative not to go backwards. Without these actions, many people would be worse off. However, they hardly represent the realisation of organised labour’s potential.

In tandem, unions have pivoted toward an overwhelming reliance on state institutions like the Commission or ‘friendly’ Labor governments to improve conditions, no longer able (with some rare exceptions) to deploy real industrial power. For instance, the ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign was ultimately reduced to an electoral tactic – the Fair Work Act was the result.  The penalty rates decision represents another predictable defeat of this strategy. By willingly subverting industrial muscle to legal processes – processes fetishised to the extent that Labor initially refused to campaign on protecting penalty rates, instead parroting the apparent virtues of the ‘independent umpire’ – the union movement forfeited its once immense power.

These failures do not, however, detract from the importance of unionism. Collective organising is needed now more than ever – but the most exciting trails are being blazed by grassroots organisations unconnected to formal unions. When UK meal delivery service Deliveroo tried to slash pay rates, the couriers self-organised a strike. Their union, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, itself founded recently by former members of two older unions, only got involved after worker-led protests had already begun. Their success (Deliveroo rapidly backed down) demonstrates the possibilities that emerge when workers’ organisations are not tied to political parties or established interests. New unions are also being started by workers dissatisfied with their current representation – for instance, the Retail and Fast Food Workers’ Union has recently formed in response to the systemic failures of the SDA.

In a sense, we agree with those who stress the importance of joining a union. Everyone should be a union member, because unionism represents the chance to fight back against the notion that we are all disconnected individuals with no collective interests and no collective power. However, simply joining a union is today not enough to ensure positive change. Members must keep unions accountable by lobbying for party disaffiliation; self-organising when union leadership fails or hesitates; and remembering that we joined to organise in our own interests, not the interests of the union executive or the Labor Party. When those interests diverge, we should not be afraid to name the divergence, and to resist it.

In the fight between capital and labour, force does indeed decide. The political class’s mantra that a rising tide lifts all boats is proving false in an environment where organised labour has been subordinated to a political sphere with little interest in reconstituting a powerful workers’ movement. Company profits surge while wages fall.

Unionism represents a chance for workers to hold power, but it’s unlikely to be realised as long as party affiliation continues. Our response to attacks on workers’ rights should not be ‘Join your union’ but rather, ‘Join your union – then fight to change it for the better’.


Image: Complex Business / vintageclothing

Max Chandler-Mather

Max Chandler-Mather is the Greens candidate for Griffith. He was previously an organiser for the National Tertiary Education Union, state strategist for the most recent Queensland Greens state election and the manager of Jonathan Sri's The Gabba Ward campaign.

Joanna Horton

Joanna Horton is a writer living in Brisbane, Australia. Her work has appeared in Overland, The Millions, and The Toast, among other places.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

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  1. Thank you.
    You outlined my experience perfectly.

    To those who say: “If you don’t like it. Join the ALP and be the change maker” I reply: “Been there done that”.

    I encountered the branch structure of the ALP, and participated as a secretary for 7 years. I learnt from the experience that ALP branches are set up to serve themselves and provide busy work for the more zealous members. They are useless and ineffective at changing policy. if you don’t like the way the party is headed you can propose a motion and send it to the relevant minister/shadow minister and to the State Electoral and Federal Electorate Council which due to meeting timing means it goes nowhere for months. At best, you’ll get a lack lustre response.

    If you want to criticise or question any decision or policy you are hamstrung by rules and subject to the threat of discipline / expulsion for disregarding party unity and acting against the interests of solidarity.

    The positions that matter are highly prized and cloistered. An ordinary branch member can forget about any aspirations of making a difference or having their opinion heard.

    Some unions in Australia should be pilloried for what they have done to workers AWU, SDA etc.

    I first joined the union in 1983, and was a proud PKIU member.

    Australian unions are not what they used to be. Workers lost when the “suits” took over. Workers rarely attend chapel meetings these days. Negotiations occur off site with workers kept at arms length and it is to their detriment.

    The people presently running the ACTU and in senior positions at unions do not represent the hardworking unionists whose cause they have hijacked.

    Slush funds, re-election funds …. It is anything but democratic.

    The ALP needs to get the hell away from unions, they have been tainted and infiltrated by political elites.

    They can’t have it both ways. Their bums are out of place, and it goes against everything the true believers fought for, yet they insist on sitting in business class seats and looking down on the plebs they are fleecing.

    1. I mean, this article seems to suppose that the pre-1980s union movement was a golden age – but unions have been affiliated to the ALP for over 100 years, and prior to the Accord striking at any time was a sackable offence. I certainly don’t think the strategies adopted by some ALP affiliates are ideal, but I’d prefer an appeal to past glory days to address the reality that unions have always had to fight to defend their legitimacy.

  2. I was speaking to a worker the other day who was working on a site where the union insisted workers strike because THE COKE MACHINE WAS NOT FULL. This man will not work on union sites at all now. Some of the fault of the demise of union membership (and therefore power) must rest with the unions themselves.

  3. Many of the worst aspects of Howard’s
    Workchoices were directly drawn from The 1989 pilots dispute.
    The Hawke government in concert with the Kelty dominated ACTU directly endorsed and indeed participated in the drafting of ” individual contracts” which among other things made it a condition precedent that pilots rejected their union.
    Hawke and Kelty could not tolerate a union which was truly independent and which had on many occasions rejected overtures to become part of the ACTU/Labor club.
    Labor has always been opposed to truly independent unions.

  4. “After all, unions have fought for and won every protection and entitlement that we enjoy today.”

    Let’s not forget also that it was a Labor government that introduced ‘enterprise bargaining’, which amounted to having to sell off those protections and entitlements in return for wage increases.

    In the industrial equivalent of selling the family jewels, workers were obliged to front the negotiating table with a willingness to forego existing conditions and entitlements under the guise of ‘productivity improvements’ to secure wage increases.

    Employers were (and are) simply not interested in negotiating unless workers have something to sell to them.

    Unions supported all this because unions are pathways for ambitious union officials into political office with the ALP. No union will rock the boat if it’s going to embarrass the ALP, and their executives’ chances of pre-selection.

    In case you’re wondering, i am a union member, and have been for all of my working life.

  5. Thanks for raising important questions about the future of unionism. But your article fails to address important aspects of the failure of the ALP-led ACTU. Firstly, the ‘Accord’ was actually called the ‘Prices and Incomes Accord.’ While ‘the accord’ restricted wage rises in exchange for medicare, social security and family allowances, it did not restrict price rises driven by increases in interest rates and therefor housing affordability, increasing cost of electricity and gas, increasing rates – all important in the household budgets.

    Trade-offs of conditions were made prior to the Prices and Incomes Accord after Labor’s win in 1983. My union the Australian Clerical Officers Association(ACOA), one of the largest unions, was not affiliated with the Labor Party when the ACTU and Hawke government signed ‘the Accord’. In 1982, ALP’s shadow industrial relations minister, Ralph Willis, told a mass meeting of commonwealth public servants in the old Festival Hall in Brsbane that our union should not expect anything from a Labor government if it won the 1983 Federal election.

    Willis lived up to his promise. More than the Accord the real killer of union power were the laws banning secondary boycotts introduced by the Fraser government under pressure from the National Farmers Federation (NFF) originally intended to stop pickets at wharves in solidarity with meatworkers who opposed live export of cattle and sheep.

    It was the failure of the Hawke labor government to repeal these laws (s45D&E of the Trade Practices Act) that led to millions of dollars in fines against the Meatworkers Union, thus crippling that union and many other attempts at sympathy strikes. This led to ‘the Cobar option where employers were able to sack whole workforces without solidarity strikes by other workers – the 1002 SEQEB workers in 1985, the Cobar miners, Dollar Sweets workers, Miners at Robe River and the biggest of all: the sacking of by Patricks Stevedores of its workforce in 1998 MUA dispute.

    The failure of unions and political parties (including the Australian Democrats and later, the Greens) to campaign effectively for repeal of secondary boycotts laws reduced the ability of workers to strike in solidarity and led to legal tactics like the High Court challenge to the sacking of wharfies in 1998.

    The Seamen’s Union and the Waterside Workers Federation had spent over 100 years taking industrial action in support of other workers to raise wages and conditions across the board only to find themselves pole-axed by anti-secondary boycott laws. My union supported the wharfies but did not strike. It was the same with other unions.

    It is too little, too late for ACTU leader Sally McManus to claim we should break unjust laws. Especially when the ACTU’s only strategy in support of Carlton United Bewery workers last year was to ask only that we boycott buying their beer at events like the Melbourne Cup and footy grand finals. How pathetic, especially when they knew from experience that CUB would sack their workforce like many employers had done before.

    I add these comments in a constructive way and not to belittle the important critique offered by the authors of “The problem with ‘Join your union’” I think it is important to go to union meetings, to challenge affiliation with the ALP, to organise at the grassroots but where is the political organisation of the Left that can do that. And don’t tell workers that it is the Greens who lack the ability to draw working class people into their own organization let alone organise in unions.

    I agree that unions should not be affiliated with any political party, and that unions should organise in their members interests but that has to be part of solidarity across workplaces, across industries, across countries and internationally.

    Workers of all countries Unite!

  6. I would like to amend my comment above. I do not wish to single out any one political party or organisation. My comment should read:

    “And don’t tell workers that there are political parties on the Left that can do this. Especially when such political parties lack the ability to draw working class people into their own organizations let alone organise in unions.”

  7. I think it is important to go to union meetings, to challenge the power of the boss, to organise at the grassroots and to challenge affiliation with political parties. But where is the political organisation of the Left that can do that? We should not pretend that there are socialist or organisations on the Left that can do this. Especially when such parties and organisations lack the ability to draw working class people into their own organizations, let alone to organise inside unions. See “What workers face” at

  8. Max, as a casual union growth organiser for the NTEU your lack of solidarity is just really disappointing. I hope you disclose your being a Greens staffer more transparently in future.

  9. Nadia, while I commend the NTEU for the good work they do, I am a little surprised considering the field you work in at your uncritical view that unions are above criticism and reform. BTW, Max’s declaration at the end of the original article could not be described as “untransparent”.

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