Union numbers continue to fall but OHS influence should not

Statistics released in Australia this week show a continuing decline in trade union membership.  This has generated some reaction from the union movement but also some suggestions for the future.  Trade unions are an integral element of occupational health and safety (OHS) policy setting.

Whether the union movement should continue to be part of the tripartite consultative structure on OHS is debatable given it can no longer claim to represent Australian workers based on the recent numbers.  However it can continue to claim it represents the OHS interests of workers even though the majority of workers seem uninterested.

This is not a new phenomenon as an ABC Australia report in 2005 showed:

“The latest [2005] survey from the Bureau of Statistics shows a particularly dramatic loss of membership in the mining industry – once a union heartland – with the rate of unionism falling by nearly 50 per cent in one year.”

Journalist, Guy Rundle in the Crikey newsletter for 30 October 2015 (paywalled) looked at the continuing decline and included the following as one of his suggestions to the union movement:

“The movement needs to get smarter, a lot smarter, about understanding the process of social and cultural change we’re undergoing. It needs to junk the de facto economism that guides its understanding of workplace relations, and connect with some heavy sociology and social theory, to understand how the process of social change is happening at every social level, including individual face-to-face relations, and in the subject form and psychology of the worker himself. …….”

OHS is rife for this approach but the union movement either needs to unlock OHS from its industrial relations agenda or explain and emphasise this interconnectedness as one of the strengths of the trade union approach in OHS.  At the moment the Australian trade union movement seems uncertain on how to approach OHS or on which industrial areas to focus.

Regardless of the merits of the continuing Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption or the decline of the manufacturing sector and the corresponding growth in the services sector, the role, community perception and numerical influence of the Australian trade union movement need reassessment.  Workplace safety would not be a bad place to start.

Kevin Jones

Categories health and safety representatives, industrial relations, OHS, politics, risk, safety, union, workplace

2 thoughts on “Union numbers continue to fall but OHS influence should not”

  1. I have always found it curious that the regulators are required to consult in a tripartite manner which obviously involves big unions. Fine, but who speaks up for the growing number of workers who see no benefit in being in a union? How will the regulator engage with them in the future? So far it seems to be a problem left to clever social marketers.

    Unions often say non-affiliated workers in non-unionised workplaces can thank them for hard-won working conditions and a decent living wage. Does that message resonate in the 21st century when the sometime violent struggles for fair pay and conditions are now something you now need to google to find out, but you are probably distracted by cat videos?

    It will be interesting to see how the next generation of labour leaders respond to the challenge of relevance, and to be frank, an expectation of value for money.

  2. Any source of positive contribution should be welcomed into the OHS space, however the Unions should no longer sit at the tripartite table, and not just for reason of declining numbers.
    Safety is between Government (Regulator), the Employer and the Employee. Each has a unique duty of care indivisible from the other.
    The Government has the duty of care to make the laws which set out the safety landscape within the workplace, and further have the absolute duty of care to enforce this legislation vigorously (DMP in WA take note!)
    The Employer has the absolute duty of care to provide the training and means of systems to deliver as safe a workplace as is practicable, as well as the management and supervision to give the systems positive effect.
    The Employee or Worker has the absolute duty of care to abide by the Employer’s systems, obey the Employers policies and instructions, and conduct themselves in a manner which is safe to themselves and others.
    Why does anyone need the Unions in this equation?

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