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  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.”
“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.