Is Declining Union Membership Paul Keating's Fault?

In today’s Age, Monash University’s Paul Rodan is kind enough to cite my research:

What was lost was not just a section of the loyal blue-collar ALP voter base, but also some of that unionised workplace environment in which a Labor message could be proselytised. One can also factor in the weakened loyalty of remaining blue-collar voters, who are now dealing with the reality that “their” party did not look after their jobs.

The possible effect of this lost support has been quantified, in an indirect way, by ANU academic Andrew Leigh. His research suggests that if unionisation had remained at pre-Hawke government levels (about 50 per cent), and if unionists had continued to vote ALP in the same historical pattern (about two-thirds), Labor would have won the 1998, 2001 and 2004 elections. From this viewpoint, Labor’s losses are in part due, not to John Howard’s genius, but to his Labor predecessors’ policies. It seems highly likely that this loss of voting base is a factor in Labor’s now regular inability to poll above 40 per cent in primaries.

Whether these policies were good or bad, or even inevitable, is irrelevant to the point being made here: that they came at a cost to Labor’s electoral base. In Yes, Minister terms, that may make them courageous, but it is unlikely that Howard would ever engage in such electoral self-harm.

But could the Hawke and Keating governments really have kept unionisation rates at 50% if they wanted to? In a different paper, I argued last year that four factors explain the collapse in union membership:

  • changes to the laws governing unions (mostly state laws on compulsory union membership),
  • more product market competition,
  • rising inequality, and
  • structural change in the labour market.

As David Peetz has shown, federal policies like the Accord and enterprise bargaining didn’t play a major role in causing union membership to fall. So blaming Paul Keating for declining unionisation seems a mite unfair.

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14 Responses to Is Declining Union Membership Paul Keating's Fault?

  1. Andrew Norton says:

    Andrew – I wasn’t so sure about your inequality explanation (though as a social democrat, I know you have to get it in there somehow:)). It seemed to presuppose that inequality had already risen, despite the presence of high unionisation.

    Also, to what extent are increases in market income inequality driven by structural shifts such the rise of both highly-paid professionals and managers and low-paid service workers who would almost never have ended up in the same union anyway (esp. as professionals and managers have always been very lightly unionised outside the public sector)?

    So that there is still a reasonable amount of wage compression in the occupations where unionisation might have some rationale?

  2. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Wouldn’t you want to argue that declining union membership contributed to social inequality? and not vice versa? (I don’t think it did, but I’m surprised there’d be any relationship in either direction).

  3. Andrew Leigh says:

    The inequality-deunionisation relationship could indeed go either way (as I acknowledged in the piece). Here’s the inequality-leads-to-deunionisation theory.

  4. crocodile says:

    The fact that non union members automatically receive the award conditions that unions have campaigned for in the name of their members, would, I think be one of the major causes of declining membership.

    After all, if you receive the benefits anyway, what reason does one have to become a member.

  5. pre-dawn leftist says:

    I guess in a way, unions and their members have been a victim of their own success. They campaigned long and hard for improvements in wages and conditions and eventually won. Things have been relatively good for a couple of generations of workers now, so the collective memory of what things used to be like has gone. Hence, to echo crocodiles point, people dont think they need to be in a union because they’ve never known what it was like before we had them.

    I guess Howard is right about one thing – we should teach more history, particularly the history of the workplace!

  6. Corin says:

    Andrew – wasn’t the Rodan thesis broadly that the change in the nature of jobs (rise of services), competitiveness being globally measured, as well as the exit of many older males from the workforce, and numbers of women entering part-time and full-time employment has changed the prospect of union favourability. Also that the nature of service jobs lends to more transient jobs as they are not protected by industrial tariffs.

    On that front he seems about right: except that he is arguing from a position that we could have continued with 1982 like tariffs. That part was bizarre. It sounded like a political economics thesis as opposed to a real public debate about the best set of policies. Perhaps I am simply one of those people who thinks history inevitably was pushing for lower tariffs in the 1980’s: in Rodan’s eyes I’ve fallen for the Paul Kelly view of history.

    I’m reading: Beilharz, P. Transforming Labor. Tradition and the Labor Decade in Australia, Cambridge: CUP, 1994.

    This is lively and similar to Rodan – in my view it’s stranger than fiction – but hey – we’re still out of power so may be they are right.

  7. Andrew Norton says:

    “Also that the nature of service jobs lends to more transient jobs as they are not protected by industrial tariffs.”

    Since most service jobs have no import competition at all tariffs are surely irrelevant to the point; if they are transient it is due to the nature of the workforce and the seasonal or cyclical nature of some service industries.

  8. I have a suggestion for a different theory to explain declining union membership.

    I understand that boys don’t like to play with the girls. The girls don’t mind but the boys prefer to play with boys. Any boy who does play with the girls will be ostracised by other boys. Whether it’s nature or nurture I don’t suppose anyone knows. It does sound rather Australian.

    So the theory is that as women moved into unions, men moved out. For membership to decline, more men must move out than women move in but presumably that’s the case.

    That females could move in would have come about because of feminisation of the workplace. The boys have escaped the girls by going out on their own as independent contractors. Now if female independent contractors are in their right proportion, the theory is not a goer.

    Another reason females could rise to prominence would be because it became acceptable for union leadership not be workers. This started a good generation ago when a very prominent leader arose who wouldn’t have known a spanner from a hammer. Instead he was a lawyer and a Rhodes scholar.

    Just a theory.

  9. Russell Hamilton says:

    A couple of thoughts: that unions lost support because they didn’t want to really take on Labor governments – because the same people were at the top of both the ALP and the unions. With all the state governments being Labor, that still applies.

    That the public sector unions at least, adopted an organising model where workers at the workplace had to more or less do their own organising: once we had an ‘organiser’ from the union who would at least occasionally do ‘a walk-through’, but with the new model the union staff only staffed a telephone service and never appeared at the workplace. I was the workplace union delegate for years and it was quite a dispiriting experience – union staff were even less creative than my comrades in the workplace!

  10. taust says:

    Given that over the time that unions have existed;
    the tradeable productivity of a human being has risen to give sustainable wages;
    the politics of the unions became evermore focussed on victim groups;
    why would the majority of people continue to incurr the costs of union membership?

  11. Russell Hamilton says:

    taust – well in my case, I hope that they will exert pressure to gain better conditions, eg paid maternity leave wouldn’t be of benefit to just a victim group – unless parents can be counted as such (a rod for their own backs!)

  12. taust says:

    maternity leave is a good example. Under unionised collective bargaining maternity leave for a few is gained aat the expense of lower wages for the majority.
    Why should I pay union dues for this outcome.
    I raised a family without maternity or paternity leave albeit without a two incomes.

  13. Russell Hamilton says:


    Paid maternity leave is a whole other issue – but just about every civilised country has it, and it doesn’t just affect ‘a few’.

    “Why should I pay union dues for this outcome” – well, that’s a good point: my union pushes for some things I consider will be detrimental in the long run, but overall there is a strength in numbers that individuals don’t have, and I like to keep a range of institutions that have some power in society, and there aren’t that many of them on the ‘left’.

  14. Sacha says:

    Russel – I like your point about power being spread out…

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