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The future of work: Unions be ready

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Throughout Australian history, unions have assisted workers such as with the Eight-Hour Day March, circa 1900 (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Unions are struggling to retain memberships while the workplace environment adapts to future technology.

OVER THE PAST WEEK, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has requested changes to Australian Industrial Relations laws. He has tasked Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations Christian Porter to find a way to increase regulation and force deregistration and leadership change, to eliminate what the Prime Minister refers to as militant Australian unions.

The unions have remained areas of contention for LNP Governments. One suggested mechanism for change has been the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill 2017, which was first tabled and opposed in the Australian Parliament in 2017. The Bill proposes introducing regulatory constraints on unions and includes Government powers to force union deregistration and leadership change. 

The Trade Union movement has evolved slowly in Australia since British settlement in the 1800s. A Royal Commission report which is mentioned again below provides excellent background of unions in Australia. In summary, it was a criminal offence according to English law for combinations of workmen to organise for any purpose relating to their employment until 1825. The Combinations of Workmen Act 1825 legalised agreements between workmen about wages and working hours, however interference and intimidation, including strikes, remained criminalised. There was a large amount of corruption and industrial violence during the gold rush times in Australia.

By 1871, it was possible for trade unions to be legally registered. The Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904 established a Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration which lasted for over 80 years. Eventually, it was replaced by the Industrial Relations Act 1988 (Labor), the Workplace Relations Act 1996 (Labor), WorkChoices Act 2006 (LNP) and then the Fair Work Act 2009 (Labor). These changes included removal of state-based laws, a shift to bargaining at the workplace and enterprise level, which resulted in a shift to enterprise bargaining from compulsory industrial arbitration, introduction of director-like statutory duties for union officials and rules regarding registration, elections for office and accounting duties. In 1927, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) formed as a peak body for Australian unions.

ABS statistics indicate that union membership has decreased over the past 20 years. During the period from 1998 to 2018, union membership decreased from approximately 2.0 million members and 24% of the workforce to 1.6 million members and 15% of the workforce. Median women’s full-time wages when compared to men have grown from $465:$695 in 2008 to $1,229:$1,400 in 2018. A substantial gender pay gap remains which needs to be rectified. In one sector, the median hourly earnings for women and men differed by $37:$47 in 2018.

ABS also indicated in 2018 that union membership includes large numbers of women who are over 40 and working full time. These middle age women also featured in a recent Homelessness Australia evaluation of Census 2016 figures. These figures indicate that there has been a 28% increase in Australian women aged over 55 who are experiencing homelessness. Of the 116,427 people in Australia who are homeless, 58% are male and 42% are women according to the Census 2016 figures. Generally, middle-age women have less superannuation saved and a high risk of unemployment.

Unions remain relevant, trusted by their members, have a large amount of responsibility and manage large amounts of funds. They represent many people who could otherwise be considered as vulnerable in terms of job security, gender discrimination, training opportunities and wage growth.

In 2013, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the LNP Government were elected with an election commitment to investigate alleged union corruption. The Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption was established on 13 March 2014 and a final report was provided to the Governor-General of Australia on 28 December 2015. Despite being controversial and causing a significant amount of disruption deemed necessary by some people, this offered a potential fresh start for unions in Australia who were being accused of corruption.

Subsequent to the Royal Commission, the opportunity for this potential new start for the unions has been impacted by current business affairs, political instability and allegations of wrongdoing. The CFMEU has been the predominant subject of controversy regarding wrongdoing and political pressure has remained constant. Unions experienced a major policy loss in 2017 when, after considerable opposition, penalty rates were removed, decreasing pay rates for workers on weekends and weekday evenings and substantially impacting younger people and casual workers. Ongoing changes continue to be implemented as the new legislation is phased across specific industry sector from 1 November 2018 to 1 July 2020 according to Fair Work Australia. 

The unions have continued to campaign for change for workers. Sally McManus, the Secretary of ACTU, the peak body for unions, is the spokesperson for a current major Change the Rules campaign launched in April 2017. It is a similar campaign in size to the Know Your Rights at Work campaign launched in 2007, which coincided with the removal of the LNP Howard Government. According to the campaign web site, the campaign, which aims to impact pay rates, wage growth, women’s rights and education for the next generation of workers, remains ongoing.

Education is particularly an issue which will grow in focus and impact union members over the next five years. Substantial effort and continual monitoring of changes by union leaders will be required to ensure their large group of members are prepared for future change. The 1.6 million members forming 15% of the surveyed workforce of 10.5 million employees recorded in ABS 2018 statistics included approximately 30% of employees in the education and training sector, public administration and safety sector and electricity, gas, water and waste services sector. It is highly likely members will be impacted by AI-driven automation. As mentioned above, now is the time for unions to be considering education, planning and strategy for the future.

AI-driven automation has been topical for some time now, however, the timetable for change remains reasonably fluid. China has announced ambitious plans to become an AI leader by 2030. America has also been ambitious, announcing international plans to grow AI capability and technology leadership. Recently, The Financial Review reported that businesses and employees in Australia were underprepared for AI-driven automation.

Internationally, businesses are reacting to change and preparing for the future. Reports prepared by the Executive Office of the President during the Obama Administration provide an indication of early planning conducted for the workforce in America. The report titled Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy, which was released in December 2016, lists two of three strategy recommendations relevant for the American workforce: Strategy 2 of 3: Educate and Train Americans for Jobs of the Future and Strategy 3 of 3: Aid Workers in the Transition and Empower Workers to Ensure Broadly Shared Growth. The United Kingdom and Canada have also announced strategies to grow artificial intelligence capability and prepare their citizens for future AI-driven automation and change. Europe has been preparing AI standards and planning.

It is an important time for unions to consider the impact of AI-driven automation for their members and consider policy responses and planning for the future. Their role is going to be crucial to ensure workers have adequate skills assessment, high-quality education and training plans in place, can transition to new jobs well if necessary and benefit from AI-driven automation. Unions also have ongoing campaigns and existing workforce difficulties to consider.

Current difficulties could provide an opportunity for change if managed well. Unions could maintain, select and prepare organisational structures and leadership, reconsider their policy positions and ensure they are well-prepared and ready to take their members on a journey to the future of work.


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