The other day I had conversations with two people who made interesting observations about the current low level of private sector union membership. The conversations followed statistics released a couple of months ago by the Bureau of Statistics about union membership levels in Australia.
The Bureau found that private sector union membership levels were hovering at or just below 10% of the workforce.
One of the people I was talking to said that union membership may have lost its social license as over the period 1970 to present day it had fallen from a high of approximately 60% of all private sector workers to the current 10%. The other person commented that while union membership in the private sector was at a post-World War 2 low, the number of members in some professions such as nursing, education and public sector health was still very high by comparison. He added that apart from the peak period of mass manufacturing in Australia from the 1950s to the 1980s, high union membership density has been most sustainable in the trades or trade equivalent occupations and the public sector.
So does this matter from the perspective of building a worker-led movement for Australian independence and socialism?
I think it matters a great deal as it is from the collective struggles of workers in private for-profit sector industries that working class leaders have arisen and from whom the working class leadership in vanguard parties in Australia and other capitalist countries have arisen.
Progressive intellectuals in vanguard parties have and will continue to play an important role but without mass organisations which are "schools of the working class", progressive intellectuals will remain isolated and not be able to be given practical direction by working class leaders who arise from the collective struggles they experience in their workplaces and communities.
That is why it is so encouraging to see many young workers taking leading roles in the workers’ current struggles such as against cuts to weekend rates of pay, sham contracting and insecure employment through labour hire. At the moment, these young workers are still in the minority in sectors of the economy such as hospitality, retail, small scale construction sites, and warehousing. However, their numbers are growing and the deteriorating conditions of life for young workers in these sectors will give rise to a resurgence in collectivism in these sectors of the economy.
The only question is whether the organisational form of their struggles follows previous generations of orthodox trade unions or whether it takes on new forms of mass organisation.
Only time will tell. The orthodox capitalist industrial relations system is broken as the system grants fewer and fewer concessions to workers. Union members under the unFair Work Act can see this, so can the ACTU and ALP leaders. The latter may preach that the answer is to turn back time to the old system of a 'better balance' between employers and unions and more regulation on things like labour hire and casualisation. However, this agenda is more about control of struggle and channelling it into predictable forms and outcomes.
Young people are unlikely to be attracted to this and have the opportunity to defend and advance their interests in new ways that previous generations have never been able to do. In particular, they can aim to develop collective organisation in the vast services sectors of the economy.
The future is bright for young workers!