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An important measure of union effectiveness is union membership density.  Australian union membership has suffered a profound decline falling from fifty-one percent of the workforce in 1976 to the current level of thirteen percent!  In 1990 Australian union membership density was forty-five percent of the workforce so that the 1990s was the period during which union membership fell sharply.  The cause of this phenomenon should be identified.

The major cause of Australian union membership decline in the 1990s was union amalgamation.   The implementation of the union amalgamation policy in this time was a profoundly de-unionising process.  This occurred because too many rank and file union members refused to join the new industry unions as they had previously identified with their employment craft upon which their union membership had been based to that time.

It is therefore somewhat distressing that the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) supported an application made in July 2021 to the federal Fair Work industrial relations tribunal submitted by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) to prevent its mining section from leaving this conglomerate union.  A sinister dimension of this specific ACTU representation was its opposition to union members of the CFMEU’s mining division conducting a secret ballot on disamalgamation! 

The concept of a secret ballot is a cornerstone of the democratic process. It was introduced to prevent discrimination against voters who may have defied the wishes of other interests in a voting contest.

The ACTU seems to hold the view that there should be no secret voting at least on this occasion. Is this because the ACTU’s senior leadership believe that there is no danger of discrimination / retribution against those who vote against the interests of the CFMEU central body?

The record of the CFMEU in dealing with disputes of any kind does not fill one with confidence that retribution would not occur to those who disagree with the motion of the mining section to utilise the coalition government’s legislation to enable this section’s disamalgamation from the major amalgamated union of which they are currently a part.

Maybe it is in order to frustrate this legislation, that the CFMEU is willing to utilise extreme pressure tactics to achieve their aim of frustrating disamalgamation by ensuring that secret balloting does not occur.

Does the ACTU’s senior leadership not realize that union democracy is at the heart of Australian unionism?  Should the ACTU’s leadership succeed in helping frustrate members of the CFMEU’s mining division from disamalgamation then the ramifications for Australian unionism may well be dire!  Thousands of rank-and-file members of the CFMEU’s mining division might become alienated from the union movement if their collective will is undermined by the ACTU’s active opposition to union disamalgamation. 

The ACTU, instead of trying heavy-handedly to frustrate union disamalgamation, should whole heartedly be supporting the process!  The re-formation of smaller craft-based unions offers the potential for Australian union renewal.  This is because craft-based unions tend to be smaller so that they are consequently more democratically responsive to rank and file needs, such as representation of interests.

Therefore, while the size of Australian union organisations may shrink in the short term, in net terms Australian union membership stands to eventually regain ground because new craft-based unions will be more able (for the above cited reasons) to reach out to attract currently non-unionised employees to join the union movement. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                       The Organising Union Model

For the fact of the matter is that the ACTU to date has ignominiously failed to reverse the de-unionising ramifications of the union amalgamation policy of the 1990s.  The ACTU’s strategic response to the low membership crisis has been to promote since the mid-1990s the organising union model (the organising model).  The organising model was originally an American approach to workplace organising which was formulated in the 1990s as a strategic response to a similar crisis in the United States.

The organising model seeks to engineer rank and file support for union organising at a grass-roots workplace level.  This model envisages that paid union officials (such as union organisers) will ultimately recede from undertaking the bulk organising tasks to instead fulfil a supportive role as they liaise with rank and file elected workplace delegates, who will have the main responsibility for sustaining workplace union activity.   

A major challenge with regard to the organising model’s objective of facilitating Australian union effectiveness it that it is often too difficult for mega unions to generate support at a grass-roots level because they are too bureaucratic and consequently aloof from their membership because of their large size.  This would not be the case with smaller craft-based trade unions who could engage with their members to form an industrial community that would create an affinity with a trade union which is based upon their employment craft.

Whatever, the Morrison government’s motivations were in introducing legislation which facilitates union disamalgamation, the opportunity is still there for the Australian union movement to return to the pre-1990s craft- based model of trade unionism which had previously served Australian employees, and the union movement itself, so well.  Therefore, if the ACTU successfully opposes this disamalgamation bid (which probably has rank and file support) by the mining section of the CFMEU then this peak union body could find itself eventually becoming a collection of chiefs with no Indians. 

 David Bennett, the author of this article, was previously a National Industrial Officer with the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) and was awarded a PhD on the topic of The Organising Union Model and the Australian Union Movement. 



Yes to Enterprise Bargaining

The unexpected victory of the Morrison government in the May 2019 election is a positive development to the extent that Australia has been spared an Australian Labor Party (ALP) federal government led by Bill Shorten.  Such a government probably would have been arrogant and unresponsive, similar to the Hawke and Keating economic rationalist governments of the 1980s and 1990s.  That the Hawke/Keating governments survived was due to their coalition opponents being more extreme than the ALP.  John Howard however successfully tapped into the widespread dissatisfaction with Labor’s economic rationalism so that the coalition won the 1996 federal election. 

Nevertheless, the Howard/Costello governments (1996 to 2007) continued on with the economic rationalist policies of the Hawke/Keating era but were more successful due to the mining boom.  This bi-partisan endurance of economic rationalism can be traced to the break which commenced with the election of the Whitlam federal Labor government in December 1972 as it sought to upend the legacy of the great Alfred Deakin who served as Australian prime minister in the 1900s.

The cornerstone of the Deakin legacy was arbitration which enabled trade unions to effectively represent their members by utilizing the institutional supports of the industrial relations commission (the Commission) following the passage of the landmark Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904 (the 1904 Act).  The 1904 Act enabled many relatively small craft based trade unions to be viable with Australia becoming one of the most unionised nations in the free world so that by 1976, 51% of employees belonged to a trade union!  Despite this tremendous success, a left-wing neo-Marxist critique of Australian trade unionism developed which was called the ‘Howard Dependency Syndrome’.  This critique falsely maintained that Australian trade unions became too dependent upon arbitral supports so that they were co-opted into an employment relations system which ultimately served the interests of employers (‘the bosses’). Ironically it was under the Hawke government that the very successful Deakinite industrial relations system began to be undermined with the passage of the Industrial Relations Act 1988 (the 1988 Act) which regrettably superceded the 1904 Act.  The cornerstone of the 1988 Act was the facilitation of trade union amalgamation. 

The left of the trade union movement and of the ALP accepted the economic reforms of the Hawke-Keating government in return for the introduction of trade union amalgamation and of compulsory superannuation in which many of the funds were controlled by trade unions.  The left-wing rationale behind union amalgamation was unions should exist on an industry basis as opposed to a craft basis so that there would be a concentration of resources so as to collectively advance working class power.

The reality of trade union amalgamation was that it facilitated a profoundly de-unionising process in which Australian union membership now stands at 14% of the workforce!  The reason for this abysmal state of affairs is that employees lost their sense of identity in belonging to their craft based trade union.  Consequently,  too many employees decided to opt out of trade unions.  Trade union amalgamation has also led to a situation of union oligarchy in which unions have become massive unaccountable bureaucracies.

It is therefore wrong for the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) secretary Sally Mc Manus to call for there to be a ‘change the rules’ campaign for Australian employees to gain a better deal from the current industrial relations system when it is the structure of Australian trade unionism which is flawed and thereby contributing to contemporary union ineffectiveness.  The current award system cannot be changed to the extent to lift the general level of wages because awards still essentially fulfil a safety net function.

Instead for there to be union renewal and union effectiveness the Australian union movement needs to embrace enterprise bargaining.  This is a process (which was originally introduced under the 1988 Act) where pay and conditions are determined at a workplace level as a result of negotiations between employers and unions/employee representatives.  The consequent enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA) is then ratified or rejected by the workplace employees and if approved is submitted to the Fair Work Australia Commission for certification on the basis that the pay and conditions do not fall below the award safety net. 

The potential benefits of enterprise bargaining from a union perspective are immense.  This is because enterprise bargaining provides both a strategic and practical means by which unions can engage their members (or potential members) to negotiate improved wages and conditions for them.  The contemporary mystery is why Australian trade unions are not more proactively engaging in enterprise bargaining.  Currently under 15% of private sector employees in Australia are covered by EBAs.  Unless this situation improves then the viability of Australian trade unionism must be called into question.

The mystery of Australian union ineffectiveness is also apparent in that the ACTU has long being aware of the need for the Australian union movement to embrace an organising strategy. At the 1993 ACTU Congress a motion was passed calling on its constituent members to embrace union organising.  Indeed, a special trade union training programme was authorised by the ACTU called Organising Works which was suppose to endow union officials with the capacity to promote the organising union model (the organising model) among rank and file members, particularly workplace delegates.





Yes to the Organising Union Model

The organising model was originally conceptualized in the United States in the early 1990s whereby union officials devolved union organising tasks at a workplace level to rank and file delegates.  The rationale was that rank and file delegates would assume greater responsibility for organising tasks so that American trade unions could win the right in representation ballots to negotiate on behalf of employees at the applicable workplace. 

The Australian union movement’s official endorsement of the organising model should have led to a union renaissance because this model can be applied to an enterprise bargaining context. Unfortunately, too many Australian unions are not applying the organising model because they are not sufficiently engaging in enterprise bargaining.  One union which is successfully engaging in enterprise bargaining is the Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), the ‘Shoppies’.

The SDA instead of being held up as a beacon of a successful trade union in a context of general union ineffectiveness has instead being lambasted by both by the far left and the neo-liberal right for entering into supposedly dodgy deals with the major retailers.  That some of these EBAs have been overturned by the Fair Work Commission (FWC) for failing the Better Off Overall Test (BOOT) has served as a rousing confirmation of the parody of the SDA as a tame cat bosses’ union. 

However initially flawed, EBAs can always be improved upon so long as the union concerned has a workplace presence.  The SDA, by its application of the organising model has established, and is establishing, workplace delegate structures in order to recruit more employees into their union. Consequently, should there be an EBA in need of improvement, the SDA will by having recruited more members be better positioned to improve future wages and conditions when the next round of enterprise bargaining commences. 

By contrast the hard left of Australian union movement seems to be continuing down the dead-end amalgamation process with the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) and with the Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) amalgamating with the Construction Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) to form a mega-super union. 

It is a tragedy that the TCFUA is amalgamating into the CFMEU because t this will mean that some of Australia’s lowest paid workers will not be effectively represented by such a union colossus.  If the TCFUA was going to amalgamate it should have instead linked up with United Voice which has effectively represented hospitality and cleaning employees by brilliantly applying the organising model is an enterprise bargaining context. 

Unfortunately super union bureaucracies do not reach out into non-union areas but will rather concentrate resources on their current coverage.  In other words enterprise bargaining will not be proactively engaged so as to promote broader future unionisation in non-union workplaces by amalgamated super unions.

Super unions also due to their vast scale fail to be as democratic as craft based unions were.  Nevertheless, the application of the organising model in an enterprise bargaining context offers the potential to renew union democracy in an informal context because workplace delegate structures must be established and utilized as defining components of the organising model. 


Adapt to the Rules


Enterprise bargaining is the means by which unions can ‘change the rules’ in their members favour.  Indeed, the current Fair Work Australia Act (FWA) brought in by Julia Gillard when she was deputy prime minister in 2009 seeks to promote enterprise bargaining.  It is therefore a tremendous pity that Australian trade unions (with the notable exceptions of unions such as the SDA, Transport Workers’ Union and United Voice) are not vigorously applying the organising union model in an enterprise bargaining context. 

For the FWA’s enterprise bargaining orientation to be implemented requires a shift on the part of Australian trade unions to embrace this process so that blights in Australian industrial relations such as high casualization rates for unskilled and semi-skilled labour can be addressed.  For instance, the TCFUA should apply the organising model in an enterprise bargaining context to ensure that their members have guaranteed hours of work and access to available overtime penalty rates after they have been employed for a particular period of time.

Because enterprise bargaining will be the future determinant of Australian union effectiveness, let the trend continue whereby moderate trade unions continue to apply the organising model in an enterprise bargaining context so that this becomes an ideological identifier of a union’s particular approach to union purpose. 

From a broader ideological perspective enterprise bargaining can also be a practical means of facilitating distributionism.  Distributionism is a philosophy which seeks to maximize ownership of the means of production so that there is substantial employee involvement in day to day management.  Perhaps Australia is culturally not socio-economically receptive toward adopting a distributionist system as has occurred in part of the Basque region of Spain.

Nevertheless, enterprise bargaining can be utilized by trade unions to a point where distributionist principles are applied to the extent that employee concerns can be taken into account to a greater degree so as to more greatly affect day to day management decisions.  Alas, due to trade union under-appreciation of enterprise bargaining, too many Human Resource Management (HRM) managers are utilizing enterprise bargaining as a means to control their employees.  This situation could shift should the organising model be applied by unions. 



Yes to Distributionism

The Right of the ALP will therefore hopefully continue to encourage union branches aligned to them not only to apply the organising union model but also to more proactively promote enterprise bargaining which takes into account employee concerns.  While the ALP Right may now have a monopoly on security /defence and foreign affairs issues (even if the current Shadow Foreign Minister comes from the Socialist Left of the party) this should not necessarily mean that the Right surrenders when it comes to socio-economic and industrial relations policies. 

There could be a counter argument from a left-wing perspective that the ALP Right previously dominated Labor’s socio-economic and industrial relations policies.  The retort to that contention is that the ALP Right in these areas of public policy sold out by operating under an economic rationalist paradigm which led to the arrogant neo-liberal governance of the Whitlam and Hawke-Keating eras. 

Now that the federal ALP has its first left-wing leader in the person of Anthony Albanese it is essential that the Right of the party move away from economic rationalism by embracing distributionist principles when it comes to socio-economic public policy.  In essence, Social Action Australia is asking that the ALP return to applying the Deakinite principles which valued labour, instead of continuing to apply economic rationalist policies which are derived from the neo-liberal philosophy of the Free Trade leader, George Reid, who was Alfred Deakin’s arch political rival. 

It can be pointed out by ALP stalwarts that Alfred Deakin was never of the Labor Party and eventually opposed this party following the fusion of his Protectionist Party with the Free Traders in 1909.  However, Alfred Deakin was greatly influenced by John Watson who led Australia’s (and the world’s) first Labor government in 1904.  It was under Watson’s influence that the Deakin passed the landmark 1904 Act which ensured that the Deakinite agenda prevailed over George Reid’s public policy agenda. 

The extent of the ALP’s impact upon the Deakinite legacy was reflected by the 1900’s political joke that the most frequently used phrase of Alfred Deakin was, ‘Yes, Mr. Watson’.  In a similar vein let the contemporary ALP return to its historic roots by shouting an emphatic ‘Yes’! to breaking with economic rationalism! 




Tom Rigg was born in Brunswick in 1932  where he attended the local school, St. Ambroses. As a teenager he obtained a job working for the Victorian Railways, first as a porter, eventually advancing to become a station master.   Because this man was very community orientated all his life he naturally took a keen interest in other people. It was therefore not surprising that he joined the Australian Railways Union (ARU) and the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

As an ALP and an ARU member, Tom became involved in the ALP industrial group which was active in his union fighting against communist infiltration. He was distressed by the ALP Split of 1954-1955 which was driven by the then ALP federal leader H.V. Evatt's maniacal purge of the industrial groups from the Labor Party. As a man of principle, Tom joined the party born out of the Evatt Purge which eventually became known as the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) in 1957.

As an active DLP member Tom often travelled round the state of Victoria to drum up support for his party. On one occasion when soliciting funds for the DLP he told a cattle farmer during a drought that he would save his cows by saying a prayer for them in return for a financial contribution.

By 1978 there was a move to close up the Victorian based DLP and it was Tom as party president who presided over the state conference in which there was a majority vote to close this party. Tom let go of the DLP after this conference vote but he continued to be active in the ARU of which he was made an honorary life member which then entitled to him to a life time free rail pass.

Tom’s interest in history and political affairs continued in his retirement with him writing and publishing books on the ARU industrial group and the communist trade union leader J.J. Brown.

Blessed with a happy marriage to his wife Beryl (who predeceased him by three months), Tom was a dedicated family man who was devoted to his children and his grandchildren. He eventually settled the Melbourne suburb of St. Albans in a home which he had extended and this house was often used to host functions for former political and industrial activists who had ‘fought the good fight’. Because he had such an active life Tom was known to both federal and state politicians, including a former prime minister.

Tom was not only a family man but a loyal friend to many and he took an active interest in local history (among an array of other interests). As such he was a member of the Brunswick Community History Group, the Sunshine and District Historical Society and the St. Albans Historical Society, which he founded.

Vale Tom Rigg!



The current uncertainty concerning the continuity of Tony Abbott’s prime ministership has raised the distinct and welcome possibility of Malcolm Turnbull succeeding him to that high office. Should there be a Turnbull prime ministerial succession then hopefully the leadership uncertainty which has bedevilled Australia since the Howard government’s demise in 2007 will end.