Anthony Forsyth
Friday, 15 April 2022

The Digital Picket Line 

A Conversation with RMIT Distinguished Professor Anthony Forsyth about The Future of Unions & Worker Representation.

The 2022 federal election campaign was always going to be a trigger for  Coalition politicians to wheel out predictable attacks on ALP industrial relations policies – including well-worn claims about of “powerful unions” and “1970s-style strikes”.  

The reality is far different: union membership levels have fallen in the last 30 years. But with rising job insecurity, stagnant wages growth and the safety risks presented by COVID-19, the need for a collective voice at work has never been greater.  

We spoke with RMIT Distinguished Professor Anthony Forsyth about these issues in the lead-up to a Chifley Conversation with Anthony and Caterina Cinanni from United Workers Union about Anthony’s latest book, The Future of Unions & Worker Representation. 

Anthony, how does rebuild the labour movement collectivism and will it be enough to protect the rights and welfare of the modern workforce effectively?

We have to demonstrate the value of collective workplace power for the vast proportion of workers who’ve been conditioned to believe that unions aren’t relevant to their situation – and young workers who don’t really know what a union is, or have grown up in a very individualistic world. 

There’s many strategies unions can adopt to shift these views: including digital union forms (eg, Hospo Voice/UWU, Game Workers Unite/Professionals Australia, Hair Stylists Australia/AWU) – and tiered membership structures, so workers can engage in ways that suit them and what they can afford financially. 

Will it be enough to protect the rights and welfare of the workforce? It’ll be a huge start! Employers have taken maximum advantage of the absence of unions in many sectors (like cleaning, security), driving down wages (10 years of very low wages growth) and engaging in outright exploitation (eg, farm-work and the gig economy). 

So workers need unions to contest all of this, and move from a defensive position to aggressively pursue better wages & conditions through collective bargaining & industrial action. 

But yes, much more will need to be done to tackle the broader problems of inequality in society. Unions can partner with other social movements (LGBTQI+, climate action, racial justice) to achieve this. 

Why hasn’t organised labour managed to prevent preventing legal and legislative changes entrenching neo-liberalism and eroding workplace protection over the past forty years, surely it was well-equipped to fight these developments? What does it have to do to do better?

“What we’ve seen in last 40 years is like the perfect storm of factors, which even the best equipped labour movement would’ve struggled to repel: 

  • the ascendancy of neoliberal political and economic thought – including radical deregulation of the labour market, such as Work Choices.  
  • deunionisation driven by conservative federal and state governments and large institutional employers (eg, the 1998 waterfront dispute but also in the big banks, telcos and universities into the 2000s) 
  • restructuring of the economy away from traditionally unionised jobs; from manufacturing to services, for example. 
  • combined with huge growth in precarious forms of work; casual, fixed-term, and contracting. 
  • and the emergence of new business models that employers have used to distance themselves from the employment relationship and having to deal with unions, such as labour hire, franchising and now gig work”. 

Anthony Forsyth 

What can we do better? The union movement and its leaders have tended to pin all hopes on a single solution. From the early 1990s, it was the US organising model: the ACTU set up  Organising Works and focused on workplace recruitment campaigns in the private sector. This had some initial success in boosting membership in hotels, casinos and some transport companies – but not enough to make up for continuing membership losses in sectors like mining. 

In 2007, and again in 2019, unions pursued a political/legislative strategy: get federal Labor elected to enact more favourable laws for workers and unions. It worked the first time (“Your Rights at Work”), although the Rudd Government enacted weak and ineffective legislation that hasn’t helped reverse membership decline.  

It didn’t work the second time, because “Change the Rules” was a technical argument about reforming labour laws (enacted by a Labor Government!) that was too difficult for many people to understand. 

Unions must utilise a mix of strategies. Labour law reform is part of the answer, but so too is supplementing organising with experiments in innovative forms of unionism utilising technology as a bridge to build collective power in the workplace. 

What non-legal tools are available for organised labour to revitalise itself?  

My argument is that unions have to look in the mirror and ask some tough questions. 

How can we evolve to attract those hardest-to-reach groups? 

If young workers, casuals, migrants, and workers in call centres, hotels, finance companies and other service sector jobs are not joining – is it time to revisit what we’re offering? or even more fundamentally, what we look like? 

The non-legal tools include using technology to reimagine the very concept of a union. Think of Gen Y & Z workers, in particular. They don’t respond well to the traditional union proposition (sign here, pay $800 a year, here’s what you get – and it includes being covered by the enterprise agreement, which you could get without joining)! 

But they might find the idea of a union appealing, if it’s presented as an app they can use to access tools that help them deal with problems at work. This can be an entry point to taking action with co-workers to improve working conditions. They might also connect better with a union official who looks like them – young, energetic, diverse.  

There’s plenty of research indicating that young people will join organisations like unions if there is an alignment with their values (eg, the global “school strike for climate” movement). 

So the challenge for unions is to look closely at the demographics of the workforce, and creatively redesign themselves to meet the gaps. 

So what is the best way to extend organisational coverage of the workforce in enterprise agreement focussed countries? Do NZ’s moves towards sectoral collective bargaining offer a template?  

This focuses us on the law side of the debate. It’s time to accept that the enterprise bargaining experiment is dead. It was Innovative in its time, but enterprise bargaining was designed for the economy of the early 1990s: large businesses with 1000s of workers at a common worksite (factory, warehouse, mine) and a fairly stable, mostly permanent workforce. 

But those business models I mentioned earlier have destroyed this. Our laws limit unions and workers to bargaining (and striking) with the direct employer of a group of workers (eg, some or all of Coles’ supermarkets). You can’t negotiate an agreement for the whole retail sector, or across the fresh food supply chain, or (where Coles brings in labour hire workers to staff part of a warehouse) with Coles itself anymore because it’s no longer the direct employer of those workers (the labour hire companies are instead). 

Businesses have deployed these work-arounds to avoid bargaining with unions. So labour law has to catch up: if unions can bargain more widely, they can get better wages and conditions for more workers, and therefore increase membership. 

NZ’s new system of Fair Pay Agreements is definitely worth looking at – although keep in mind, it’s about rebuilding a floor of minimum standards (awards were abolished there in 1991). We still have awards, so the focus here is on lifting access to collective bargaining to obtain above-award wage increases. 

The NZ model includes elements that we also need to think about – especially, when extending bargaining across industries/sectors, what are the legal triggers or gateways? Their Bill would enable a union to kick-start Fair Pay Agreement negotiations, where it has support from at least 1000 employees or 10% of the workforce. 

In our enterprise bargaining system, a union has to have at least 50% of the workforce behind it. We need to move away from this idea of ‘majority support’, to a concept of legitimacy (and in the context of the whole supermarket, fast food or disability care sectors, I’d argue that 1000 workers wanting a union to negotiate a collective agreement is enough to establish a union’s legitimacy). 

What new strategies to expand membership and engagement are unions trying, what efforts are most effective and what else needs to be tried? Social media and digital organisation? Rebranding and closer professional or occupational identification? Membership beyond the workplace? Extending training and service provision? Shifting ambitions from membership numbers?

All of the above! I argue that unions have to provide a range of options for becoming a member, or forming a relationship with the union short of full membership – to enable young people and precarious workers to engage in ways that suit them. 

This is the concept of the “ladder of engagement”, and unions like UWU and MEAA are trying it. So you might start as an associate or community member, then move up into being a campaigning member, then become a full member. It overcomes the binary option (non-union, or full fee-paying member) that many workers find off-putting. 

Or, unions like the Independent Workers of Great Britain have created specialist “spin-offs” of the union for workers like yoga and cycling instructors, game developers, nannies/au pairs, charity workers, food delivery workers and rideshare drivers. 

And look at the ANMF: it’s become Australia’s largest union – with nearly 300,000 members – by offering training and educational services which place union membership at the core of professional identity for nurses/midwives, combined with effective industrial representation and advocacy – so joining the union is almost a default option. 

Initiatives such as Hospo Voice seem to offer promise in Australia, but how sustainable is the model and can it be adapted nationally and to circumstances that are not unique to its area of coverage? What happens when the media and public attention “moves on”?

I discuss Jane McAlevey’s critique of the US “Fight for $15” campaign in the book: that it’s created the illusion of a huge movement without signing workers up into unions – though, to be fair, it has increased the minimum wages of nearly 30 million workers in the last decade.  

Others have questioned the sustainability of campaign-based unionism – eg, labour law scholar Catherine Fisk asks: ‘What happens after the campaign ends? Enduring worker power requires some form of institutionilisation.’  

I argue that established unions have to play an “incubator” role by investing in new membership models, like Hospo Voice – and see whether, after a few years, enough young hospitality workers have seen the benefits of  collective action in fighting back against exploitation, so they move from a lower level of affiliation through an app to become full UWU members. 

Last year, when the leadership of Hospo Voice implemented a new tiered approach to membership it faced a revolt from elements of the rank and file. It offers levels ranging from ‘basic’ to ‘standard’ to ‘plus’ with the extent of services based on the fees a worker is prepared to pay. There were probably some deficiencies in way this major change was explained and implemented. But these very expensive experiments in digital union forms have to evolve into a dues-paying organisation at some point. 

How can we better deal with business model changes such as “Big Tech” and the “Gig Economy”?

I open the book with the need to unionise ‘Big Tech’, and quote a US commentator who’s said: “The tech industry is the biggest failure of the union movement in the 21st century”. 

It’s true that unions haven’t done well at penetrating tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook. But my book shows that inroads are being made against all the odds in digital media companies in the US like Buzzfeed and Vox, at Amazon in Italy, and in pockets of the gig economy. 

And just recently, a new independent union led by the super-impressive Chris Smalls won a recognition vote at an Amazon warehouse in New York City. The vehemently anti-union multinational behemoth which employs over a million Americans now has to engage in collective bargaining with a union.  

These victories, along with the recent uprising of worker activism at Starbucks stores across the US, show that it is possible to organise and win in the most hostile terrain of all: the home of free enterprise and union-busting. If it can be done there, it can be done in Australia. 

Do the short-term impacts of the COVID pandemic highlight any issues the broader labour movement have been insufficiently aware of? Has the pandemic improved or simply complicated our awareness of the tasks before organised labour if it is to revitalise itself?

COVID presented unions with a significant threat, but longer-term a massive opportunity. 

What was the threat? It has been the displacement of so many workers who were stood down, had their hours reduced or were made redundant.  Just think what’s happened in our universities. That included a lot of union members with a consequent loss of membership revenue and , workplace organisational strength. In addition, the economic frame became one of “survival”, so unions went along with pandemic-driven wage freezes. And like all other organisations, unions had to keep functioning, but often remotely. 

What has been the opportunity emerging from COVID? Unions stepped in to protect workers’ incomes through JobKeeper, and their safety at work – for example helping for essential workers unable to work from home; and again recently during the Omicron surge when protections were loosened. To me, these are glowing advertisements for being a union member!  

As we adjust to “COVID-normal”, the challenge for unions is to take advantage of the shift in public sentiment which saw essential workers become visible and recognised. Now that has faded and the rhetoric hasn’t been matched with pay increases to reward the incredible work these people do. 

Anthony Forsyth 

Unions have to make that case as part of the wider project of creating a fairer society for everyone.