It is an age-old question and one that has sparked debate for decades.
There are those who believe that unions are important because they give workers a voice in a world dominated by powerful employers, securing better wages and treatment for employees, particularly as technology threatens many trades with redundancy. Higher wages for the masses equals more spending, and thus a healthier economy, they say.
On the opposite side of the fence, others believe that unions are economy-ruining, corrupt organisations that misuse members’ funds for political ends, increase prices for the masses by fighting for wage rises for a few, and push companies out of business with unfair demands.
Others say that unions, good or bad, are no longer needed because legal protections for workers have improved. But the counter argument is that many of these protections may not have existed had unions not forced governments’ hands to act against companies trying to ride roughshod over workers’ rights.
Meanwhile, in Australia, unionism is closely entangled with politics, given the union background and continued funding and control of one of the country’ two major political parties.
A study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that fewer and fewer people are signing up to workers’ unions. Figures from August 2014 show that union members made up just 15.1 per cent of the workforce – these results are not just due to members leaving, but because workers aren’t joining unions.
It appears workers new to the workforce are the least interested – the same 2014 study found that people who had been working in a job for less than five years accounted for between 2.5 per cent to 6.3 percent of union memberships.
Some may have become disenfranchised with unionisation as a result of many high profile corruption cases in recent years.
As a Starts at 60 blogger wrote, “Another day, another dollar and another big union rort. Or at least that’s the way it is beginning to appear to me.
“Hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear about some union official doing the wrong thing, whether it is claiming expenses they were not entitled to or other weird and wonderful things like paying for call girls. Or was that after the guy went on to become a politician? There are so many it’s hard to keep track of them.”
A Royal Commission into trade unions two years ago revealed widespread corruption within Australian unions. However, there have been only a handful of convictions as a result of these findings.
And Paul Howes, the then-national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, told the Daily Telegraph in 2013 that unions had a new role to play in the community – one of conduit between workers and management.
“Too often people think that unions are only needed in bad workplaces. And to be fair, that’s probably how it was in the old days when our national economy was sheltered behind high tariff walls,” he said.
“But times have changed and both business and unions have had to change with them. These days unions have to do more than just protect workers from bad bosses.”
“Of course, when a boss does the wrong thing, unions have a responsibility to defend the rights of their members. But we also need to play a constructive role in helping management and labour to work together collaboratively.” he added.