Australian Trade Unions: Future Strategies

Introduction Remarks

The relations between the human beings within the society have always been a matter of complex processes regulated according to the established rules and regulations. The processes that concern the employment issues have been long displaying the signs of controversy observed in the relations between the supporters of organized employment, i. e. the people keeping to the viewpoint that working and trade unions provide protection, and the supporters of the free employment, i. e. the individuals valuing personal freedom most of all. In Australia, this controversy has recently become the major public concern as the formerly dominating trade unions seem to lose their importance in the society and the currently observed membership decline is the first serious sign of the process. This paper considers the above mentioned trade unions’ problem in the context of the trade union theories and the future strategies the Australian trade unions might implement to stop the membership decline process.

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Organizational Theory

Three Workplace Struggles

Interest Struggle

Beginning the analysis of the future strategies for Australian trade unions to handle the membership decline issues, it is necessary to consider such eternal theoretical basis for the very trade union idea as the concepts of the three major workplace struggles. The point here is that work involves the collision of interests of various groups of people, and this usually results in the interest, control, and motivation struggles between the employers, the employees, and between employers and employees as well (Alexander, Lewer, and Gahan, 2008, p. 16). The interests struggle is basically an economic phenomenon whose essence is in the fact that the opposite groups involved in the working process struggle for the fair, as they perceive it, share of the revenue they deserve for their input into the working process (Alexander, Lewer, and Gahan, 2008, p. 16). The main manifestation of interest struggle is the controversy between the employees’ profit maximization and the employers’ cost minimization interests.

Control Struggle

As contrasted to the economics-related interests struggle, the control struggle is mostly perceived as the matter of power acquisition (Alexander, Lewer, and Gahan, 2008, p. 17). On the whole, Alexander, Lewer, and Gahan (2008) argue that employment is all about power, and the essence of the control struggle is in the fact that employers try to maximize their control over employees, while the latter oppose and stand for the certain degree of freedom or their own control over the working process. The concept of the managerial prerogatives is of special importance when the control struggle is considered. According to Alexander, Lewer, and Gahan (2008), “managerial prerogative means that management has the legal right to determine rules of job regulation unilaterally, whether or not it has the power” (p. 17). Thus, irrespective of the fact that the admission of the managerial prerogatives is usually an integral part of the employment agreement, the employees and the employers struggle for control and power in an organization.

Motivation Struggle

Finally, the motivation struggle is the third component of the three major struggles that characterize the work and the working conflicts in any organization. The essence of the motivation struggle, according to the ideas by Alexander, Lewer, and Gahan (2008), is in the fact that employers often face the necessity to cut the costs for the working process, while employees strive for the profit increase. Therefore, when the employers enforce the cost-cutting policies, they face the severe need to motivate the employees whose interest in work is reduced proportionately to the reduction of the actual profit they can retrieve from this working process (Alexander, Lewer, and Gahan, 2008, p. 18). In trade unions, all the three above discussed struggles play the important role similar to the one they play in any other organization. The current trend towards the membership decline in trade unions in Australia can also be considered as the result of the conflict caused by one of, or all, the above struggles.

Nature of Industrial Conflict

The industrial conflict as such is the situation when one of the above discussed struggles develops to the extent that the employers or the employees, the latter as a rule, refuse to cooperate with each other and carry out strikes as the expressions of their interests being oppressed or ignored in an organization (Alexander, Lewer, and Gahan, 2008, pp. 18 – 19). As a rule, industrial conflicts are divided into the organized and unorganized ones. The organized conflicts are the ones that mainly concern the managerial prerogatives and provide more advantages to any of the sides of the conflict to succeed in defending its interests in it. The unorganized conflicts are mainly spontaneous and seldom achieve their goals. Finally, Alexander, Lewer, and Gahan (2008) argue that despite their destructive nature industrial conflicts carry out a number of positive functions, among which impact for organizational development, culture improvement, and dispute solution are the dominant ones (Alexander, Lewer, and Gahan, 2008, pp. 18 – 19).

Unions and Employee Representation

Trade Union Theory

Accordingly, the prior consideration of the working struggles and industrial conflict types allows better understanding of the trade union theory. According to Alexander, Lewer, and Gahan (2008), the process of trade union development in Australia started in the middle of the 19th century and followed the formerly set European pattern in both union structuring and the main trade union objectives (pp. 47 – 48). The main reasons for the emergence of trade unions in Australia included the insecurity of the labor market observed during the era of technological progress, the desire of workers to obtain greater incomes, and their understanding of the fact that in such groups as trade unions achieving of this goals would be easier (Delahaye, 2000, p. 113). Accordingly, the major objectives of the modern trade unions in Australia, as well as in any other country, include provision of benefits to union members, defending of the union members’ interests, job security services, and dealing with issues not related to work.

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Trade Union Development

The current state of trade union development in the context of the Federal Industrial Relations System is considerably illustrated in the interview of Kevin Andrews, 2006 Australian Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations. Answering the questions about the latest legislative initiatives to ease the pressure on small business, Kevin Andrews reveals the facts that the Government tries to influence the power of unions in order to implement the unified industrial relations system embracing workplace relations all over the country: “They should have the courage to stand up to the union bosses and simply say, look, Australia’s got to move on” (Scoop, 2006). Thus, the interview by Mr. Andrews illustrates the fact that the current position of trade unions is unfavorable not only for these unions, but for the country as a whole, as the lack of progressive vision of trade unions’ development does not allow Australia to adopt the uniform industrial relations system (Scoop, 2006). Accordingly, the remarks by Mr. Andrews implicitly state the need for trade unions to find new strategies to develop and stop membership decline as a part of this development process.

Major Strategies Analyzed

Conciliation and Arbitration

Union Office Strategy

On the whole, the strategies that the trade union might use for any of their purposes are traditionally divided into four major categories including the conciliation and arbitration, collective bargaining, political, and industrial action strategies. Union office strategy is the only of the conciliation and arbitration methods applicable to the issue of membership decline in trade unions involving spiritual and material values, as the individual Australian trade unions first have to develop the overall commitment of the union members to its goals (Hewett, 2007, p. 48). Also, the union office strategy requires the trade union to implement effective analysis of the union’s membership, financial, and developmental trends, and involve union members into the decision-making process. Finally, this strategy demands the union to identify its members’ roles and monitor the success of each union member’s performance in this role (Prewitt, 2003, p. 59). Such a strategy will provide union members with more clarity about their position in the union and is likely to reduce membership decline.

Collective Bargaining

Communication Strategy

The importance of communication is stressed by another group of strategies, i. e. the strategies of collective bargaining. Scholars argue that lack of communication often becomes the reason of serious issues in organizations (Bakker and Demerouti, 2008, p. 209), and regarding the Australian trade unions, it is possible that improved communication strategy will allow them stop the membership decline and possibly even restore the increase in membership application numbers. Thus, the first element of the successful communication strategy is the process of identifying and analyzing any problems before they are communicated and negotiated in public. Trade unions are to have special bodies charged with such preliminary analysis exclusively as this will allow trade unions to have better understanding of where the problem is and how it can best be solved (Smith, 2006, p. 254). As well, the trade unions have to develop the network that would provide proper communication between union members and union leadership as well as between unions. The expected result of the communication strategy is stop membership decline and start of the opposite process.

Organizing Teams Strategy

Important for the purpose of increasing the membership rates in the Australian trade unions is the organizing teams’ strategy that allows unions to develop their influence in the traditionally “non-union” workplaces. The significance of this strategy for Australian trade unions is crucial as currently this strategy is used the least number of times among all other strategies (Farazmand, 2004, p. 14). To make more use of the organizing teams’ approach, trade unions have to select and train special staff further charged with the task of developing the union influence in the non-union workplaces of which there are plenty in Australia. Accordingly, trade unions have to ensure the teams possess necessary communicational and persuasive skills and are led by experienced Lead Organizers. The use of the organizing teams’ strategy will allow trade unions to have clearer accountability and budgeting of their operations and will reduce membership decline as union members will understand the whole process of the trade union operations and be able to defend their interests (Werner, 2006, p. 187).

Political Action

Union Delegates Strategy

The union delegates’ strategy can also be of use for Australian trade unions in their future attempts to reduce the membership decline and start the opposite process. The major point about this strategy is that it allows the trade union to collect and use information about the existing delegates and union position in the industry for further development and enlargement of the delegate numbers. To establish the successful union delegates’ strategy, a trade union is to (Kim and Cervero, 2007, p. 16):

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  • Examine the delegate structure of the union;
  • Ensure the proper role distribution among the union members and delegates;
  • Monitor the effectiveness of the union members’ on the assigned positions;
  • Make considerable investments into the process of union delegates’ education;
  • Turn the rights of the union delegates into the union’s major value thus attracting new members and potential delegates.

Thus, in the light of the fact that the three basic struggles are considered the main reasons of the membership decline in the Australian trade unions, the use of the union delegates’ strategy will demonstrate to union members that their interests, control concerns, and motivation are properly developed by the unions (Hewett, 2007, p. 48). As a result, union members will have no reasons to leave trade unions.

Industrial Action

Resource Strategy

Finally, among the industrial action strategies that Australian trade unions might use to stop the membership decline there are resource, research, and planning strategies. The resource strategy is of paramount importance because planning to increase its membership base a trade union should have sufficient resources to support this plan and provide new members with respective training and education courses and needed services in concern of defending their interests at workplaces (Delahaye, 2000, p. 194). Basically, there are three major ways to obtain the necessary resources for Australian trade unions:

  1. Increase the efficiency of use of the existing resources;
  2. Use the union’s funds to invest in the developmental project that are likely to provide additional revenue in future;
  3. Apply a new membership fee system and use the resources obtained from new members to fund the union’s performance targeted at those new members (Delahaye, 2000, p. 197).

Research Strategy

The importance of research in developing a trade union is undoubted; therefore the research strategy can also be an effective means of solving the discussed issues in Australian trade unions. It is crucial to understand that a trade union can succeed in gaining new members only if the target audience of this process is small and properly studied. Accordingly, the Australian trade unions have to outline the small-scope goals they have in the area of membership increase and define the means they will use to achieve the goals (Bakker and Demerouti, 2008, p. 209). For this, trade unions will have to research scholarly literature regarding the history of trade union strategies, the most effective means of sampling, and identifying of the target employers and workplaces where the work of unions can be started (Bakker and Demerouti, 2008, p. 209). Thus, mapping, analysis, and assessment are the basic elements of the research strategy that might provide the Australian trade unions with developmental opportunities.

Planning Strategy

Planning strategy is the final one in the process of designing the favorable conditions for Australian trade unions to experience membership growth in future. Planning strategy is implemented as soon as the resource and research approaches are carried out, and this strategy allows creating a clear outline of what a trade union needs, what resources it has to achieve its goals, how these resources should be used, how the results should be monitored, and what the success criteria will be (Farazmand, 2004, p. 17). Accordingly, the properly developed planning strategy will allow Australian trade unions to achieve clarity in their budgeting, accounting, resource allocation, and goal achievement. In case if this strategy is not only implemented but also communicated to the union members, the latter will have reasons to leave unions as far as their interests are positioned as the basic values for the unions’ strategic development.

Concluding Statements

Thus, the above discussion leads the paper to the following conclusion. First, currently trade unions in Australia experience severe difficulties associated with the membership decline. Drawing from ideas found in scholarly research works, the main reasons for this issue include the ultimate developmental position of one of, or all three, major struggles observed at the workplace, i. e. interests, control, and motivations struggles that evolved into an industrial conflict between unions and their members. Given this situation, and there are four categories of trade union strategies that can be applied for stopping the membership decline. These are conciliation and arbitration, collective bargaining, political, and industrial action strategies. If properly applied, these strategies have potential to solve the current issues of trade unions in Australia.

Reference List

Alexander, R., Lewer, J, and Gahan, P. (2008) Understanding Australian Industrial Relations. Thomson South-Western, Melbourne.

Bakker, A. B. and Demerouti, E. (2008) Towards a Model of Work Engagement. Career Development International, 13(3), 209 – 223.

Delahaye, B. (2000) Human Resource Development. John Wiley and Sons, Brisbane.

Farazmand, A. (2004) Innovation in strategic human resource management: building capacity in the age of globalization. Public Organization Review, 4(1), 3 – 24.

Hewett, J. (2007) Promises aplenty but pollies ignore looming crisis, a shortage of workers. The Australian, 24(10), 48.

Kim, H. and Cervero, M. (2007) How power relations structure the evaluation process for HRD programs. Human Resource Development International, 10(1), 5 – 20.

Prewitt, V. (2003) Leadership development for learning organizations. Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 24(2) , 58 – 61.

Scoop. (2006) Interview on Industrial Relations. SCNZ. [online] Australian Government Press Release. Web.

Smith, A. (2006) The Development of Employer Training in Australia. Education + Training, 48(4), 252 – 261.

Werner, J. (2006) Human Resource Development. Thompson South-Western, Melbourne.

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