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Gilfillan and Chris McGann
Statistics and Mapping Section
- The number of union members in Australia has declined from around
2.5 million in 1976 to 1.5 million in 2016. During the same period the
union member share of all employees (or union density) has fallen from 51 per
cent to 14 per cent.
- Young workers are much less likely to be union members than older
workers and casual and/or part-time employees are less likely to be union
members than full-time workers and permanent employees.
- Industry union density is strongest in Education and training and
Public administration and safety.
The biggest increases in union membership over the last decade
and a half were recorded by the Police Federation of Australia (PFA) (up 92 per
cent), Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) (up 84 per cent), and
Independent Education Union of Australia (IEUA) (up 35 per cent).
Figure 1—trends in level of union
membership and union density—1976 to 2016
Reasons for decline in union
Hours worked and access to leave
Table 1—union density by employee
Age and sex
Table 2—union density (%) by industry
—various years from 1994 to 2016
Specific union membership
Table 3—change in union membership
levels for specific unions—2003 and 2017
Table 4—union density in selected
OECD countries—1980 to 2016 (per cent of employees)
This statistical snapshot outlines the
decline in union membership in Australia over the past forty years using the
latest data available and considers possible reasons for the decline.
Union membership in Australia has been falling steadily over
the past four decades. There were just over 1.5 million union members in 2016,
compared with just over 2.5 million in 1976. This represents a decline of around
1 million union members or 38 per cent. During the same period union density (the
union member share of total employment) has fallen from 51 per cent to 14 per
Figure 1—trends in level of
union membership and union density—1976 to 2016
Sources: 1976–1993: ABS, Trade
Union Members, cat. no. 6325.0; 1994–2013: ABS, Employee Earnings
Benefits and Trade Union Membership, cat. no. 6310.0; 2014–2016: ABS, Characteristics
of Employment, cat. no. 6333.0
decline in union membership
Union membership has been declining in Australia for a
number of reasons including:
- steady decline in employment in industries that traditionally had
high concentrations of union membership—such as large scale car manufacturing;
printing; and textile, clothing and footwear—due to economic re‑structuring
and the transition to new forms of media
- the collapse of compulsory unionism (or closed shops) in
Australia during the 1980s and 1990s. Under the federal Workplace Relations
Act 1996, union preference and compulsory unionism was made illegal both
for employees covered by the federal system and for those outside but within
reach of other Commonwealth powers.
Similar legislative changes prohibiting compulsory unionisation were enacted by
- decreasing prevalence of union members in industries that previously
had a much stronger union member presence (including in Manufacturing and
Transport, postal and warehousing).
- strong growth in employment in service industries that have traditionally
had relatively low union presence such as Retail trade and Accommodation and
- growth in part-time and/or casual employment across most
industries and occupations and relative decline in the permanent and full-time
employment share of total employment. The following section of this report
shows part-time and/or casual employees are less likely to be union members.
worked and access to leave entitlements
Table 1 shows part–time and/or casual employees (or
employees without access to leave entitlements) are less likely to become union
members and increasing use of this employee type by employers across a range of
industries has contributed to the lowering of overall union density.
Table 1—union density by
employee type—August 2016
|Union members (‘000)
|Not a union member
|Did not know (‘000)
|% union members
Source: ABS, Characteristics
of Employment, cat. no. 6333.0, using TableBuilder (Note: Discrepancies may
occur between sums of the component items and totals shown in the table)
Around 15 per cent of all full–time employees in August 2016
were union members compared with 11 per cent of all part–time employees. Twenty
per cent of permanent employees (with leave entitlements) were union members in
August 2016 compared with only six per cent of casual employees (without leave
Age and sex
ABS data shows union density among employed males has fallen
from 43 per cent in 1992 to 13 per cent in 2016 while union density for
employed women has fallen from 35 per cent to 16 per cent. The slightly higher
proportion of female union members than men is due partly to their
concentration in industries and occupations that are more likely to be unionised
such as nursing and teaching.
Younger workers are much less likely to be union members
than older workers. Just over six per cent of employees aged 15 to 24 years were
union members compared with 13 per cent of employees aged 25 to 44 years and 19
per cent of employees aged 45 to 64 years. One of the major reasons for lower
union membership among young people is they are much more likely to be working
on a casual and/or part–time basis compared to older workers. ABS data shows
around 57 per cent of employees aged 15 to 24 years work part-time compared
with 25 per cent of employees aged 25 to 44 years and 29 per cent of employees
aged 45 to 64 years. The data also show 55 per cent of employees aged 15 to 24
years were casual employees compared with 19 per cent of employees aged 25 to
44 years and 17 per cent of employees aged 45 to 64 years.
Table 2 shows changes in union density by industry from 1994
Table 2—union density (%) by
years from 1994 to 2016
|Electricity, gas, water
and waste services
|Transport, postal and
|Accommodation and food
|Education and training
|Health care and social
|Arts and recreation
Sources: 1994, 2000 and 2010:
ABS, Employee Earnings Benefits and Trade Union Membership, cat. no.
6310.0; 2016: ABS, Characteristics of Employment, cat. no. 6333.0
Union density has declined in the past twenty years in a
number of industries that previously had strong union representation such as
Mining, Manufacturing, and Construction. While union density has fallen in
public sector dominated industries such as Public administration and safety,
Education and training, and Health care and social assistance, the extent of
the decline is smaller.
Table 3 shows trends in membership for some of the larger individual
unions for 2003 and 2017.
Table 3—change in union
membership levels for specific unions—2003 and 2017
— 2003 to
|Australian Nursing and
Midwifery Federation (ANMF)
|Shop, Distributive &
Allied Employees Association (SDAEA)
Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU)
|Community and Public
Sector Union (CPSU)
Plumbing Union (CEPU)
|United Voice (UV)
Union of Australia (TWU)
|Health Services Union
Union of Australia (IEUA)
|The Australian Workers'
Manufacturing Workers' Union (AMWU)
|Police Federation of
|Finance Sector Union of
|Australian Rail, Tram
and Bus Industry Union (ARTBIU)
Education Industry Union (NTEU)
|Association of Professional
Engineers, Scientists and Managers, Australia (APESMA)
and Arts Alliance (MEAA)
|Maritime Union of
Australia, The (MUA)
|Textile, Clothing and
Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA)
The biggest increases in union membership recorded between
December 2003 and December 2017 were for the Australian Nursing and Midwifery
Federation (ANMF) (up 114,612 or 84 per cent), CFMMEU (up 29,708 or 29 per
cent), the Police Federation of Australia (PFA) (up 29,559 or 92 per cent), and
the Australian Education Union (AEU) (up 29,474 or 18 per cent). Some of the
increase in union membership for some unions may have been due to union
The biggest falls recorded in union membership were for the Australian
Manufacturing Workers' Union (AMWU) (down 73,536 or 52 per cent), Australian
Workers’ Union (AWU) (down 51,751 or 42.6 per cent) and Community and Public
Sector Union (CPSU) (down 45,862 or 27 per cent). The National Union of Workers
(NUW) reported they had 69,447 members in December 2017 but did not report a
figure for December 2003.
Table 4 shows results for union density for a range of members
of the Organisation of Economic Co–operation and Development (OECD) using data
from national surveys as well as administrative datasets provided by union
confederations or other sources.
Table 4—union density in selected
OECD countries—1980 to 2016 (per cent of employees)
Declining union membership is occurring across the (OECD)
with large falls in density recorded in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the
Netherlands between 1980 and 2016. Nordic countries such as Sweden and Norway
continue to retain relatively high rates of union membership.
Around 80 million workers across a range of OECD countries
were union members in 2017. Across the OECD, 17 per cent of all employees were
members of unions in 2017—down from 30 per cent in 1985. Slight increases in
membership rates were found only in Iceland, Belgium and Spain.
Union members in the OECD tend to be predominantly male,
middle–aged (between 25 and 54 years old), with medium or high skills, and
working in medium or large firms, and on a permanent contract.
- Around seven per cent of young people aged 15 to 24 years across
the OECD were union members, along with 18 per cent of workers aged 25 to 54
years and just over 22 per cent of workers aged 55 to 64 years.
- Only seven per cent of employees in small firms belong to a union
on average across OECD countries compared with 16 per cent of employees in
medium–sized firms and 26 per cent of employees in large firms.
Workers employed in public administration are much more likely
to be unionised than workers in other industries but only account for 13 per
cent of all union members across the OECD.
The OECD found:
The union membership rate is above 50
per cent only in the countries where unemployment benefits are administered by
union-affiliated institutions (sometimes called the “Ghent system”—as found in
Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Sweden and partly Belgium) and in Norway. However,
even the Ghent system has been increasingly challenged and eroded by the
development of private insurance funds offering unemployment insurance without
requiring union membership leading to a decrease in union density.
The OECD concluded:
Technological and organisational
changes, the decline of the manufacturing and public sectors, but also the
increasing spread of flexible forms of contracts and policy reforms in several
countries are among the main drivers behind this marked decline of union
density in almost all OECD and accession countries.
The collapse of centralised planning in some Central and
Eastern European countries has also contributed to falling unionisation rates.
Union membership has been declining gradually across the Australian
economy over the past four decades, largely as a result of structural factors that
have affected employment in various industries, along with the increased use of
more flexible forms of employment. However, a number of unions have managed to
either preserve or increase their membership despite these challenges—particularly
those engaged in health care and social assistance, education and protective
Declining union membership has been a common characteristic
of many industrialised OECD countries. The level of union membership in Australia
could continue to face further challenges in the future, as the use of more
flexible forms of employment has become firmly entrenched in some industries,
while becoming more prevalent in others.
. The ABS
releases union membership data every two years with 2018 data likely to be
available in early 2019.
Peetz, D., Unions in a Contrary World (1998), p. 66
Peetz, D., op cit, p. 87
Peetz, D., The Paradigm Shift in Union Membership: The Case of
Compulsory Unionism (1997), p. 297
ABS, Employee, Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership (cat. no.
6310.0) and ABS, Characteristics of Employment (cat. no. 6333.0)
ABS, Labour Force, Australia, Detailed, Quarterly, cat. no.
6291.0.55.003, Table EQ05
. Does not
include Finance and insurance; Rental, hiring and real estate services; and
Professional, scientific and technical services due to the difficulties in
comparing 2016) industry classifications with previous industry
Employment Outlook 2017, p. 133.
. Op. cit.
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