Trends in union membership in Australia

15 October 2018

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Geoff Gilfillan and Chris McGann
Statistics and Mapping Section

Executive summary

  • 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).

Contents

Executive summary

Introduction
Figure 1—trends in level of union membership and union density—1976 to 2016
Reasons for decline in union membership
Hours worked and access to leave entitlements
Table 1—union density by employee type—August 2016
Age and sex
Industry
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
International trends
Table 4—union density in selected OECD countries—1980 to 2016 (per cent of employees)

Conclusion

 

Introduction

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 cent.

Figure 1—trends in level of union membership and union density—1976 to 2016

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[1]

Reasons for 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[2] 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[3]. Similar legislative changes prohibiting compulsory unionisation were enacted by state governments[4].
  • decreasing prevalence of union members in industries that previously had a much stronger union member presence (including in Manufacturing and Transport, postal and warehousing)[5].
  • strong growth in employment in service industries that have traditionally had relatively low union presence such as Retail trade and Accommodation and food services[6]
  • 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.

Hours 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

  Full–time employees Part–time employees All employees
With paid
leave
Without paid
leave
With paid
leave
Without paid
leave
With paid
leave
Without paid
leave
Union members (‘000) 1150.2 52.7 338.2 86.3 1488.4 139.0
Not a union member (‘000) 4501.2 633.1 1115.8 1580.5 5617.0 2213.6
Did not know (‘000) 274.8 58.9 54.8 75.2 329.6 134.1
Total (‘000) 5926.1 744.2 1506.9 1743.5 7433.0 2487.7
% union members 19.4 7.1 22.4 4.9 20.0 5.6

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 entitlements).

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.

Industry

Table 2 shows changes in union density by industry from 1994 to 2016.

Table 2—union density (%) by industry [7]—various years from 1994 to 2016

  1994 2000 2010 2016
Agriculture, forestry and fishing 12.3 5.4 1.9 1.9
Mining 44.6 32.3 21.3 17.7
Manufacturing 40.8 31.1 17.8 13.3
Electricity, gas, water and waste services 66.4 53.2 37.3 26.3
Construction 34.1 26.4 16.8 10.1
Wholesale trade 14.6 10.4 5.7 5.0
Retail trade 23.3 17.7 15.4 11.4
Transport, postal and warehousing 51.9 36.4 28.8 20.6
Accommodation and food services 19.3 10.3 4.4 2.4
Public administration and safety 54.7 38.1 33.0 32.1
Education and training 56.1 44.1 39.2 32.5
Health care and social assistance 37.0 32.3 26.5 22.2
Arts and recreation services 23.8 17.1 15.5 8.5
TOTAL 35.0 24.7 18.3 13.9

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.

Specific union membership

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

Union Dec 2003 Dec 2017 Number
change
— 2003
to 2017
%
change
— 2003 to
2017
Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) 136,347 250,959 114,612 84.1
Shop, Distributive & Allied Employees Association (SDAEA) 217,018 213,127 -3,891 -1.8
Australian Education Union (AEU) 161,788 191,262 29,474 18.2
Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMMEU) 103,000 132,708 29,708 28.8
Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) 171,582 125,720 -45,862 -26.7
Australian Services Union (ASU) 119,769 121,496 1,727 1.4
Communications Electrical Plumbing Union (CEPU) 131,044 101,711 -29,333 -22.4
United Voice (UV) 130,625 100,554 -30,071 -23.0
Transport Workers' Union of Australia (TWU) 81,496 68,904 -12,592 -15.5
Health Services Union (HSU) 65,972 79,004 13,032 19.8
Independent Education Union of Australia (IEUA) 56,096 75,852 19,756 35.2
The Australian Workers' Union (AWU) 121,537 69,786 -51,751 -42.6
Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union (AMWU) 141,544 68,008 -73,536 -52.0
Police Federation of Australia (PFA) 32,252 61,811 29,559 91.7
Finance Sector Union of Australia (FSU) 57,193 30,676 -26,517 -46.4
Australian Rail, Tram and Bus Industry Union (ARTBIU) 31,529 30,426 -1,103 -3.5
National Tertiary Education Industry Union (NTEU) 26,879 27,937 1,058 3.9
Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers, Australia (APESMA) 24,690 17,287 -7,403 -30.0
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) 20,700 14,198 -6,502 -31.4
Maritime Union of Australia, The (MUA)  10,190 12,485 2,295 22.5
Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA) 12,215 3,014 -9,201 -75.3

Source: Registered Organisation Commission

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 amalgamations.

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.

International trends

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)

Country Source 1980 1990 2000 2010 2016
Australia Admin data 49.6 45.4 na na 14.6
Survey data na 40.5 24.7 18.3 14.5
Canada Admin data 34 34 31.2 30.1 na
Survey data na 33.4 28.2 27.2 26.3
France Admin data 18.3 9.8 8.0 8.0 na
Survey data na na 10.5 10.8 na
Netherlands Admin data 34.8 24.6 22.6 19.3 17.3
Survey data na na 22.9 18.6 na
New Zealand Admin data 69.1 49.6 22.4 21.4 17.7
Survey data na na na na 18.3
Norway Admin data 57.9 58.5 54.1 53.6 na
Survey data na na na na 52
Sweden Admin data 78 81.5 80.1 69.3 na
Survey data na 80.1 79.0 68.2 66.7
United Kingdom Admin data 52.2 39.6 29.7 26.8 23.7
Survey data na na 29.8 26.6 23.5
United States Admin data 22.1 na na na na
Survey data 22.3 15.5 12.9 11.4 10.3

Source: OECDStats; na—not available

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.[8]

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.[9]

The collapse of centralised planning in some Central and Eastern European countries has also contributed to falling unionisation rates.

Conclusion

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 services.

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.


[1].   The ABS releases union membership data every two years with 2018 data likely to be available in early 2019.

[2]     Peetz, D., Unions in a Contrary World (1998), p. 66

[3]     Peetz, D., op cit, p. 87

[4]     Peetz, D., The Paradigm Shift in Union Membership: The Case of Compulsory Unionism (1997), p. 297

[5]     ABS, Employee, Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership (cat. no. 6310.0) and ABS, Characteristics of Employment (cat. no. 6333.0)

[6]     ABS, Labour Force, Australia, Detailed, Quarterly, cat. no. 6291.0.55.003, Table EQ05

[7].   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 classifications.

[8].   OECD, Employment Outlook 2017, p. 133.

[9].   Op. cit.

 

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