There’s been a lot of discussion in the media and amongst unions lately about declining membership rates. On the face of it, the situation for unions in Australia looks pretty grim – membership is heading towards single figure percentages, and without the big institutions like nursing and teaching, I think that it would be probably even scarier. There has been much discussion about the reasons why union membership is declining, and what effect such a decline will have on the future of industrial relations – all of which are important discussions to have.
There are some people out there who are ideologically opposed to the notions of unions – people who work for the IPA, the HR Nichols society and their ilk argue that unions are obstructive and cause over-regulation of the industrial relations framework. Some even go so far as to say that union involvement is criminal. Others limit themselves to suggesting that unions have had their day, and they are irrelevant in the modern workforce. Well, they’re entitled to their opinion, and I’m not particularly interested in turning this piece into an argument about why unions are important: suffice to say that the most equal, the best educated, the happiest and the most socially progressive countries in the world also have the highest union membership (approaching 70% in some cases), whereas the least equal countries have the lowest. I know that correlation is not causation, but more learned scholars than myself have made the case, convincingly, that unions and organised labour are a force for good.
But a more pressing question to ask is why, if that’s the case, is union membership declining? Following on from that is an existential questions for the union membership and all who work within it – what can be done about this decline? The two questions are related and need to be considered in that light. There are lots of posited answers to the first one – casualistation of the workforce, work being done overseas, decline of large enterprises, globalisation and ‘uberisation’. There are elements of truth to all of them, but the one that concerns me the most is the generational one: that is, people joining the workforce today are not joining unions for the simple reason that their parents weren’t union members. The culture of being a proud unionist is gradually disappearing from Australia’s workers.
One of the ideas touted as a possible solution to these problems is the notion of differing memberships. For example, you might be only an associate member, which means that you only get certain services for a reduced fee, whereas ‘full’ members might recieve the whole range of possible services. Well, it’s an option – but it got me thinking about the way such membership might work.
What about a ‘freemium’ model of membership? This is something that you see a lot with apps online. For example, Dropbox requires everyone to sign up to use its services – but there’s no cost unless you want to significantly expand your storage capacity. Everybody gets a little bit for free – and pay a premium for a more. Could that work with unions? Could we say everyone who signs up is a member – but if you want advice or representation or anything further, you have to upgrade your membership?
From a purely logistical side, it could be a nightmare. When speaking to members, it would be necessary to check their membership status before giving any advice. And what happens if a member wanted to change their status? Would there be a cooling off period? Who would manage that? And how would that play in relation to industrial negotiation and representation?
I’ll post some more ideas later in the week.